Category Archives: art

What Does the Risen Christ Look LIke?

Many of us  learned our faith from catechisms and sermons and pictures on the windows and walls of our churches. Xavier Leon-Dufour begins his classic work (Resurrection and the Message of Easter, New York, 1971) remembering trying to reconcile images he saw on the church windows of his youth with the gospel accounts he studied later. In art Jesus often appears as a revived corpse, his body and clothing brighter than before..

The church window above, based on Matthew’s Gospel, changes the way the gospel tells the resurrection story. Similar images appear often, especially in the Easter season.  Jesus risen from the dead appears like Lazarus raised from the tomb. But resurrection is different from resuscitation.

“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow. The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men.” Mt 28,1-5

According to Matthew, an angel descends from heaven, rolls back the stone and strikes fear in the guards at the tomb. Our stained glass window depicts Jesus Christ stepping from the tomb striking fear into the guards. The angel becomes an onlooker wearing green, the color of hope. Jesus looks rather like he did before he died and he would be recognized immediately.

The gospels, however, indicate he was changed. Mary Magdalene and the others have difficulty recognizing him– he’s changed. The disciples on the way to Emmaus recognize him after he quotes the scriptures and, finally,  breaks bread with them. The disciples at the lakeshore in Galilee are not sure who is he, until they eat with him.

The Risen Lord has entered another realm of existence. He is risen.  He remains with us mysteriously.  He does not blind us with  light, as he did Paul the Apostle. He does not appear in bodily form, as he was before his death. He  comes to us risen, risen indeed. Now, we meet him in the scriptures and the “breaking of the bread.” Also, just as mysteriously, we see him in the least. “When did we see you?”  is the question raised at judgment.

Early Christian art as seen in the 4th century portrayal from catacombs below, recognizing the mystery of the Resurrection, used symbolism to represent the Risen Christ. Jesus entered a new existence in his resurrection. It’s hard for artists and for us to depict that existence.

I mentioned Xavier Leon-Dufour earlier. Here’s what he said about the Risen Jesus:

“To speak of the resurrection of Jesus is to affirm that death has been conquered in one man at least: and to say that he lives forever is boldly to locate oneself at the end of time. It is a challenge for the unbeliever to revise his idea of life: for if one man is alive forever after his death, why not should the same be so for all men at the end of time? Why should there not be after death an existence called heaven?”  In that existence “life is changed, not ended.”

Resurrection

The Journey to Jerusalem

Jesus begins to set out for Jerusalem in today’s reading at Mass from the 10th chapter of Mark’s gospel. Matthew offers a similar account in the 19th and 20th chapters of his gospel.

Jesus doesn’t go to Jerusalem alone, he invites others to go with him. It’s a journey to resurrection and life and more than a couple of days, but as they hear Jesus describe the way to Jerusalem, people react like people do,

You can’t miss human weakness in the journey stories of Mark’s and Matthew’s gospel, beginning with the Pharisees. I suppose they represent human doubt and questioning that’s always there. The disciples rebuked the women bringing their children forJesus’ blessing, and Jesus rebukes them. Be like children to make the journey, Jesus tells them.

The rich young man wants to hold on to what he has, so he goes away sad. Peter says proudly he’ s given up everything to follow Jesus, but we know how inconstant he is. The story of the brothers, James and John, is obviously a story of human ambition.

1 Hundred Guilder Print
Rembrandt Hundred Guilder Print

Matthew offers Mark’s stories in chapter 19 and 20 of his gospel. The artist Rembrandt drew a remarkable picture of the 19th and 20th chapter of Matthew called the Hundred Guilder Print.

Jesus stands at the center of Rembrandt’s work, bathed in light, his hands outstretched to the crowds before him.

Peter stands at Jesus right, close by. Other disciples, probably James and John, are next to him. Women and their children, whom the disciples told to go away, are next to them. The rich young man is also there in the crowd. Is he reconsidering?

Some of the enemies of Jesus who plotted against him and argued with him are also there, talking among themselves, but they’re still in the picture. Rembrandt even pictures the camel, back by the city gates.

Jesus sheds his light on them all. His arms are open to them all. Rembrandt has it right. Grace is more powerful than human weakness. It’s everywhere.

Building a City

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Tower of Babel. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 16th century

After the deluge, God renews a covenant with creation, and the descendants of Noah begin to fulfill God’s command “to increase and multiply and fill the earth.”

But then something else happens: human beings, desiring to be together, join in building a city. A common origin and language draws them together, not just as families or clans, but in a larger society. They look for human flourishing in a city. (Genesis 11,1-9)

Unfortunately, they overreach. They want to get their heads into the heavens and so they plan a tower into the sky. Like Adam and Eve reaching for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they want to be like gods, “presuming to do whatever they want” God says. Their tower becomes a Tower of Babel. It collapses and they’re scattered over the world, leaving their city unfinished.

It’s important to recognize that the Genesis story does not claim God’s against human beings building a city. The bible, in fact, sees the city as a place favorable for human flourishing. In the Book of Jonah, God values the great city of Nineveh. Jesus sees Jerusalem, the Holy City, cherished by the Lord, the place where he dwells. The Spirit descends on his church in the city. The Genesis story sees the city as good, but it can be destroyed by sin and human pride..

