Archive for the 'Easter' Category

Easter Sunday, Mark 16:1-8

March 18, 2012

Historical Description:

If The Athenaeum Portrait (c. 1796) by Gilbert Stuart looks familiar, it might have something to do with the fact that you’ve seen a reproduction of it almost every day of your adult life.  A slightly revamped version of it graces the front of every American one-dollar bill.

The painting was never finished in Stuart’s lifetime. First-time viewers naturally conjure up theories about what happened to keep the artist from putting the final strokes on this canvas: maybe the artist died, or perhaps there was a paint shortage in 1796, and the artist simply ran out of his medium, thus leaving us in the lurch about what exactly the President was wearing that day and what symbolic object he may have held in his hand. The truth is a bit stranger than most of the theories.  To the ire of many, Stuart did not want the portrait finished.  Not only could an unfinished portrait stay in his possession, it could also be used to make dozens of replicas (around seventy before he died) in which the details, such as Washington’s aforementioned attire, could be endlessly reimagined.

Devotional Reflection:

The Athenaeum Portrait has one important feature in common with our Gospel text for today: both give the unmistakable impression of incompleteness.  Granted, in the case of our Gospel lesson the essential scenery is all there: the crucified is proclaimed as risen, the tomb is there sans body, the angel is heralding and witnesses have been told to pass the word on.  But just as the three-quarters of vacant canvas around Washington’s head bespeaks an unfinished masterpiece, so too does Mark’s famous, perhaps infamous, ending, “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Certain scholars have their conspiracy theories.  Perhaps we lost a page.  Maybe Mark wasn’t sure how to bring it to a close.  Maybe it was those meddling scribes we keep hearing about from that Ehrman fellow.  No doubt, such theories fail to give credit where credit is due. Those who have tracked with the kerygmatic artistry of this evangelical lion from chapter one onward would offer a more satisfying response to the seemingly unresolved coda:  this is not some cruel twist of history or a bumbling author; this is ancient ellipsis.

Questions abound in the space where a period should be . . . Did the women talk about what had so unnerved and disoriented them about the empty tomb?  Did they conquer the fear and trembling to do as the angel commanded?  If so, how did the twelve receive it?  In what ways were they, in turn, transformed (or upended) by the awesome news that Jesus Christ, crucified, is risen – that resurrection happened?

Obviously, we are able to answer many such questions from other sources.  But maybe, just maybe, Mark purposely left this part of his canvas empty – a standing invitation to imagine for ourselves the implications and affects of hearing the Easter news.  Perhaps we have here an invitation to ask how we might have responded, should that first proclamation have reached our ears; an invitation to feel our own heads spinning as we hurry away from the tomb.

Above all, maybe Mark’s Gospel is left intentionally unfinished because the story isn’t over.  The empty stretch of canvas stares back at us as a reminder that until Christ comes to put the full stop on this history that began, “In the beginning,” the story continues to and beyond – soli Deo gloria – our stories.  That empty space is a place to find ourselves, taken up in Word and Sacrament into the wondrous, strange, world-transforming portrayal of the one “who was handed over for our transgression and raised for our justification.”

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed…

Easter 2, Psalm 148

January 22, 2012

Historical Description:  Café Terrace at Night was painted by Vincent Van Gogh in 1888, and is a depiction of a still standing café in Arles, France. The painting has two contrasting sections that accent each other. To the mid-left is the yellow glow of the lantern that encompasses each character on the terrace of the café. Surrounding this is the dark blue of the night, fully accented by the handful of small stars in the sky. This is the first of Van Gogh’s star background paintings, with the next few paintings, Starry Night Over the Rhone and Starry Night featuring more of the stars and less of the buildings.

Devotional Reflection:  In this busy Easter season, I like to get tasks finished. I am often found with a to-do list in front of me. I like to squeeze what I want to do in between what I need to do. To me, this is responsible living, getting as many tasks crossed off of the list as possible. Being able to look down at this list is how I gauge a success filled day. This is also my biggest distraction to what truly matters in each day.

