Peter Koenig

Through the Waters of Death…

 

 

 

 

The fire at Notre Dame during Holy Week, and the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, led many of us to be mindful about church buildings and their role in our faith lives.

It’s helpful to notice what many of our churches have in common with Notre Dame, as different as they may actually be. Both that medieval cathedral, and many modern-era churches, are built upon a cross-shaped floor plan. Some contemporary faith communities are moving away from this ancient pattern ~ and from the insight that we have a real and felt connection with the places where we worship, and not only with the people with whom we pray. And yet, as sacramental people, it is through the tangible that we connect with the intangible.

We know that in Baptism we become part of the crucified and risen Body of Christ. This is especially evident when a Baptism occurs on a great feast like Easter, with a church full of the Lord’s members. Yet, the moment is all the more meaningful when the building in which we are baptized reflects the crucified Body of Christ. We are grafted into the Body of Christ as we are baptized into his death and resurrection. And this happens in a sacramental rite that calls us to live a cross-shaped life.

And so, every cruciform-shaped church should remind us of Good Friday and of Easter ~ of both our Lord’s Cross and his Resurrection. Our churches are ‘body-shaped,’ because the Church itself is a crucified and risen ‘Body.’ Therefore, like many other medieval cathedrals, Notre Dame in Paris is so much more than a building. It is first an offering of great love for our Lord as well as for his physical, earthly mother. As an embodiment of faith and love, Notre Dame like our own parishes is a tangible expression of the Body of Christ, in its many forms. We are therefore embraced by the Body of Christ in Baptism, in several mystically wonderful ways. Especially when Christ embraces us in Baptism through his Body, the Church, in a building shaped like his crucified body.

We can set this spiritual awareness in a wider context. We can connect it with some familiar and pivotal biblical stories, within the wider sweep of Salvation History. Here is a simple phrase with which to remember the heart of the mystery of our redemption. “Through the waters of death into a new covenant life with God.” The phrase applies to Noah’s ark journey, to Israel’s Red Sea crossing, as well as to how Israel’s Jordan river crossing and Jesus’ own Baptism recapitulated these great events.

This mystical awareness is wonderfully expressed in Peter Koenig’s beautiful painting, Christ as the Second Moses, along with its side-panels, shown above. Not only is it a painting about Christ, his Cross and Resurrection; it is also a painting about us. (Notice how, along with Adam and Eve, we are depicted in the shadows behind the Christ figure.) For as we join Christ through baptismal waters representing his death, we join him in his Risen covenant life in God. This is the heart of the Easter mystery.

 

The above painting is Peter Koenig’s, Christ as the Second Moses, also known as The Rainbow Resurrection (used by permission of the artist). This post is based on my homily for Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Body We Have Embraced

 

As soon as I heard the news on Monday, like everyone else I went to the internet. The live video of the flames rising up from the roof of Notre Dame in Paris was deeply disturbing. Like so many others, I felt an immediate grief. How touching that we would feel wounded when hearing about and seeing the wounding of a great and beautiful cathedral. And it is no accident that we should have felt this way.

For like so many other medieval cathedrals, Notre Dame de Paris is so much more than a building. It is first an offering of great love for our Lord and his physical, earthly mother. It is also an embodiment of faith, a tangible expression of the Body of Christ. This is particularly evident in the way that its floor plan is shaped in homage to his crucified Body. The cathedral therefore represents an ‘incarnation’ of what the book of Revelation calls the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. For he is the One through whom all things were made, and the One through whom all things will come to their End… whether their End be their termination, or their fulfillment and completion.

Believers through the centuries who worship the Incarnate Lord have something in common. It is both true of his followers at the time of his crucifixion, two thousand years ago, and true of us today. As believers, we are never ambivalent about harm brought to the Lord’s Body, and to living symbols of his Body — both harm to the structures in which we worship, and harm to the ‘living temples’ formed by us, his embodied members.