The picture at the beginning of this blog is a painting of the Tower of Babel by the 16th century Dutch artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It’s situates Babel in Antwerp, one of the key seaports of the time. Its shaky structure suggests it’s too ambitiously built. Still incomplete, it may not last. So the painter offers a warning against ambition and not caring for people, especially the needy.

It’s interesting to note that Pope Francis encourages mayors from cities to plan well. Commentators say the pope, conscious of a rising isolationism that’s affecting nations and international bodies today, sees cities to be agents for unifying peoples. They’re important places for humans to flourish. The United Nations also sees cities as key resources in the challenge that comes with climate change.

The picture at the end? You don’t have to be told. A great city. Still, its greatness will be judged, not by its big buildings or businesses, but how it encourages human flourishing.

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Noah and the Ark

Where did the story come from?

A few years ago Nova on PBS featured a program called“The Secrets of Noah’s Ark.” In early times, floods were common in the “Fertile Crescent,” the area in Mesopotamia {modern Iraq} where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the ancient city of Babylon were located. Floods, sometimes great floods, occurred, so the people had to be ready. You had to keep your boats handy, and a big boat also– you never knew..

But people then, as now, had short memories. “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.” (Matthew 24, 37-38)

I suspect some Babylonian priests then– meteorologists and story tellers of the age– came up with a flood story thousands of years before the Noah story in Genesis, to keep people on their toes – and maybe challenge some early climate change deniers too. It reinforced important advice: “ Keep your boats in shape and make sure a big boat’s around for ‘the big one.’”

Jewish priests and scribes in 6th century Babylon saw the story a perfect fit for the story of human origins they were telling their people. For them the take-away from the story was not to keep a big boat handy, but to be faithful to God like Noah and Abraham and their families. If they were faithful, God would save them from the flood and bring them  to the Promised Land.

The Nova program showed evidence from today of those big boats there “just in case.”

The story gave hope to the Jews driven from Jerusalem to exile in Babylon where, “By the rivers of Bablyon, we sat ad wept, remembering Zion.” (Psalm 137)  Christians– the pictures in the catacombs remind us (above)– saw Noah as a sign that the waters of baptism saved them from death and brought them the promise of paradise lost by Adam and Eve.

So the story of Noah and the ark is more than a myth.

Learning from Genesis


tree-of-life-2

Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si, , invites Christians to turn to the Book of Genesis to understand how they’re related to the earth.

Genesis makes clear in its first chapter that the earth, “our common home,” is God’s work. God works for 5 days to create the world; only on the 6th day does God create man, whom he gives dominion over creation– but not absolute dominion. God made this world, not us, and every created thing enjoys a distinct relationship to its creator.

The dominion we have from God is a gift and is not absolute. We’re to help, respect, understand, tend, care for creation: creation isn’t ours to do what we want with it.

The 2nd chapter of Genesis describes the creation of eden-2man. The earth is dry dust, but water wells up making a soft wet clay from the dust. God, like a potter, fashions man from the clay, breathing the breath of life into him and making him a living being.

We’re creatures of the earth, the story says.  As we’re reminded on Ash Wednesday, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

After creating man, God places him in a garden filled with all kinds of plants and trees. Two trees are singled out, the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Man is forbidden to eat from that tree.

What’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Why is it forbidden to eat its fruit?  There are different interpretations. Some interpret eating from the tree as a decision of moral autonomy. By eating its fruit, I claim a knowledge of good and evil; I say what’s right or wrong.

Not unusual to hear that today, is it? Some believe they’re in absolute control of their lives. They choose what’s right or wrong, good and evil, rejecting the limits of the human condition and the finite freedom God gives human beings.

Another interpretation sees eating from the tree as a decision to trust only in human experience and human knowledge that we gain as we grow and progress individually and as a people. Like children distancing themselves from their parents, we must be self sufficient, gaining a wisdom on our own. The danger is that human experience and human wisdom become absolute.  We distance ourselves from God.

Can we see both these approaches harmful to our environment? The first leads to a possessiveness of created things;  they belong to us alone and we can do anything we want with them.

The second way also leads to harming our environment. Pope Francis speaks of the danger of “anthropocentrism,” putting human beings at the center of everything, a trend he traces back to the beginnings of the Enlightenment in the 16th century. Trusting human knowledge and human creativity, some are convinced that science and technology alone can bring about a perfect world.

Technology isn’t enough to meet our present environmental crisis, the pope says, we humans need to change. We need to humbly accept our place in creation, as God meant it to be.

What about the tree of life in the Genesis narrative? In the garden the tree was a promise of continuing life. Once banished from the garden,  human beings face death.

tree-of-lifeWhen Christ came in the fullness of time, he brought life to the world, Christians believe. In his death on the cross, the sign of death was replaced by a sign of life. His cross is a tree of life.

Here’s Pope Francis from Laudato si:

“The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19).

It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence.[40] This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.”

Pope Francis, Laudato SI  66