Seeing

Temptation, and Beauty

Art_Eric Armusik_Temptation-fixed-2015-2

 

At Jesus’ Baptism, his Father in heaven speaks to him in the hearing of others: “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well-pleased.” Luke tells us that Jesus is at prayer in this moment, with his attention likely turned within. By contrast, in his temptation, the devil appears to him and speaks to him in his immediate presence, tempting him with things seen or imagined. Our Father in heaven speaks to him from above. But the one he calls ‘the father of lies’ speaks to him from his side, about the things of this world. It is in relation to this point that I find Eric Armusik’s perceptive painting of the Temptation of Christ so compelling.

Look at that sinister-looking hooded face, and that claw-like hand on Jesus’ shoulder. The tempter speaks in his ear, to turn his attention away from his mission. In the process, the tempter offers to Jesus what he might be tempted to desire. A dark brooding sky obscures the light from above, and accentuates the dark ground underfoot. Jesus looks resolute while yet affected by the experience of his temptation. Eric Armusik captures how Jesus is tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin.

We are likely, always, to hear this same voice in our own ears. Sometimes the voice speaks strongly and directly, and sometimes it is only a whisper. But the message is the same: ‘Look at this beautiful sight! Look at this wonderful thing. It could be yours! Yes, yours.’ And in that moment, we are likely to forget the words of the Psalmist, who reminds us how “the earth is the Lord’s for he made it; come, let us adore him!” In the moment of temptation, the Father’s voice from heaven seems less immediate than other things grabbing our attention. Instead, we give preference to the voice from the side, which says, “go ahead! It will be ok ~ after all, it’s ‘good’!” So, ‘when we see that the tree is good for food, and how it is a delight to our eyes, and that the tree is to be desired to make us wise, we take of its fruit and we eat; and we also give some to our families and friends, who are with us. And in that moment, we know we have sinned, for we experience our separation from our Father in heaven.

Whether we are considering the history-changing choice of our biblical ancestors, or whether we are thinking about our own choices, temptation has more than one reference point. The obvious one, is whether we choose the path toward sin ~ to accept the allure of appropriating some good or beautiful thing, but in a bad way, for our own ends. The other opportunity provided by temptation is the choice we might make for the good ~ to seek and follow God’s will, and live more fully into God’s ways for us. Temptation always has a benefit that we should never forget ~ whenever we are tempted, we can choose to live more nearly as we pray.

 

The Temptation of Christ, 2011, by Eric Armusik. The image is reproduced here with the artist’s permission. To see more of his fine paintings, click here. Also see the Temptation passage in Luke 4:1-13; Hebrews 4:15 (quoted above); and Genesis 3:6-7, which I have paraphrased. My reflections here are drawn from my homily for Lent 1, which explores the themes suggested by the Temptation of Jesus (click here).

The Beauty of Mystical Union

Art_the-wedding-at-cana-niels-larsen-stevns_(1864-1941)

 

This painting by Niels Larsen Stevns, a relatively unknown Danish painter, strikes me as profound. I think he portrays the occasion in a way John the Evangelist would have liked. First, notice the huge stone basins, which by their placement in the painting occupy the center of our attention. These vessels exceed what we might imagine when we hear the English word “jars.” Yet John, who is consistently focused on mystical and symbolic themes, takes care to tell us how these ‘jars’ hold twenty to thirty gallons each. To put that in perspective, 24” of water in a standard bathtub equals roughly 24 gallons. And Jesus transformed six times that amount, for just one party!

After the large vessels, we notice next Jesus and his mother, the two main figures in this painting and in John’s story. In addition to their placement, we can tell who they are by their halo’s. While Mary stands fully graced by the glow of the late afternoon sun, the upper torso of Jesus is in shadow. I think this is for both pictorial and theological reasons, allowing the glow of his halo to be all the more radiant. At the same time, he is the only figure in the painting portrayed as praying. Very subtly, and faithful to John’s Gospel, Stevns depicts how the light shines in the darkness, and that the darkness has not ‘comprehended’ it. This moment is all about Epiphany, about the revealing of light in new and profound ways, for the benefit of all who long to see it. Water, set aside for the purification of the body, becomes wine that warms and gladdens the heart and soul.

