Tag Archives: prophets

22 March. Before the Cross IX: Fresh, accessible and slightly subversive.

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Bearing of the Cross

 

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ekjohnson1/25761762410/in/photostream/

My son is now 14, and thinks he’s much too grown-up for Lego. But I’ve really enjoyed these years of revisiting the world of long six-ers and square flat four-ers, finding myself far more creative now with the pieces than I ever was as a child.

This crucifixion scene is an image designed to appeal to the younger Bible student, of course, as much as to adults. The quotation from Peter’s first epistle connects the death of Jesus with our response in dying to sin and living for righteousness (covenant justice, that is, lest we lapse into moralism). It indicates that its production by EK Johnson was an act of faith and this is important to me, as it is with all Christian art.

But shouldn’t a subject as serious as this be treated with more gravitas than Lego can offer? My inner conservative complains that “Lego Jesus” just seems wrong, diminishing his lordship, maybe, or infantilising his mission.

My inner iconoclast replies that this Lego scene represents a gentle mocking of religious art – with all its trappings of patronage and power; pride; ill-gotten wealth and elitism – and not of the cross itself. Wasn’t the cross always meant to serve as a massive lance to the boil of religious pomposity?

I like this image because I believe that the gospel story should be communicated meaningfully by every possible means. Fresh, accessible and slightly subversive, a Lego representation of Jesus connects and engages with today’s culture in ways that renaissance art and stained glass simply cannot.

EK Johnson is clearly keen for us to grasp the solemnity and significance of the event he depicts. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross … by his wounds you have been healed” reads the text. The apostle Peter is alluding to Isaiah the prophet, making sense of Christ’s crucifixion through the lens of the Hebrew scriptures and the promised “suffering servant”. If we find the Lego distracting or overly provocative, this text should leave us in no doubt that this was the most profound, powerful and momentous event in all of human history. It was the day the God of Israel worked his salvation for the world; for our lives.

Lego might not give us everything we want in a crucifixion scene, but it communicates its historical truth simply and clearly. Every age in religious art has provided its own distortions and distractions, however well-intentioned the artist. We inherit notions of the “sublime” from the Romantics, for example, but it’s a misguided ideal, because it lacks humility. There is certainly humility in Lego. Simple blocks and simple figures remove much of the element of human sophistication. And with that gone, we can begin to grasp – and be overwhelmed by – the love of God demonstrated on a hill in West Asia, two thousand years ago.

Rupert Greville.

Photo credit.

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17 March: Before the Cross IV: Fulfilling the prophecies.

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This painting has been the subject of more than one family discussion over the years. But why have I included it in a series about the Crucifixion? Surely this is a Christmastide image?

Well, the man on the right is Saint Luke: see in the background the book open at his Gospel and his beast, the ox, at the small of his back. Luke was thought to have been an artist, responsible for the first icons, and a confidant of Mary, on account of the infancy stories in his Gospel. Here he is in both roles.

At home we have on the wall a framed postcard of the mother and child section of the picture. ‘I’ve seen that look on all your faces,’ my wife tells our now grown up children. It makes Jesus look truly human.

‘But that pose!’

‘That too; a moment of joy, stretching his arms and legs: he has finished drinking his mother’s milk, he’s close to mother, warm summer air playing over his skin.’ Mother and child are there for the artist, and the beholder – you and me – in all their humanity and vulnerability.

As in Luke’s story of the Presentation in the Temple, there is  a foreshadowing  here. This painting is from the studio of Rogier Van der Weyden, but produced after his death. There are other versions including the original in Boston Massachusetts; this is in Bruges at the Groeninge Museum.

Over the Channel in London’s National Gallery is another painting from Van der Weyden’s school, a Pieta.   Here we are kneeling at the foot of the Cross, with Mary and three contemporaries of Van der Weyden (The painting can be dated to mid-15th Century.) If they are invited to come and mourn with her awhile, then so are we; as witnesses we close the circle of prayer, of support for Mary and of sorrow for Jesus’ death.

The Dominican priest on the right is reading from near the end of the  Bible he holds wrapped in blue cloth, but his finger is marking an earlier passage, telling us that the death of Jesus fulfils the prophecies.