For the Lord, for his followers, and for all members of his Body, death is always a gateway to new life. And, for the cathedral of Notre Dame, death to one phase in the life of this magnificent building will surely become a gateway to a new life ~ both for it, and for her people.

It is precisely with this awareness, I believe, that Peter Koenig has painted, and offered for our spiritual edification, his glorious image of Christ as the Second Moses. Peter Koenig’s vision is similar to that of the original builders of Notre Dame, the same mystical vision permeating John’ Gospel and John’s understanding of Jesus’ Incarnation, life, death and resurrection.

We should notice this: The body that the Son of God embraced, and with which he became one, has become the Body we have embraced, and with which we have become one. The Body of his transformation has become the Body of our own transformation. His death was a critical ‘hinge point’ ~ a hinge point in his and our process of transformation. And so, though our worship on Good Friday liturgy is ostensibly focused on the death of Jesus, it is also profoundly about the renewed lives of others, like us.

At the beginning of Lent, we reminded ourselves of a practical truth. Our journey toward knowing the fire of the Holy Spirit more truly, begins with physical ashes. A sign of death and destruction like ashes, or the Holy Cross, can help us see new life beyond it. May we, like our brothers and sisters in Paris, always remember this.

 

The above painting is Peter Koenig’s, Christ as the Second Moses, also known as The Rainbow Resurrection (used by permission of the artist). This post is based on my homily for Good Friday, April 19, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Cana’s Living Water

 

In so many paintings depicting the Wedding at Cana story, the astonishing lavishness of what Jesus provides is diminished ~ especially when set side-by-side with the portrayal of what the wedding hosts provide. We miss seeing the heart of this story ~ that through Jesus, the abundance of divine glory comes into a world colored by human scarcity. For he is the true ‘host’ even if, at first, his abundant gifts seem hidden. Peter Koenig’s larger painting, of which this is only a portion, captures all this beautifully. Here, we see another section of it, which obviously depicts the Cana theme.

As we have previously noticed, Koenig’s painting is profoundly biblical while not being literal. For he is faithful to John’s highly symbolic and mystical, rather than literal, approach. And so, though we see the stone water jars mentioned by John, we find Jesus and his mother portrayed in a more contemporary setting, complete with a modern-looking table and wine glasses. Once again, we need to ‘read’ the symbolic imagery to grasp the fuller significance of what both John’s Gospel and Peter Koenig’s painting offer to us.

The center of Koenig’s larger painting portrays a vision of the New Jerusalem, the city of God, coming down from heaven (for a more complete view, see the prior post, below). This image follows what we find described in the Book of Revelation. This New Jerusalem becomes God’s dwelling place among God’s people. And at its center is the enthroned Lamb, with his ‘bride’ the Church at his side. From the Lamb’s side comes the water of life, pouring into the fallen but being redeemed world. The cleansing and purifying water of life fills the jars, as well as provides the context for Baptism. And as Peter Koenig mystically portrays, this water then becomes the very good wine which is served at the wedding feast.

Revelation also speaks of the marriage supper of the Lamb, where saints and martyrs join him in the heavenly realm. Koenig portrays the company of these holy ones standing before and around the throne, apparently bearing gifts. If you look closely, you will see that they are carrying the instruments of their martyrdom, while one of them leads what surely represents a colosseum lion. In several places in the painting, we see what Revelation refers to as the tree of life standing near them and near the gushing living water. For those who have died to the powers of this world are alive to the power of the next.

Among so many paintings representing the Cana story, this may be among the most faithful to what John wants us to see, and to believe. And John’s Cana story, like the whole of his Gospel, is about the wedding of the human and the divine, in Jesus.

 

This detail of Peter Koenig’s larger painting is reproduced here with the artist’s kind permission. This and other examples of his religious artwork can be seen by visiting the website of his parish church, where much of it is displayed (click here).  This post is based on my homily for Sunday, January 20, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Further Beauty of the Epiphany

Everyday, people are tortured and killed because of their religious and political beliefs. Many of them are Christians, who are willing to die rather than renounce their faith.