The chief steward is just behind, being given an opportunity to apprehend and perceive the light. It comes in the form of a cup of wine, reckoned to be among “the best.” Also subtle is Stevn’s depiction of the two persons on the left side, who are in conversation. They appear to be discussing something whose meaning eludes them, reminding us of the two disciples later walking on the road to Emmaus. Like them, and like the chief steward, these two at Cana do not yet perceive what this is all about. Only in the background, under and through the low arches, do we see the wedding party, feasting together at the tables. Among many paintings of this scene, this may be among the most faithful to what John wants us to see, and to believe. This story, like the whole of John’s Gospel, is about the wedding of the human and the divine, in Jesus.

Many guests at this wedding probably noticed the sudden arrival of a batch of fine wine—but not where it came from, nor what it represented. Those at the table were likely focused on the bridal couple, while enjoying all the splendid things on offer. But those who stood nearby, at the edges of the scene, were in a position to notice something else. Of greatest significance at this event was not the hospitality provided by the wedding hosts, whose wine in fact ran out! Most significant was the abundant and mystical hospitality, revealed and provided by a higher source. In this gathering, God’s hospitality is extended not so much as it is in other Gospel stories, to people who are unique and different, and on the margins. Here, God’s hospitality embraces what is common and the same, our needy human nature. God shows us how the deficiency we all share is blessed, and then filled. The empty vessels of our souls are ‘filled to the brim’ with the living water of the Holy Spirit.

 

The Wedding at Cana by Niels Larsen Stevns (correct spelling! / 1864-1941), based on John 2:1-11. To see my homily, which explores this Gospel reading in relation to historical representations of it in art, click here.

The Beauty of Holy Imagination

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One of the most beautiful buildings in the world has survived twenty centuries since its construction during the great age of Rome. Replacing two earlier buildings lost to fire, this third one was built for the ages. After two thousand years, its coffered concrete ceiling remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, and it still evokes awe and wonder among architects. The building is, of course, the Pantheon. Unlike some buildings of equal stature and antiquity, the Pantheon has survived because it was, in effect, ‘baptized.’ Having been a temple whose practices were anchored in pagan religious cults, its original Greek name suggests the building was dedicated to a multitude of Roman God’s. Indeed, many modern visitors know the building only by its classical name rather than by its later Christian one, even though the transition between the two occurred fourteen-hundred years ago!

Think about that for a moment. A pagan temple, apparently dedicated to a panoply of Roman deities, was consecrated as a church, and renamed to commemorate Christian saints. The building’s earlier purpose and meaning was not seen as dangerous to it being used for holy Christian worship! For many of us, that is unimaginable! A more likely outcome would have been for the building to have been razed, and its materials perhaps reused to build an entirely new building for Christ-inspired liturgies. This represents courage, the courage of holy imagination, turned loose to see what is good, positive and hopeful, even amidst a decaying or already dead civilization.

On Good Friday and at the Easter Vigil, we pray these words: “O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Who among us has not ever felt cast down, prematurely old, or just not worth much? Do we have courage, the courage to see that we are among all the things that are being brought to their perfection? Sometimes, among all the things God has made, it can be hardest to imagine ourselves as the objects of God’s unbounded creative and redemptive possibilities. Yet, because of our Baptism, we are among the saints who have already passed beyond death into new life. God’s redemptive possibilities are all about new life, and for us! We come to see this as we practice the virtue of holy imagination.

A photo of the interior of the Pantheon in Rome (creative commons license). This is adapted from my homily for All Saints Sunday, which can be accessed by clicking here.

