James Tissot

The Beauty and Danger of Anticipation

Art_James Tissot_The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem

 

Look at this crowd: in James Tissot’s painting, excited people await and greet Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Two things are obvious about his arrival in the city. We notice the huge and enthusiastic crowd. And, we notice the object of their attention, Jesus riding on a donkey. At first, we naturally assume an affinity between these two things. The crowd is joyful about Jesus precisely because he is the answer to their questions, and the apparent solution to their concerns. Who he is seems to fit neatly with who they are, and with where they want to go. After all, who wouldn’t be happy when long-nurtured hopes and expectations are about to be fulfilled.

As Matthew describes the scene, the crowd responds to Jesus’ arrival in two ways, both of which evoke historic precedent. We learn from 2 Kings about the followers of Jehu ~ when they learn he has been anointed king, they spread their cloaks for him to walk on.1 And in 2 Maccabees, we learn how Judas Maccabaeus was greeted upon arriving in Jerusalem, after defeating Israel’s enemies. The people honored him by waving palm branches in the air. To clinch the point, Matthew want us to know this: that when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the crowd’s dramatic response was a fulfillment of God’s word through the prophet Zechariah: “”Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 
And the people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

In other words, as Matthew describes Jesus’ arrival in the city, the crowd’s greeting of him suggested a similar hope, that he might vanquish the repressive powers causing God’s people to suffer. This Nazarene might be the one to make God’s Kingdom present in their time. These observations can help us appreciate how Jesus was greeted when he arrived in Jerusalem, and how he was viewed soon after. For, like many leaders in history, he was the object of an immense amount of hopeful projection.

Consider again at the crowd in Tissot’s wonderful painting of Jesus’ arrival. How many of them are looking directly at him? And of those, how many actually see him, and for who he is rather than for what he represents among their pre- existing desires? Notice how many in the crowd are carried away by the moment. They are excited by imagined possibilities, rather than by the Kingdom concretely at hand. This situation is not merely of historical interest, nor is it primarily about other people, living at another time. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is also about us, and about why we are drawn to worship during Holy Week. For his arrival invites us to consider our intentions this week, as we greet with palms our Lord’s arrival. And it prompts us to consider how we might best walk with him through the rest of the week.

 

This image is from James Tissot’s painting, The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem. I am indebted to N.T. Wright regarding the specific references to earlier biblical precedents for the way Jesus was greeted upon his arrival in Jerusalem. This reflection is based on my sermon for Palm Sunday, which may be accessed by clicking here.

Holy Week and the Good Samaritan

Art_Tissot_The Good Samaritan

In telling his story about the Good Samaritan, Jesus was answering the question, “who is my neighbor?” At first, it may seem he was teaching us about how to live in God’s Kingdom. Cautioned by the negative example of the priest and Levite who pass by on the other side of the road, we should follow that of the charitable Samaritan who provides hospitality. But we can also hear the story as telling us something essential about God’s own charity and hospitality, and about Jesus’ role as God’s Messiah.

We are like the traveler in Jesus’ story who has been set upon. We often feel injured by life’s misfortunes, and the bad things that have happened to us through no fault of our own. Yet, God has not left us alone, to try and sort everything out. Instead, God in Jesus has come right to our point of need, and has ministered to us personally.

The mystery at the heart of Holy Week is this: God did not bypass the world’s need and suffering. Instead, in Jesus, God deliberately and willingly entered into the heart of the world’s darkness to offer the gift of light. God in Jesus took on every limitation we experience, and every pain we can endure. Why? So as to transform these real things from within.

Because God in Jesus did not bypass our world’s need and suffering, we shouldn’t bypass the way God entered into these everyday challenges. In God and with God, we have the holy opportunity to experience how the Spirit transforms our hurts and sorrows, and the emptiness of much of our lives. We see this particularly vividly in our services on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

Let us be with Jesus as he walks into Jerusalem to receive praise, and face scorn. Let’s be with him as he reclines with his friends for their last meal together. We can be with him as he enters the garden, prayerfully shaping his final resolve to live and die within God’s will. And we can be with him as he allows himself to be put to death on the cross for the sake of the world’s need and suffering.

As we walk through Holy Week with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we can rediscover how God has entered into, and transformed, our needy world.

 

The Good Samaritan image above is by James Tissot. Notice the figure in the upper left corner, who bypasses the traveler in need. Holy Week will be observed in most Western Christian churches this year during the week of April 9-15.

The Deep Well of Living Water

Art_Tissot_Samaritan Woman by the Well_Best

The middle of the day brings with it contrasts – both literally and figuratively. When the bright sun shines directly overhead, distinct shadows form around us, leaving sharp lines between light and dark. We often feel most-alive at mid-day, when we’re involved with projects or work. But at noontime, we can also be distracted by cares and concerns, bigger than we can handle by ourselves. Milder than in some places, the noonday sun in Samaria can be demanding, causing people to seek shade where it might be found. Even livestock move to the shadows under low tree branches until the respite of early evening. Though relief might come from cool water, a walk to the well is usually postponed until the daytime heat has passed. Especially if one plans on carrying jars heavy with water back the house.