This has been true throughout history, and it is a poignant aspect of the Christmas and Epiphany Gospels. Peter Koenig’s wonderful tryptic painting, Christmas—Epiphany, helps make this clear. The death of Jesus is intimately connected with the death and anticipated resurrection of others. The Lamb that was slain becomes the Temple at the center of the New Jerusalem, from which the rivers of the water of life flow. The wine at the wedding at Cana prefigures the same supernatural refreshment for which St. Stephen was willing to die. And the Twelve Days of Christmas also include Holy Innocents’ Day, the feast commemorating those killed by Herod in his search to eliminate the baby Jesus as a potential rival. Jesus’ Baptism declares his vocation, a vocation which involves each of these things and more.

An equally real but more subtle threat is increasingly evident in our society ~ radical secularism. When the culture around us no longer supports our religious faith, it becomes intolerant. People then begin to act with hostility against us. As a result, at least two things happen. We soften our religious commitments so we fit-in better with others. And, we lose confidence that the Gospel has world-wide significance, for all human beings. As a result, we draw back from practicing our faith, a faith that has public implications. We then retreat to private beliefs that now only have personal and spiritual meaning.

Think for a moment about John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…” The Greek behind these words has sweeping implications. For God so loved the cosmos (the whole creation), that he gave his only Son… in order that the cosmos might be saved through him. In other words, for John, the Gospel has universal implications, not just personal, spiritual significance. This is a gospel for which we might be willing to die, precisely because it is first of all a gospel for which we are willing to live.

It is imprecise and misleading therefore to say that ‘faith changes the world.’ Instead, we should say that God changes the world, in part through people of faith. We have faith in the God who created, and then inhabited, the whole cosmos. And, God has acted for the sake of the whole cosmos.

 

Peter Koenig’s painting is reproduced here with the artist’s kind permission. This and other examples of his religious artwork can be seen by visiting the website of his parish church, where much of it is displayed (click here).  This post is based on my homily for The Baptism of Christ, January 13, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of the Epiphany

 

Here we see Peter Koenig’s evocative depiction of The Magi offering gifts to the holy child. The artist is a contemporary Roman Catholic painter, many of whose religious paintings are displayed within a church located in Northamptonshire, England. It’s not far from the parish where Henry Moore’s Madonna and Child is situated, the sculpture we viewed in the prior post. Though Koenig often depicts biblical figures in contemporary settings, this painting of the Magi worshipping the Christ Child is both traditional and also Byzantine in style. As in much of his work, recognizable elements of the Gospel story are intertwined with highly symbolic biblical imagery. By ‘reading’ some of the imagery Peter Koenig shares with us, his painting enriches our celebration of the Epiphany, and our appreciation for its greater meaning in our lives.

Along with obvious features in the Gospel narratives, Peter Koenig’s painting employs other biblical imagery symbolizing the broader significance of the event that is portrayed. Right away we notice the large and rough wooden cross, draped with an abundantly grape-bearing vine. The cross as an instrument of death became the fruitful tree of life, and a source of what we receive in the cup of the New Covenant. As a result, the Holy One who is worshipped is the Vine, to whom we become connected as branches.

Employing this kind of symbolism, Nativity scenes often include passion flowers and lilies, associated with our Lord’s death and resurrection. Peter Koenig’s painting has other evident suggestions of Jesus’ destined saving work. The large and open stone square represents the door of our Lord’s tomb, along with its round stone cover, rolled aside by his resurrection. In fulfillment of the Genesis promise to Eve, her counterpoint, Mary, is shown treading upon the serpent whom we associate with the cause of our suffering and death. Mary’s tunic is turquoise, that lovely mix of blue and green. Here in the clothing of the mother of new life, ‘Marian blue’ is blended with the color we associate with life in the natural world, the greenery of trees and shrubs.