Beauty in Marriage

Kiyochika-Sumida River by Night-Detail-1881

 

Adapted from a recent wedding homily for my son.

In Sumida River by Night, Kobayashi Kiyochika depicts a man and a woman walking in Tokyo, late on a summer evening. Though from Asia, this 1881 print had a profound influence upon the American painter, James McNeill Whistler. I love how the artist grabs our interest with the glow of red paper lanterns, both near and far. This beautiful image provides a helpful metaphor.

We can see in this picture a reflection of our lives. Hans and Bridget, in your marriage together, you will have many occasions to look out onto life in the world around you and notice others. Your attention may be caught by a parallel to the glowing lights along the far side of the river in this print. Though you may have a light between yourselves, your eyes can be drawn to the multiplicity of other lights around you, and the way they reflect off events and other people. There will be times when you may think others are more happy or fortunate than you are.

Especially when we are young, we tend to think that knowledge, goodness and happiness lie elsewhere, and in others. It’s actually an important part of our journey into maturity to want to attain these things for ourselves. Our admiration for others and their achievements, prompts us to reach further and higher. But this same experience can create an illusion, the mistaken belief that we are of less value.

A similar thing can happen with love, especially romantic love. When we are single, we notice couples walking together in parks and along streets. It seems that others have found their mate, and a kind of happiness that eludes us. Even when we meet that special person, as we get to know him or her and as our relationship matures, we begin to see that not everything goes smoothly. Once again, we are prone to looking at other couples with a misleading idea ~ that they have something more than we have.

But there is another way to see this picture, which applies equally well to you at this point in your lives. I think the artist has deliberately portrayed this couple as older, with the man shown holding a cane. Notice how the paper lantern in his hand, in whose glow they both walk, rivals anything glowing on the horizon. It may be smaller than the great lanterns across the river, but it is near them and within their hands. They have all the light they need, shared between them, as they walk along the river of life.

I have suggested two ways of looking at this print, paralleling two ways of looking at our lives together in this world. In seeing this print as portraying a young couple, we might reflect on the way that things in our lives can seem scarce and limited, and how our attention can become fixed on what seems to be missing. Yet, seen the second way, as portraying an older couple, our hearts can be filled with an awareness of abundance, and how everything we really need is within our reach, if not already in hand.

You may think that I am talking about such things as our natural talents and abilities, and the resources we have been given or have attained through our work. But what I actually have in mind is that great intangible thing we call love. I have in mind not only the kind of love we have for one another, in romance and marriage and for others in our families. I mainly have in mind the kind of love we are given by our Lord, especially when we ask him for it.

The natural love the two of you have for one another is complemented by a supernatural love you will have for each other in marriage. This is a love that is given to you and through you, for your life together. Though some things in your life may become scarce, and even if many things become limited, you will always have all the love you need. Your love will be the light you carry with you as you journey along the path you share together. This kind of love, and this kind of light, are gifts, rather than something you purchase or attain. And so, tomorrow you will have just as much of this love and light to illumine your walk together, as you will have when you are old.

Jesus said, “You are the light of the world!” We are used to Jesus being spoken of as the light of the world. But he tells us that, through his gift, we share the quality of being light for the world. Love illuminates darkened hearts and darkened lives, and love becomes the source of life, true life. Jesus does not want us to hide the light he gives us. Instead, he wants us to display it through how we live, that others might give glory to our father in heaven. Even if we mistakenly think we have so little of this love, and even if sometimes there seems to be more of it in the world around us than in ourselves.

The Church is very wise to appoint this portion of Matthew’s Gospel as a reading for weddings. Not only does our Lord hope that we as individuals will bear witness to his light and love; he intends that our marriages, and our lives together as families, will display the same light.

Hans and Bridget, the love that you share with one another and with Conor and Brady is, at its heart, a gift from God. Let this light that you share as a family, be a light for your path. May it also be a beacon of light for those around you.