There is always one piece of art that seems to grab my attention. Whenever I glance at Café Terrace at Night by Vincent Van Gogh, I seem to find a sense of solace in these busy night people. I wonder what it is that keeps them awake, what task they are focused on, in desperate need to accomplish before they can put their list down and go to sleep. I enjoy the warm glow of the illuminating light of man-made lanterns, the pleasant conversations, the warm drinks, the stretching a day as long as possible on this starry night.

Perhaps I am not alone in attempting to draw the most out of life. God knows of this temptation, and for this reason he gives us the 149th Psalm. The Psalmist addresses people like us, who are stuck on things of this world, and asks us to take a moment and see something else, something greater. “Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights…Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars…Let them praise the name of the LORD! For he commanded and they were created.  And he established them forever and ever; he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.”

As we hear these words, we cannot help but go back to this café terrace. We once gazed down at the night people, but now we are drawn to gaze upon the piercing stars. These stars cannot help but give praise to the creator. This praise was the purpose of their creation. This praise is the purpose for our creation. Unfortunately, this is not something that is to be found in our daily lists or nighttime episodes of rushing. One day, these lists and accomplishments will all pass, just like the café in the painting will pass away, but the words and the will of the Lord will never pass away.

Tonight, look up at the sky, remember the words of the Psalmist, recall what truly matters each day, and “Praise the Lord from the heavens”, the same Lord who conquered death that we could live an eternal life of praise for him!

Ascension, Luke 24:44-53

December 1, 2011

Historical Description:  

Benvenuto Tisi, widely known as Garofolo, was instrumental in spreading the High Renaissance style to his town of Ferrara. This painting, “The Ascension of Christ,” bears elements of Garofolo’s Ferrarese School and the Raphaelesque style the school emulated. In particular, Garofolo’s depiction here of Christ’s Ascension is strikingly similar to Raphael’s depiction of the Transfiguration.

This painting comes from a nave chapel in the church of Santa Maria in Vado in Ferrara. It was sent to Rome when the Duchy of Ferrara was delegated to the domains of the papacy in 1598. The piece now resides in Rome at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica (National Gallery of Ancient Art).

Devotional Reflection:  

This is a brilliant depiction of Christ’s Ascension for one reason: everybody is pointing in a different direction. If the images on the canvas were to come alive and we could hear what each character in this painting had to say, it might sound like: “Hey! Let’s go this way! There are people over there!” “No! Jesus said go to Jerusalem. Let’s go this way!” “Look, I see two angels! Wait a minute, are those angels yelling at us?” And, all the while, Jesus is ascending to heaven while pointing up saying, “Hey guys! Pay attention. I am going this way!”

This painting captures the confusion and fear that the disciples experienced with Christ’s Ascension. They frantically pointed in every direction, speculating what their next move should be. They pointed up to heaven, excitedly recounting the miraculous thing they just saw. They pointed to the left, wanting to tell everyone what they just saw. They pointed to the right, toward Jerusalem hopeful for the gift of the Holy Spirit. And they pointed down their feet, fearfully and anxiously wondering where their sandals would take them as they live out their calling as witnesses.  

That question — now what? — has not only been asked by the disciples. There are countless times in our lives when we nervously point in every direction, fearfully and audibly wondering: now what?

We do not have to go very far back in the headlines to find an instance when a whole town was left fearfully and anxiously pointing in every direction. Not long ago, a tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri, leaving thousands of people frantically pointing in every direction. Before that it was a Tsunami in Japan. Before that it was an earthquake in Haiti. And, even closer to home, anxiety and fear are brought on by cancer, divorce, anger, debt; these events leave us nervously pointing up, down, left, and right, wondering what to do and where to turn.