Another symbol regarding the vocation of the holy child is the way in which he is clothed. Notice that he is covered by strips of cloth, wrapped around his body, just as his body is later prepared for burial. And in each of his hands, we see him grasp a nail spike. The band of cloth wrapped around his shoulders suggests the mantle or yoke of which he later speaks, and which we find represented in the stoles that deacons and priests wear in the liturgy.

The three differing cupolas of the very Russian-looking church surely represent the Trinitarian being of God, and its significance for our redemption. Another recognizable image, the wine jar in the lower right corner, stems from how this picture is part of a much larger triptych. The complete work depicts several Christmas and Epiphany themes ~ not only the Magi’s visit, but also the wedding at Cana and the Baptism of Jesus, along with the martyrdom of St. Stephen.

In addition, the shells on the foreground suggest the seaside, and may symbolize the liminal shoreline between this realm and the greater life beyond. The scallop shell is associated with St. James, who along with his fisherman brother, John, was one of our Lord’s first disciples. The shell has an ancient pre-Christian association with death and rebirth, as well as our journey into the next life for which we hope. We often use a scallop shell to scoop the water at Baptism. And in the background of this painting, we find suggestions of the harsh and inhospitable aspects of the fallen world, represented both by inanimate stone as well as glacial mountains of ice and snow. The tree of life stands out all the more against this backdrop.

 

Peter Koenig’s painting is reproduced here with the artist’s kind permission. This and other examples of his religious artwork can be seen by visiting the website of his parish church, where much of it is displayed (click here).  This post is based on my homily for The Epiphany, January 6, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Beauty Over Chaos

Peter Koenig_Good Shepherd Resurrection

 

The Resurrection of Jesus is all about grounded hope, and the strength to persevere in the face of adversity. Peter Koenig’s Good Shepherd Resurrection provides a compelling image of its power. The painting builds upon ancient biblical imagery of chaos manifest as a sea monster, and acknowledges how death, and resistance to the will of God in the order of Creation, pervade the world. The painting is brilliant in its conception, precisely because it is so counter to our culture-bound world of Easter bunnies, daffodils and pastel-colored candy.

The Resurrection of Jesus is not mainly about hopeful feelings, a positive attitude and self-improvement, even though it can enable these things. His Resurrection is really about the defeat of evil and death, and triumph over pain and suffering. We may not immediately experience that defeat and triumph in our every moment of need. But, we live by Easter faith, and not by Easter feelings.

Peter Koenig risks showing us the Risen Lord stepping out of the mouth of a sea monster. The fresh water from his side recalls his crucifixion, and also the water from the rock in the wilderness. Both give us fresh water that fulfills genuine human need, as compared with the inhospitable salt water in which the dragon finds its abode. Every one of us is the lamb, held safely upon his shoulders, as he carries us out of the jaws of death into the new life where he is preeminent.

To me, this is real hope. Precisely because it is hope that deals with where we are now, rather than hope for something that might be, some day, somewhere. Both you and I want the kind of hope that squarely addresses all the things we’ve been worried about this last month. We all want hope that squarely confronts all the things we fear might go wrong in the coming month. And that is the kind of real hope that God brings to us in Jesus’ resurrection.

 

Peter Koenig, Good Shepherd Resurrection. Click here to visit the website where this and other paintings by him may be viewed. To see my Easter homily from which this is adapted, please click here. For background, see Revelation 12 and or do an internet search for biblical texts related to the words dragon, Rahab (i.e., Job 26:12-13 & Isaiah 51:9-10), Leviathan (i.e., Job 3:8, Psalm 74:13-14 & Isaiah 27:1), the deep, etc.

Beauty and Holy Sorrow

Art_Peter Koenig Palm Sunday

 

The moment is filled with paradox. Jesus enters the royal city, proclaimed as “the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord—even the King of Israel.” Luke says his appearance signals “peace in heaven.” As he arrives, he is keenly aware that tremendous confusion lies at the heart of the recognition he is receiving. And Peter Koenig’s painting captures this nicely.