The similarity between the pose of Christ in the two images is striking: arms and legs outstretched, head turned to his mother. Intimately, her hand is on his belly in each picture. She remains his mother.

The traumas of the infancy stories in Luke and Matthew point to this moment. Now it is finished. But when Luke came to write the Gospel, and when we and the Dominican friar came to read it, we already knew this was not the end.

May we, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, walk with Jesus and know him in the breaking of bread.

WT

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2 February: The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

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The Nunc Dimittis Canticle is recited every night in the Catholic Church; in Anglican churches, such as Canterbury Cathedral, it is sung during Vespers. It is originally the Song of Simeon; the old man was overcome with joy and peace when he met the little scrap of humanity that was ‘the Salvation which you have prepared before the face of all peoples.’

That was the easy bit when I was asked to play Simeon in a mystery play at Canterbury Cathedral three years ago. My grandson was already too big for the part but the doll we borrowed did not steal the scene. I could concentrate on the Baby, the Father -and then Mary.

It is a massive shift of key as the prophetic revelation finds utterance, and yet we know it is true: a sword will pierce her heart – indeed there is a tradition of the seven sorrows of Mary. I had to come down from my great joy in an instant and look into Mary’s eyes with an overwhelming compassion that was neither mine, nor yet Simeon’s, but the Father’s.

Thirty years after the Presentation that compassion would be brought to practical life by John.

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This window from Saint Mary’s in Rye, Sussex shows Mary, almost blind with grief, following her adoptive son by the hand. She turns her back on the apple tree of temptation and stumbles trustingly towards the Vine.

The empty Cross is a point of light against the night sky: sorrow will be replaced by joy, overturning the order of Simeon’s vision. This is a John’s Gospel window. We also see the Great Bear in the stars. If a star told of his coming, this constellation points to the North Star by which we can find our way to him.

I am the way.

Anyone who wants to follow me must take up their cross daily and follow me.

 

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All Saints’ Eve – a good time to thank all of you.

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Doubtless Agnellus and Company wobble sometimes, we may not be pedalling, squeezing an accordion, helping balance a bike, wearing a funny hat and a false moustache while keeping time with the rest of the band, all at the same time. But we hope we provide something interesting, enjoyable and challenging day by day.

It is enjoyable looking out for thoughts to share. We hope that when we offer a sample  of a writer’s work that some readers feel inspired to seek out more. If we can give web links we will continue to do so.

But for today, you saints in the making,

THANK YOU FOR BEING WITH US.

And please do stick around.

Here is a thought for November and Winter from Mary Webb – about time she appeared here again!

Though winter may wear a sad-coloured garment, it is shot with bright threads of reminiscence and prophecy. Orange oak leaves, lingering seed-vessels on ash and lime, crimson blackberry trails, are recollections of past splendour. The sere and broken reeds and rushes – golden and russet – are like the piled trophies of some fairy warfare; spear and sword and bulrush-banner recall the time when conquering summer led forth his legions. There are dreams and dawnings of another summer also. The twigs that look so lifeless have minute buds on them, vivid points of colour.

Reminiscence and prophecy – that is our calling: to go back to our roots and to speak out as the Spirit moves us. Let us read and interpret the signs of the times: Laudato Si!

Mary Webb, The Spring of Joy

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October 19: from skating minister to anti-slavery campaigner: Robert Walker.

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Almost closing time at the National Gallery of Scotland, and I hadn’t seen the Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch. I could not come back across the border without paying my respects. It was all I could do to stand upright, last time I tried skating. The attendants showed us where to look, and I was not disappointed.

Yesterday afternoon I was looking for some papers my mother had lent me, when I found an article about this picture, so decided to write about it. When I went to download the picture, I changed my mind.   Robert Walker   was not just a long-serving minister and expert skater, he was an early anti-slavery campaigner, helping pave the way for William Wilberforce. And yesterday was Anti-Slavery Day.

The Church of Scotland is rightly proud of the prophetic  Robert Walker . Follow the link to find out more. This picture is an Icon of a Saint as well as being iconic in the modern sense!

Image: Public Domain from Wikipedia

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10 August, What is Theology Saying? XXI: Who is Jesus Christ?