In spite of this, and in fact because of it, she comes to the well at mid-day. This way, she can mostly count on no one being here. Back in ancient days, Jacob’s well was covered by a large rock. It was so large, it could only be lifted by several people working together. Therefore, no one could come alone, and take more than his or her fair share from the depths below. One could only satisfy a need for water in the presence of others, who would help lift the heavy stone cover. The Samaritan woman is glad it’s different now, for she can come alone to draw from this deep well.

On one noonday visit, under the hot sun, she finds an unexpected stranger by the well. He appears tired, and asks for a drink. She does not yet see how this moment connects with a larger pattern. He thirsts, just as he will thirst again on another hot noonday. Both now and then, he thirsts as he does the work of his Father. Paradoxically, just as will happen on that later hot afternoon, he thirsts while at the same offering living water to those who need it.

He seems to know more about her than she could ever have guessed. And his statements are provocative. Slowly, she discerns that he is saying something like this: “You have come here in the safety of noonday. For you assume no one else will be around, when you raise water from the depths of Jacob’s well. Yet, you have a deep well within you. How far into the depths of your inner well, are you willing to go with me?”

 

This posting is based on my sermon for Lent 3, Sunday March 19, which can be accessed by clicking here. In my sermon, I quote the David Whyte poem, “The Well of Grief.”  The image above is another one by the gifted James Tissot, and reflects an intentionally faithful, late 19th century, perception of what the study of archaeology tells us about ancient biblical sites.

 

The Beauty of Self-Possession

Satan Tried to Tempt Jesus James Tissot, 1895

 

Here is an image worthy of Lenten reflection: James Tissot’s 19th century portrayal of Jesus’ Second Temptation. Hovering over the Jerusalem Temple, we see starkly contrasting figures ~ the bodiless tempter, with an anger-filled face; and the serenely embodied Jesus, whose focus is within.

If you are the Son of God…” Why would those words have any power over Jesus? Perhaps it’s because they echo something said earlier in the Gospel. For we hear essentially the same words at his Baptism. “Just as he came up from the water… a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the beloved…’” A voice from heaven declares that this man, born to a village carpenter, is in fact God’s own Son.

We need not have grown up in modern times to consider this claim improbable. Many of Jesus’ own contemporaries considered the statement far-fetched, and even blasphemous. Jesus, himself, may have wondered at this. He probably had had strong youthful premonitions, that God had marked him for a special vocation. But, it’s unlikely he would have imagined there was something unique about his personal being, rather than more simply a difference in the kind of activity to which he was being called. And so, as he came up from the Jordan waters and heard those now-familiar words, he may have wondered what was really being said.

Then he finds himself alone in the desert… It must have felt like “now or never!” A childhood and young adult life shaped by a genuine piety, and full of Spirit-prompted intuitions. And then, in the wilderness, all is tested. And not for the last time!

The voice in the wilderness probably said other things to him: “Hello, my friend. Yes, you recognize my voice. I come in peace. Indeed, I’m probably the only one who believes you and those strange words from the sky. So, you see, I’m on your side! Let’s suppose it’s all true. In fact, let’s prove it! If you’re the Son of God, you’ll change the world sooner than you think. Do yourself a favor ~ make these stones into bread-rolls. Then, you won’t be hungry and, soon, you’ll be very popular! Or, even better, as I lift you to the top of the Temple, see how great everything looks. Jump! Everyone loves a wonder-worker. Besides, if you are God’s beloved, what can go wrong?

Tissot’s image captures a self-possessed Jesus, and we can assume it’s a faithful portrayal of his character. A significant part of Jesus’ self-possession stems from the fact that he is not captive to others, and not captive to possessions. Self-possession is focussed within; possession by things and by other people happens when we are distracted by what is around us. And so, self-possession is an antidote to being possessed by our possessions.

Self-possession makes possible self-giving. This is why we distinguish self-possession from self-absorption. For self-possession and self-giving are natural and spiritual corollaries. In his vocation, and especially in his Passion and Death, Jesus exemplified self-giving.

 

This blog is based on my sermon for Lent 1, the text of which can be found by clicking here. The James Tissot image comes from the archive of his biblical artwork, which is physically maintained at, and digitally available from, the Brooklyn Museum. Observers may note what appears (by contemporary standards) to be a culturally insensitive rendering of both the Tempter and of Jesus. Taking this point into account (while also appreciating the artist’s effort to depict matters historically and contextually), we can still benefit from Tissot’s biblically faithful work.