Koenig portrays Jesus dressed completely in white, suggesting his identity as ‘pure victim’ and ‘true priest.’ The painter takes a symbolic approach to the scene, envisioning it in a contemporary setting. Though we see an ample supply of date palms in the background, people in the crowd are waving flags. I count at least 18 communities or nations represented by those flags, including Israel, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, as well as Nicaragua and Cuba. Surely , a crowd of people from many nations, united in their enthusiasm about Jesus’ arrival, is a sign of hope, is it not? Why would he be weeping?

He is weeping because he knows what is in people’s hearts. He knows how thin is our perception, and how halting is our embrace of him. We so often assume that, by virtue of our common affirmations, we can overcome our divisions. As if we could all agree upon a combination of human civil laws, and then arrive at the unity we all desire. But he knows that the healing of the divisions between the nations will not occur until the real human problem has been dealt with. The real problem is sin. It will be dealt with by his cross and resurrection, and most importantly, by the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. Only these events will heal the divisions we have experienced since the demolition of the tower of Babel.

We see two figures in foreground unroll a band of penitentially-colored purple fabric. They discern a more appropriate way to greet him, than do those who wave symbols of the partitions between us. We so often behave as if we were less than the one people of God. Yet, the Body of Christ replaces all our competing affiliations, a fact not yet apparent to those who shout Hosanna on this day. This same heedlessness is suggested by Koenig’s portrayal of those who seek to greet him by climbing up on a cross. Soon, they will lift him up on this same form, confirming their need for him to be among them. If he weeps on this day, he weeps for us. We are among those for whom he asks forgiveness, for we know not what we do.

 

Peter Koenig, Entry into Jerusalem. To view more of his paintings, click here. See Mark 11:1-10, and John 12:12-19. To access my Palm Sunday homily, on which the above is based, click here.

The Beauty of Offering

Peter Koenig_cleansingtemple1

 

Peter Koenig offers an evocative view of one of the most dramatic stories in the New Testament, Jesus’ so-called ‘cleansing of the Temple.’ We can’t help but notice the aquatic colored clothing worn by the Christ figure, matched by the at-first-surprising color of the doves. Fairly quickly we notice the similar but slightly differently colored paper currency falling out of the overturned cash boxes of the merchants and money-changers. Though both doves and lambs might be presented as forms of offering in the temple, the lambs are not depicted in the same hue as the doves.

Some translations render Jesus’ critical statement as, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Another way of translating that last word is “house of trade,” which may better locate the object of his anger. Throughout the Bible, from the days of the Temple’s prototype in the wilderness, to its fulfillment in the New Jerusalem, God provides a place and a way for us to offer gifts.

The ‘exchange’ that is the object of his wrath may not be so much the trade of money for sacrificial animals, as it is the spirit of exchange that shapes and colors much of the prayer occurring within this place. By overturning the tables and driving out the animals, Jesus points to a new Temple where we meet God. He becomes the new place of offering, where pure offering replaces all the false substitutes we create by our efforts to engage God in an exchange.

Why the aquatic colored vesture for Jesus in the painting, as well as for the doves? I am not aware of any explanation by Peter Koenig. The whip in Jesus’ hand reflects a detail unique to John’s Gospel. The color of his clothing may therefore be connected with his statement on another visit to the Temple, implying that he is the source of living water. Living water and the life-giving Spirit are thematically linked in the Fourth Gospel. As a dove does at his Baptism, the similarly-colored doves may represent the Holy Spirit. Here we see the Lamb of God, who has come into the world in order to offer it up to the Father in the Spirit. Entering the Temple, he sends earthly lambs scattering, and pushes aside false ways we use to secure life and happiness through exchanges we try to make with God. Instead, Jesus invites us to join him, in his whole and complete self-offering.

 

The Cleansing of the Temple, (C) Peter Koenig. For this and other images by the painter, please see the website from which this painting was retrieved, http://www.stedwardskettering.org.uk. For a link to my homily on the theme of offering and exchange, in relation to John’s account of the Cleansing of the Temple, click here.