Archive for the 'Advent' Category

Advent 4, Luke 1:26-38

November 25, 2011

Historical Description: 

Unlike the religious paintings of the day known for their traditionally idealized reflection of Christianity, the Italian painter Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) often chose subjects from the streets to be the characters of his artwork. In short, whereas most religious works were “cleaner” in their reflection of humanity, Caravaggio strove for a more “earthly” quality in his artwork.

The Annunciation (1608-9) represents this earthly quality very well. Caravaggio’s painting reflects the depth of the annunciation’s soul penetrating news upon Mary’s life – a young, unmarried woman has been chosen to give birth to the Son of God.

Devotional Reflection:

People often want to hear God’s call in their lives. They hope God will trumpet out some announcement about what job to take, where to live, which major to select in college. Christians are sometimes encouraged by pastors and peers to try and discern what God’s calling is for their life. Interestingly enough though, very often that discerned “calling” conveniently happens to be a positive one for the recipient. I have yet to hear someone proclaim that God has called them to poverty, or to experience pain, or wallow in loneliness. And yet, these are often the crosses God calls us to take up in this life as Christians. When we think about God’s calling in our lives we will often come up with callings that are usually beneficial for us. Sadly though, these callings are often not what God is truly calling us to be.

The Italian painter Caravaggio understood that when God calls us, that calling is rarely advantageous, or beneficial for us, or coming at the preferred time. In The Annunciation, Caravaggio reflected Mary’s calling by God to become the mother of the Christ. Mary is not portrayed in the painting as a woman who was jumping up and down that she would have the Christ, but as a woman who was silently ingesting this very sobering calling. Yes, Mary would accept this calling and yes, Mary would gladly do this calling, but that did not mean this was an easy calling. Being an unwed, pregnant, teenager is never easy in this world, especially in a Middle Eastern culture that greatly frowned upon unwed mothers. Mary was indeed called to greatness; to bear great embarrassment and shame with grace knowing that God’s calling is not always easy or pleasant.

In baptism God calls out to us. He annunciates that we are now His children, that the devil is now our enemy and that for the rest of our lives we will war against our sinful flesh and this world. God does not promise that our lives in this world will be financially bountiful or filled with the passing luxuries of this dying world. What God does promise in this world is that He will give us the priceless gift of faith in Christ and that one day we will receive the treasure of eternal life. God’s calling in this world is great and wonderful, just not in the way this world views greatness. God calls us to believe that our sins really are forgiven. God calls us to believe He cares for us no matter what. God calls us to believe that He comes in bread and wine. God calls us to believe that He whispers words to us in our hymns. God calls us to believe that even after our bones have turned to dust that we will live again. God does call us. He calls us every day to believe in the wonderful things He is doing in our lives.


Advent 3, Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

November 25, 2011

Historical Description:  

In 1966, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey commissioned Fritz Koenig to create a centerpiece for the World Trade Center Plaza. Envisioned as a symbol of world peace and completed in 1971, Koenig’s twenty-five-foot high Große Kugelkaryatide (Great Spherical Caryatid—soon nicknamed The Sphere by New Yorkers) was placed in as setting designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki to mimic the Grand Mosque of Mecca. The sculpture was damaged but not destroyed in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Temporarily relocated to New York City’s Battery Park, the battered Sphere presently serves as a memorial.

Devotional Reflection:  

For three decades, a giant, rotating sculpture called The Sphere adorned the World Trade Center plaza in New York City. Artist Fritz Koening conceptualized The Sphere as a symbol of world peace, and architect Minoru Yamasaki positioned it in a setting reminiscent of the Grand Mosque of Mecca.

Fritz Koenig's Sphere for Plaza Fountain WTC (2009)

By temporarily relocating the sculpture as a memorial in Battery Park, New Yorkers sought to reclaim and redeem its symbolism. In true indomitable American spirit, a plaque beneath the battered sculpture proclaims“It was damaged during the tragic events of September 11, 2001, but endures as an icon of hope and the indestructible spirit of this country.” With similar resolve, construction at the former World Trade Center plaza is well underway, including a tower that will be the tallest in the United States, soaring to a stately and symbolic height of 1,776 feet.