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Our reflections on Eucharist raise a couple of questions about Jesus. What is the importance we attach to his death and the meaning of the Resurrection? And then, Jesus is shown as figuring things out about the meaning of his life, like the rest of us. He did not give us a theology of himself. He is simply there giving people his total presence, his friendship, his example and his teaching about the will of the Father and the Kingdom. We don’t have a chronology of his life, nor do we have a literal record of his words. The Gospels were written simply as proclamations of the good news of salvation, which the early Christians found through the experience of the resurrection and which they wanted to share. There was no intention to give us a biography of Jesus, which explains why so many things seem to be missing, and why the four accounts do not always agree – they are shared memories.

The basic message that the apostles preached was that they had experiences of Jesus as alive and present after his death; experiences which changed everything for them. At last, everything made sense. Jesus who had been crucified had been raised up by God, so that in him all could be raised to eternal life. Because of what they experienced they looked back to the Hebrew Scriptures in which they had grown up, and saw how everything was centring on Jesus, who somehow fulfilled the promises of all that went before.

They proclaimed that he was the Christ, the anointed and chosen one, who brought the promised kingdom in which hopes will be fulfilled. They also preached that he would come again, because they knew the messianic times had not yet been fully realised, and that they, the Church, had to strive to bring about these promises of peace, love and universal fraternity. They proclaimed Jesus as Lord, in a context in which it was always clear they were not identifying Jesus with God the Father, but relating to the Father in a uniquely special way.

AMcC

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20 July, What is Theology Saying? XX: The Eucharist 7; Presence for our presence

The Paschal Mystery is the New Covenant – not that the Old has gone [there is only one covenant]. New means greater depth of intimacy with universal outreach. Jesus takes the Law and the Prophets – Israel’s heritage – and through this loves his people into existence. By the end of his short life they were still in receiving mode, not yet deepening into giving what was received and so, as Scripture says, he loved them to the end; handing over his Spirit which has lived and a human existence to the Father to give to all willing to receive – Pentecost.

To sustain and feed them along this new way he gives himself as the bread of life; not like the feeding of the 5,000. Being with him at the Last Supper, eating the bread he broke, accepting his death is to continue his way; to come together to break bread and become sustaining food for others. The Covenant Community was set up at that supper table. This is why there is much more involved in celebrating the Eucharist than a memorial experience; it is to accept his presence through his death, to become body given and blood poured out for others – service.

The Eucharist is the mystery of God’s graciousness and our salvation. Transubstantiation is a word for something we cannot understand, something beyond the competence of human language; to claim to capture it is to nullify the challenge to attune the way we live so as to address the cry of the poor. Augustine [who used the word Transubstantiation] says we are present not to satisfy personal needs [or commandments] but to be attentive and proactive to the cry of the poor. We cannot appreciate Transubstantiation if we by-pass the challenge for personal change.

The Eucharist is the real presence, not just a memorial ritual. It is Presence there for our presence, so that what is in him can be in us. Jesus does not stand-in for us, but invites us to get involved. We cannot receive the Eucharist in passive ways – the fruit of the Eucharist is one community allowing God’s love to be felt in our world.

AMcC

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12 May: What is theology saying? VII: Scripture speaks of God’s self-revealing

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There are three important aspects to the biblical understanding of Revelation. A progressive understanding of what Revelation is about – God is becoming more and more personal in the demands he makes. These demands find their concrete definition in Jesus, who speaks clear words in a human language with ordinary signs of love and trust. It is the nature of Revelation to be progressive – with signs that become clearer and demands become more specific for us individually and all of us together.

Scripture speaks mainly of God’s self-revealing – but keeps referring back to the Word already spoken in creation – and not just Genesis, but Psalms and the Wisdom literature – Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiasticus [Ben Sira], Wisdom of Solomon – all make references to God self-revealed in Creation. The New Testament writers frequently echo this.

Prophetic interpretation – the events of history by themselves do not constitute revelation, nor does the simple narration of them – it is only by prophetic interpretation they become revealing. The prophet speaks for God, telling the meaning of events that are happening. This is why Roman or Syrian records of the Maccabean wars would not be testimony of God’s revelation to us, while the Jewish accounts do give such testimony.

