Stanley Spencer

The Beauty of Responding to God

 

Luke in chapter 12 tells us that “Jesus was praying in a certain place.” The disciples surely noticed that Jesus often prayed in private. Corporate worship is public, and it engages a community in various forms of prayer and praise. But, for the disciples, Jesus modeled a form of prayer that is typically private. Luke tells us that Jesus would often “withdraw to deserted places and pray.” Mark tells us about a time when Jesus got up very early, long before daylight, to pray in a lonely place by himself. Luke also tells us how Jesus went out to a mountain and spent the whole night in prayer before calling the twelve to join him. These stories tell us that, for Jesus, prayer was a way to feed himself spiritually. And through it, he re-grounded himself in mission.

And so, having set his face toward Jerusalem, Jesus is praying by himself. Perhaps his words are like his later prayer on the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” In other words, in both living and in dying, Jesus was in the habit of saying to the Father, ‘I put my whole being into your hands.’

How fitting, then, that a disciple boldly says, “Lord, teach us to pray!” Well, who do we typically ask, to teach us things we want to learn? Of course, we ask someone who knows about the subject. Indeed, we are likely to ask someone who not only knows about the matter, but who actually lives it. On occasion, Jesus may have prayed like other rabbis. Yet the disciples noticed that he also prayed differently and, probably, more sincerely and more deeply. Luke, among the Gospels, is most clear that Jesus embodied and modeled a life of prayer, not just the occasional practice of it. Here, it’s helpful to remember what The Book of Common Prayer Catechism teaches us ~ that “prayer is responding to God.” The kind of prayer that Jesus lived and modeled was at least this, a genuine and intentional process of responding to God.

What a wonderful thing for them to ask, ‘O Lord, please teach us to pray!’ For prayer is something at which all of us are just beginners. Jesus honors their request by teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. The contemporary form in our Prayer Book is based on how Luke shares it. Jesus teaches us to speak to God directly, as Father. In this prayer, we speak with Jesus, and through Jesus, as he shares with us his own relationship with the Father. Therefore, his Father becomes “our” Father. Jesus underscores the personal nature of our new relationship with the Father, by saying, “Father, hallowed be your name.” As Moses learned in the wilderness, the holiness of God’s name is directly connected with the holiness of God’s being. Through the prayer Jesus teaches us, we begin to live into a new personal relationship with God.

 

The image above is of Stanley Spencer’s painting, Christ in the Wilderness: Driven by the Spirit. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 28, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther 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 and Resurrection

Stanley Spencer_the-resurrection-reunion-of-families-1945

Stanley Spencer’s church cemetery visitors find themselves surprised by being found! They experience being found through a resurrection encounter with those who have gone before.

The resurrection of Jesus is not usually something we go looking for. The risen Jesus comes and finds us. This is the pattern we see in so many of the stories of Jesus’s first resurrection appearances to his friends and followers. The disciples and others don’t go looking for him except at first, when they go to the tomb. And even then, they are seeking Jesus’ mortal remains rather than his risen presence. He comes and finds them, just as he finds us, often in the context of fellowship. And like them, we are always surprised.

We don’t find the resurrection just as we don’t find God. Neither God nor the risen Jesus are lost, even if we may be. And so, we are found by both, and then we find ourselves as persons who have been found. This is instructive, for it corresponds with our apprehension of, and encounter with, beauty —which we also misleadingly credit ourselves with ‘finding.’ Really, beauty finds us. For our perception and recognition of beauty depends not on a ‘power’ that we possess to pursue and attain it, but rather on our ability to receive and recognize what is, and what is given. The same is true in our apprehension of, and encounter with, the grace of the resurrection.

 

Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection – Reunion of Families, 1945.

A Strange Beauty

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An encounter with true beauty can be troubling, especially if we have settled for so much less. It may be our sensitivity to the juxtaposition of opposites, and their apparent lack of resolve. At times we hope for the triumph of good over evil, that beauty will overcome darkness, and serenity displace antagonism. But we cannot find it within ourselves to do more than hope. We cannot achieve the redemptive resolution for which we haltingly reach out our hands and hearts.

It is not an accident that the figure of Jesus recedes into the background of this painting, while those who oppose and crucify him grab our visual interest. Stanley Spencer, who adopted what he called a neo-primitive style, was far too gifted a colorist, and master of light and dark, to let that happen unawares. As Spencer has rendered him, Jesus’ skin tone and color match the wood of the cross, and also the clothing of the man with the hammer swung over his head, as well as much of the sky and of the ground below… including the tunic of Mary Magdalene, prostrate on the ground. This forms a compelling visual symbol of his Jesus’ total identification with us in his incarnation, and his complete joining with us, and with our world of tearing hurts and suffering.

In fact, it is precisely because —in Spencer’s composition and coloring— Jesus could blend in so well with the background of everyday life, that those who opposed him could literally gain the upper hand, with hammers and nails. But this is only the marvel of the incarnation of our God in Jesus, that the fullness of divinity could be so thoroughly joined to the incompleteness of humanity. As the Gospels attest, it was a joining so thorough that many did not notice or have regard for his divinity. When we do notice that thorough joining, when we come face to face with the truths it represents, we have either one or the other of two reactions. When we get close enough to see —to really see him— there are only two responses. We throw ourselves down in humility before him. Or, we seek to throw him down, to humble him before us.

These paradoxes are brought to their greatest prominence when, as he predicted, he is lifted up. His lifting up is his glorification, and the glorification of God within him. Yet his lifting up is on a cross, and in the agony of a humiliating public execution. Here we see a ‘strange beauty’ — the strange beauty of the Lord — a beauty for which museums better prepare us than do our malls. Let us “behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and seek him in his temple.” We will find him! We will find him in the “temple” he promised to raise in three days.

 

The painting above is The Crucifixion, 1958, by Stanley Spencer. This reflection is based on my homily for Good Friday, which also makes reference to Charles Wesley’s text, “Lo! He comes, with clouds descending.” Click here for a link to this homily.