Such resilience and patriotism are inspiring, as are the stories of faith, heroism, and self-sacrifice that emerged from the smoking rubble of Ground Zero and from those who continue to defend our country around the world.  Yet the very existence of the battered Sphere is a sober reminder that world peace is unattained, that no nation is impenetrable, and that no tower is terrorist-proof.

The Sphere’s creator, lamenting the fate of his damaged masterpiece, once referred to it as a “beautiful corpse.” So too must the Creator of another, grander sphere lament the damage to His handiwork: for all its lovely vitality, this old Earth is in some sense but a “beautiful corpse.” Adam fell, and death shadowed the pristine loveliness of our planet. The post-9/11 irony of the sculpted Sphere is but one small echo of our own sphere’s increasingly urgent groaning under the curse: the earthen womb that was lovingly designed to nurture life is callously stuffed full of death.

The fissures of the Fall dominate daily headlines. No continent, country, or community escapes its devastating consequences.  Terrorists topple towers and power-glutted potentates imperil their own people. The very ground groans and shudders under the curse: earthquakes demolish entire countries, tornadoes ravage the heartland; tsunamis swirl away coastland communities.

Into this accursed cacophony, the words of Isaiah introduce a melody sweet and strong. In the midst of the dismal din, our ears strain to catch the tidings that seem too good to be true: Good news for the poor! Liberty for captives! Gladness for mourners!  

To assure us that this is no mere ethereal, will-o-wisp dream, the prophet goes on to illustrate the reality, the solidity, of the promise. What comfort, in a world where even the sturdiest of structures is vulnerable, and where emergency relief agencies barely scratch the surface of need, to read, “They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (Isaiah 61:4).

The painfully real devastations of this beautiful old corpse of an earth will be resurrected in gloriously real, staggering splendor. On the New Earth, we will never again gaze horrorstruck into a pit of smoking rubble, wondering how we can possibly restore structure and safety. Never again will we pick through the pieces of our shattered lives, seeking to salvage a semblance of meaning. Never again will we weep beside a fresh wound in the grave-gashed ground.

Our sphere will be transformed as resplendently as we ourselves, with beauty no longer shadowed by death, but exulting gloriously in the One who vanquished death forever. Mourning shall turn to dancing; ashes to beauty; devastation to exultation.       

 “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD;
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,” (Isaiah 61:10a)


Advent 1, Psalm 80:1-7

November 16, 2011

Historical Description
Stark. David Sweeney’s whole Lament series stands out for its starkness. As personal as lament might be, Sweeney’s typographic words on paper are stenciled in repetition as if practicing to make a sign for a garage sale or some such thing. Even though the word “lament” might be reserved for the deepest of hurts, Sweeney’s “Number 223” makes it seem as if my lament is just another box to be marked and stacked in the warehouse.

Devotional Reflection
Laments are dangerous things in the season of Advent—which outside the liturgical world is more often known as the season of Christmas, the season of preparing to celebrate and celebrating, the season of planning parties and attending parties. Laments, when they come during Advent, might be boxed up, marked, and stored away. No one really wants to hear your lament of Christmas blues, and so you quietly stencil the box, tape it shut, and go back to the party for appetizers and shallow conversation.

Psalm 80:1-7, the reading for the First Sunday in Advent, Year B, stops us short. There’s the psalm making the request to the warehouse: “Bring out the box marked ‘Lament.’” There’s the psalm looking past the way in which we tried to hide our lament under the cover of starkly stenciled words. There’s the psalm not letting the lament be hidden until a more convenient time. There’s the psalm causing us to see that lament is most crucial to our understanding of Advent.

Psalm 80 calls on God to act: “Restore us.” It does not let God go quietly into the Christmas celebration as if that was enough: “Save us.” It does not settle for the glow of Christmas lights, but instead pleads for God’s benediction: “Make your face shine upon us.”

Psalm 80 remains aware of the urgent wondering and the blank stare we get when we look up into the sky. “O LORD God Almighty, how long will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people?” How long until you come to save us? Even now with the knowledge of salvation through the cross and resurrection of Christ, we still wonder how long until the skies open up to reveal Jesus returning. And until He returns, we lament. We cry out. “Restore us, save us, make your face shine upon us.”

Psalm 80 invites us to bring out the box from the back shelf, gently dust it off, open up the lament, and let God have it. And then we turn to Jesus and see that He promises to return to our Advent cries and restore us. We were never meant to warehouse those laments; we were meant to take them to God who promises He will save us.