 

Sumida River by Night (1881), by Kobayashi Kiyochika. Matthew 5:13-16 is one of five Gospel readings appointed for The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage in The Book of Common Prayer. This homily was offered near the great Mississippi River, in Baton Rouge, LA, in May.

Creation as Revelation

1024px-NautilusCutawayLogarithmicSpiral-cc license

 

“Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” Writing to the Romans, Paul suggests that all people have an opportunity to learn about God through our experience of the world. Visible beauty speaks of invisible mystery. Some call this common grace, and others refer to general revelation.

We learn about God in other ways that complement the ‘special’ revelation given to Israel and in Christ. This ‘general’ revelation from God through nature provides true knowledge even if it is not saving knowledge. Saving knowledge comes to us solely through special revelation. Therefore, to say that all can learn from God through his Creation does not imply that all will be saved. Only that all may experience delight and wonder from him.

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.” Psalm 19 celebrates how the beautiful ordering of the world reflects our Creator and speaks of his purposes. We find this ancient insight at the heart of a modern prayer:

“Almighty and everlasting God, you made the universe with all its marvelous order, its atoms, worlds, and galaxies, and the infinite complexity of living creatures: Grant that, as we probe the mysteries of your creation, we may come to know you more truly, and more surely fulfill our role in your eternal purpose…”

When Paul visited Athens and spoke to civic leaders at the Areopagus, he built his message on a similar assumption. Having found an altar dedicated “to an unknown God,” Paul revealed to his listeners the identity of the deity whose existence they had implicitly acknowledged. According to Paul, the Creator had fashioned the world in such a way that all people “would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him.” Though the Athenians did not yet know the God of Creation by name, they had already encountered him.

Regardless of their inclination or efforts to discern deity, Paul tells the Athenians that God “is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’.” Remarkably, within this statement, Paul quotes one of their poets to make a theological observation, and in the process identifies himself with his listeners.

The God in whom we all live reveals his divinity in the beauty and patterns of creation.

 

See Romans 1:19-20, Psalm 19, and Acts 17:16-34, which is the first reading appointed for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Year A. The Prayer is found in The Book of Common Prayer, page 827. (Note: Beginning the week of May 25, I may post less frequently during the summer.)

The nautilus photograph is from Wikimedia Commons. For more on the logarithmic spiral discerned in the nautilus shell, and reflection on how the spiral may be diagramed in relation to the golden ratio proportion, see the web page <http://www.goldennumber.net/nautilus-spiral-golden-ratio/&gt; by Gary Meisner.

Another Emmaus Perception

Disciples of Emmaus_11thCentury_CloisterOfSantoDomingoDeSilos_Burgos_Spain

 

The writer of Psalm 8 asks God, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

The Psalm answers its own question, in part by pointing back to the wisdom of Genesis. God made human beings as the crowning point of a sequential process of creation, and entrusted us with a stewardship role meant to mirror God’s own stewardship of his handiwork. But after the long history of Israel’s defection from the patterns of creation and God’s covenants, many wondered whether the Creator’s original intentions for our role in the world still remained.

We discern the most decisive answer to Psalm 8’s question, in Jesus’ resurrection. This Easter mystery has two dimensions. Clearly, the first centers on Jesus. But we don’t understand the first dimension until we perceive the significance of the second, which concerns us. Through Baptism, God raises us to a shared-life with Jesus, where we dwell in the presence of unqualified truth, pure goodness and absolute beauty.

When Jesus ‘opened the scriptures’ to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Luke tells us that, “he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures.” The Psalmist’s question was surely one of the texts Jesus connected with himself, and then with them.

Jesus’ resurrection appearances to his followers nurtured a process of recognition that began prior to his death. Earlier, his teaching and his ‘signs’ prompted some to say that God was with Jesus, acting through him in a powerful way.