Our Beauty in His Eyes

Art_Tissot_Brooklyn_Museum_-_What_Our_Lord_Saw_from_the_Cross_(Ce_que_voyait_Notre-Seigneur_sur_la_Croix)_360KB

We are accustomed to looking up at him on the cross. Good Friday may prompt us, at least for a moment, to allow a reverse in the direction of the gaze.

For we are the objects of his attention, and of his love. If we discern anything about the meaning of Holy week, and the events within it, it is this: He acted for us, and not for himself. And God was in him, as he did so.

James Tissot pictures Jesus’ view from the cross on that dark afternoon, two thousand years ago. Just below his feet, he saw Mary Magdalene, prostrate with grief, showing her love for him. Just behind her, cloaked in dark blue and white, is his mother, hand across her heart, experiencing the sorrow it had been predicted she would endure. And to the left of Mary, in Jesus’ vision, we see the beloved disciple, John, in a white outer cloak over a green tunic. These three, and the two others behind Mary, are sympathetic figures. They have come to be by him in his darkest hour.

Others in Jesus’ field of vision may vary in their sympathies with his suffering. The Roman soldier cloaked in red could be the centurion, about whom we read in the Passion narratives. Standing by the cross, Tissot depicts him with a pained look on his face. He is beginning to realize that Jesus was innocent of the charges brought against him. By contrast, the two other soldiers near him appear either puzzled or disgusted by the whole situation.

As we survey this scene portraying Jesus’ field of vision from the cross, we cannot miss the group of men on horseback in the middle-ground. They are Scribes or Sadducees, those with power and wealth in the city, who had argued for his crucifixion. Some are shown taunting him. Some appear self-satisfied. And at least one is looking up at the darkening sky, which is already putting the upper edge of the scene in shadow.

He has acted for all these people, and especially for the ones who have turned against him. He looks upon them with love, and with a plea for God’s forgiveness. He knows what is in people’s hearts. What we so often forget is that he knows us better than we know ourselves. We may not understand how he knows us; but we do know that he knows us. We know that he loves us. And this is enough.

This is not a time for us to ponder the unknowability of God. This is a time to focus on our vulnerability, and our total knowability in God’s eyes. It is a time in which to contemplate the complete self-revealing of God, by Christ, for us. And to remember that he did this on a cross.

 

James Tissot, What Our Lord Saw From the Cross. For a link to my Good Friday homily, from which this is adapted, please click here.

Revealing Glory

Art_Tissot_we-would-see-jesus-tissot

 

James Tissot was a successful French painter and illustrator, whose beautiful paintings of boats and ships I particularly admire. His earlier work reminds me of that of other 19th century high society painters like John Singer Sargent. In 1871, Tissot moved to London where he acquired a reputation for his paintings of elegant and fashionably-dressed women. The waiting room of his studio was remembered as always having a bottle of iced champagne available to callers.

Returning to Paris in 1885, Tissot exhibited 15 large paintings under the title of The Women of Paris. Like the work of other artists of the time, his paintings reflected the influence of Japanese prints. That same year, he experienced a re-conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, which transformed his life and his art.

Some Greeks have come to Jerusalem for the Passover, and ask to see Jesus. Notice how Tissot portrays much more than the immediate scene of the conversation, displaying his immense interest in the history and archaeology of Jerusalem. He imagines the Greeks approaching on an arched causeway over the Tyropoeon valley, on the southwest side of the Temple Mount. They are walking up to what might have been the most dramatic entrance to the Temple. Finding a fellow visitor who speaks Greek, they tell Philip why they have come. “Sir,” they say; “we wish to see Jesus!”

Tissot portrays Jesus in his customary way, as a rabbi clothed in white, and the painting is faithful to the scene as John presents it. Tissot therefore does not show Jesus moving toward the inquiring Greeks. Instead, as John tells us, when he hears that the Greeks want to see him, Jesus responds to Philip and Andrew in a curiously indirect way. Drawing upon an image in the book of Daniel, he says, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Jesus speaks of his death and his vocation, which he says is centered on God’s glorification.

Here, we begin to make sense of why Tissot portrays the Greek visitor’s arrival from Jesus’ perspective, from the vantage point on top of that southwest corner of the Temple Mount, looking out between Hellenic columns toward Mt. Zion. The occasion has deep significance, not just for Greek visitors. It has significance for all of Jerusalem, and everyone who has come for the great festival. And it has implications for the whole world, lying over and beyond the hills of this city. Here, on a dramatic high point on the Temple Mount, as Jesus stands in the place associated with God’s own glory, a voice from heaven speaks of his glorification. The Gentile foreigners whom he has drawn to himself are a sign, a sign of all those who will be drawn to him, when his glory is revealed on the cross.

 

James Tissot, “We Would See Jesus,” from his multi-volume, The Life of Christ. The Gospel passage to which this image refers is John 12:20-33. For a link to my Sunday homily, developing these themes, please click here.