This raises the question as to how people come to speak of God, how they know what to say, and how specific words and expressions become canonical – binding for the whole tradition. Revelation is a constant dialogue/conversation between God and us, and the focus is Jesus Christ. Jesus is in the world not simply to bring revelation, like a message from above. He is in the world to be Revelation. He is a happening and gives his own prophetic interpretation of himself. As a happening he is a human being totally open to all possibilities of being and love offered by God. As a prophetic interpretation he explains the nature of God as a huge welcome to all existence and becoming.

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As a happening he is fully alive among us – which makes him the first recipient of God’s self-revealing. The Gospels show him constant in prayer with the Father, growing in wisdom, admitting there were things he did not know, gradually becoming more aware of his own mission and destiny. The New Testament shows him living his life in such a way as to become more constantly aware of what being human really means, and sharing this with his followers.

Our faith confesses Jesus as Lord, uniquely Son of God, and therefore the definitive Word of God spoken in history.

AMcC

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26 February: Judgement II

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Saint Francis famously found it difficult to approach the lepers he met around Assisi. Father Daniel picks up this experience of being repelled by those we are sent to, and how easy it can be to take the comfortable option and convince ourselves we are worthy Christians. Our own judgement can be very much at fault.

The Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah, scattered throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, speak not only of one who would conquer as mighty King, but nurture as Shepherd and take-on punishment as the Suffering Servant. And here, for the first time, Jesus finally reveals Himself as the fulfilment of all of these. In fact, it is because He is all of these that His judgement is infallibly just and final.

It is fair to say that those who are the most needy, the most poor, the most worthy of our love and service, are in some way repellent to us. The homeless person smells, has dirty hands. It can be very hard to find any adequate words to offer to the person sick in hospital or nursing home. It is so much easier to come to Mass and smile and chat with those we have known for years rather than reach out to the person we have never spoken to before. And what about that person at work who doesn’t quite fit in; the member of my family who is (to all intents and purposes) the ‘black sheep’, the priest who doesn’t meet my expectations when I’d much prefer to have back a previous one(!), the person who seems to only ever offer criticism, never asking how I am. Jesus Christ has identified Himself with every single one.

And the truth of His Gospel can sting: If I have loved only those who love me already, I have no merit.

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Tonight’s the night!

Please support Sister Rose for her sleep-out in Littlehampton on Saturday 24th February to raise funds for Worthing Churches Homeless Project. Sister has a website for donations:

https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/rosearden-close1

Thank you, Maurice.

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January 16: Reflections from the Little Flowers of Saint Francis. II.

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Of Brother Bernard of Quintavalle, 2.

Saint Francis, thinking truly that Bernard was asleep, in his sleep rose up from his bed and set himself to pray, lifting up his hands and eyes unto heaven, and with exceeding great devotion and fervour said : “My God, my God.” And thus saying and sorely weeping he abode till morning, alway repeating : “ My God, my God,” and naught beside; and this Saint Francis said, while musing on and marvelling at the excellence of the divine Majesty, which deigned to stoop down to a perishing world and through his poor little Francis purposed to bring a remedy for the salvation of his soul and the souls of others.

Therefore illumined by the Holy Spirit, or the spirit of prophecy, foreseeing what great things God would do through him and his Order, and minding him of his own insufficiency and little worth, he cried unto God and besought Him that by His pity and almighty power, without the which the weakness of man may naught avail, He would supply his lack, aid and fulfil what of itself was nothing worth.

Bernard seeing, by the light of the lamp, the most devout acts of Saint Francis, and devoutly
pondering in his mind the words that he spake, was touched and inspired by the Holy Spirit to change his life; in the morning therefore he called Saint Francis and thus bespake him: “Brother Francis, I am wholly purposed in my heart to leave the world and follow thee in whatsoever thou rnayest bid me.” Hearing this, Saint Francis rejoiced in spirit, and said: “Bernard, this that thou sayest is a task so great and difficult, that thereof must we seek counsel of our Lord Jesu Christ, and beseech Him that He be pleased to show us His will therein, and teach us how we may bring it to pass: wherefore let us go together to the bishop’s house, wherein is a good priest, and let us let say the Mass; then let us continue in prayer until Tierce, beseeching God that in thrice opening of the missal He may reveal to us the path it is His will we should elect.” Bernard made answer that this pleased him right well.

Photo from the Missionaries of Africa. Here is a bishop of today, teaching from the Missal. Good grant Wisdom to all teachers and preachers!

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