But after experiencing his resurrection and through having the scriptures opened to them, they perceived something further. Instead of saying that Jesus is from God, their eyes were opened to see that Jesus is God. And whereas, before, they could say that Jesus reveals the lord God, they could now identify Jesus as the lord God. To call him lord was more than to honor him as an esteemed teacher, and more than a pointed contrast with the emperor who used the same title. By beginning to confess Jesus as Lord, they identified him with the God who had revealed himself to Moses.

As the two disciples discerned on the way to Emmaus, in the risen Jesus we meet and are brought into fellowship with the One who was, and is, and is to come.

 

The above 11th century stone carving, Disciples of Emmaus, is found in the Cloister of Santo Domingo de Silos, in Burgos, Spain. The road to Emmaus story is found in Luke 24:13-35.

Sharing Beauty

Prayer in Taize Church

 

“Intentional community” has become a familiar phrase used to describe a group of people who choose to live together in a patterned way. In making this decision, they order their common life through shared commitments rather than by default. Sometimes these fellowships model their way of life after religious communities known as monasteries, convents and friaries. But not all who live in ‘intentional community’ take vows, or describe themselves as “catholic.” In recent years, believers from protestant and evangelical backgrounds have chosen to live together in religious communities so they can share prayer and meals, as well as assets and expenses.

The ecumenical monastic order of Taize, and the L’Arche communities for people with developmental disabilities, provide compelling examples. They inspire young people to live together for a period of time, so as deliberately to evoke the apostolic community described in Acts.

At the heart of these initiatives is an observation: through Baptism, we already share membership with one another through our incorporation in the One Body. In every Eucharist, we offer all that we are and all that we have. We may not actually give our energies and our goods in ways that literally manifest these resurrection-enabled realities. But they discipline our awareness and vision, if we open ourselves to their power to transform our lives.

The beauty of the risen Lord and his Spirit permeate the community that bears his name, wherever it may be found — in an apartment in a blighted urban area or in a house on a rural farm; in a convent or friary of life-vowed missionaries, and in the ordinary households of believers everywhere.

If we already share the most valuable thing we have, our Spirit-led life in the Risen Jesus, why is it so hard to share ourselves and our things with generosity and joy? Old habits and attitudes die hard, even if they have lost their original power. This may be why Paul urges us not to set our minds on the things of this world but on things above. It is surely why we find Jesus so often telling us not to be afraid.

The beauty of the Lord, whether in the face of an icon, or in the face of a fellow believer, frees us and transforms our natural inclinations and limitations. His grace and love are abundant, and his beauty is found everywhere — even in you, even in me.

 

The photo above shows people gathered for prayer in the Church of Reconciliation at Taize (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence). The theme of this posting directly follows the theme of the prior one, “Common Beauty.” See Acts 2:42-47.

Common Beauty

Rossano_Gospels_Last_Supper

 

We have many ties with others through birth and our families. We find we are connected with one another by bonds that are not of our own making.

Like the links we have with our families into which we are born or adopted, our relationships with other members of the Body of Christ are also given to us. These relationships are a reality we find rather than one we construct, for they are not products of our acts of willing.

Though we discern the reality of these given birth and baptismal connections between us, we easily fall into patterns of thought that suggest otherwise. When asked who we are, we often answer in ways that ignore these received relationships. We forget that, especially after Baptism, who we are can never rightly be described without also referring to whom we are for.

Acts 2 describes the post-resurrection community as having four shared attributes : common worship, common practices, common goods, and common witness.* Members of this community could share “all things” because they already shared the most important thing, the beauty of new life in the risen Jesus.

The Rossano Gospels depict Jesus with the disciples at the last supper, reclining in ancient mediterranean style. The image of circular fellowship applies equally to their life together after the resurrection and ascension. They shared their lives at the table of Eucharist and at tables of fellowship, which became visible symbols of everything else they shared.

Judas is shown leaning out from the pattern of this circle, fulfilling Jesus’ prediction about the one who would dip in the bowl after him. Judas’ stance mirrors his refusal to share the common purse with which he has been entrusted, and his disinclination to share common worship and common witness to Jesus’ power among them.

Common beauty is within us and around us. Seeing each other as joined in the risen Lord is directly correlated with seeing the risen Lord in each other. By sharing union with him, and through discerning his beauty in one another, we are more likely to share everything else.

 

The image above is from the Rossano Gospels, 6th century A.D. *Robert W. Wall offers this insight.

The Beauty of Connections

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We live in a world filled with “data.” Disconnected bits of information, especially in great quantity, overwhelm our ability to see and to think. Accumulating additional data or more information does not produce knowledge. Knowledge has to do with seeing the connections between bits of information. When we see the connections, we begin to see a picture, we begin to hear a story, and we gain understanding as well as wisdom.

The unrecognized fellow traveler on the road to Emmaus asks, ‘what are all these things you are talking about?’ The answer he receives from the other two on the road amounts to giving him information. But his question was pointed toward understanding, especially in relation to ‘the big picture.’ What do ‘all these things’ have to do with what God has been up to, all along?

Here is a basic Christian truth that we find in the Emmaus Road story: Things take on meaning in relation to the risen Jesus. It happens when we see events in our lives in relation to him. It happens also with things like bread and wine as we gather at table. And it happens with people like you and me as we gather in community.

Jesus helps our perception on the road to Emmaus, and reveals something even more profound at the inn. This ‘inn,’ unlike the one where he was born, has many rooms, many mansions. When we see things like past events and the bread in relation to him, we discern more about what they are, and what they can become. When we see ourselves in relation to him, we better discern who we really are, and who we are called to be.

Prayerfully, we can look around, between things, and within. We can look for the connections. When we do, we see and discern. We see more because we see more wholly. Then we see the holy.

 

The above painting, Supper at Emmaus (1958), is by Ceri Richards, and is used by permission from the Trustees of the Methodist Modern Art Collection (UK). The penciled notation at the base of this guache painting on paper suggests that it was intended as a study for an altarpiece painting for the chapel of St. Edmund Hall (or College, at Oxford, England). The Emmaus story can be found in Luke 24:13-35.

Unexpected Beauty

He Qi The-Road-to-Emmaus

In the mid 1970’s, I had a short stint as an art student in Wisconsin. Through those studies I met the remarkable professor, Reinhold Marxhausen, who was skillful at teaching others to see. Like the more recent work of Dewitt Jones, Marxhausen embodied a calling to help others discern unexpected beauty in everyday places and people.

The vocation of the artist is to see and help make apparent the beauty that surrounds us. Theologians have the same vocation. For artists and theologians share an interest in beauty, goodness and truth, and their common divine source. A saying from the early Egyptian Christian monk, Evagrius, may help us here. He said that a theologian is someone who prays. Someone who prays acquires logos about theos. He or she gains wisdom from God and, in the process, receives a fuller vision of beauty, goodness and truth.

On Sunday, we will hear one of my favorite Gospel stories ~ the road to Emmaus. This story prompts an Eastertide question, of interest to both the artist and the theologian: Where do we find the resurrection? In what unexpected places or people do we find the risen Jesus? The inverse question is more perceptive: Where does the resurrection find us? In what quite unexpected place or part of our lives are we found by the risen Jesus?

The Gospels help us see the answer, in darkened tombs and in our darkened hearts. Resurrection finds us on our life journeys as we are joined by our often unrecognized Companion on the Way, and at table when we break bread together. He helps us see the big picture, and how “every story whispers his name.” *

Encountering and then seeing true beauty, we find our hearts burning within us.

 
The painting, The Road to Emmaus (1997), by He Qi (He Qi,© 2013), is used by licensed permission. The Emmaus story can be found in Luke 24:13-35.  * This is the evocative subtitle of the commendable book, The Jesus Storybook Bible (Zondervan).