At His Ascension, Christ was confirmed wholly and undeniably as the Lord of all Creation. He rules over all. Now Christ commands the earth to rotate and He commands the stars to streak across the nighttime sky. He commands the winds and the waves to blow and He commands them to cease. Christ commands the flowers to open their petals with the rising sun and He commands them to close up as the sky grows dim. Christ commands your heart to pump blood and He commands your lungs to take in oxygen. He commands my life and He commands your life.

We have doubts and fears. We have cancers and debts and tornados, dissension in the workplace and at home. More than that, we lay claim to the ascended and triumphant Lord of the entire universe.

Christ is in command of the wind and the waves of your life. When your mind is cluttered with ten thousand doubts and fears and questions — pause — and know that the Lord of the universe is in control. From His throne of majesty, from the pinnacle of God’s Kingdom, Christ lovingly rules the lives of His people!

We can as His baptized children cast our anxieties onto Him. We do not need to point frantically in every direction wondering which way to turn. We are God’s people and we do not need to do that. Rather, we are able to take a deep breath and calmly point heavenward and, joining with the disciples and all of God’s people, say “The Lord of the Universe Rules My Life!”   

Easter 4, John 10:11-18

December 1, 2011

Historical Description:

Sunk below the streets of Rome are subterranean cemeteries called catacombs. As pedestrians traverse the famous Via Appia, they unknowingly step over early Christian burial crypts. This painting of Jesus as the Good Shepherd adorns the walls of one of those catacombs—The Crypt of Lucina.

Thought to be from the 2nd Century, this painting is among the more famous depictions of the Good Shepherd. Though a catacomb fresco can be somewhat foreign to contemporary Christians, a modern parallel can be seen in similar images placed on our gravestones (cross, ichthus fish, praying hands). Cast in this light, the underground depiction of the Good Shepherd serves the same purpose as our gravestone images: to comfort God’s people in the face of death. 

Devotional Reflection:

Sheep are very simple creatures. You could say that sheep are a good reason to deny Darwinism; they simply are not the fittest of species and their survival all these centuries is enigmatic. Sheep are not the pride of the animal kingdom and they are not intellectual giants; they do well when food and water is placed clearly before them. In fact, sheep are such non-extraordinary animals that counting them puts us to sleep.

Still, despite being a bleating banality, the earliest Christ followers loved to think of themselves as being sheep of the Good Shepherd. As evidenced by the Good Shepherd fresco in the Crypt on Lucina, the image of the Good Shepherd was a source of comfort—especially in death—for the earliest Christians. These were people who spent a lifetime herding sheep. They knew this less-than-extraordinary animal well. They knew the mental and physical limitations of the sheep they tended. Nevertheless, they loved the words of John 10; they longed to be called sheep of the Good Shepherd.

Whether we admit it or not, we too are like sheep. From the dawn of creation, we have always been sheep. It began when, like a lost sheep, Adam followed Eve off a cliff into sin and death. Then Cain followed his own sinful instincts off a cliff that ended in murdering his brother. Joseph’s brothers followed their self-doubts off a cliff that ended in their brother’s enslavement. The entire city of Nineveh, like a herd of sheep, were lost, not knowing their right from left. This sheep-like streak in all of humanity—the sheephood of all humanity—has been passed down from man’s fall.

As a result, we are blinded by sin and penned in by our desires, lusts, greed, anger, and addictions. We are lost. We do not know our right hand from our left. We run into the same sins again and again. We are sheep in need of a shepherd.

Nevertheless, take heart! We are not just sheep; we are Christ’s sheep and He is our shepherd. He is the good shepherd that leads us beside still waters. Christ is the one who restores our soul. Christ is the one who walks with us in the valley of the shadow of death. We are more than just sheep—we are His Sheep!

He knows us by name and He will call us by name to be with Him. In the valley of the shadow of death, the Good Shepherd does not need a name etched on a gravestone in order to call His sheep home; on the last day the Good Shepherd will call His sheep, one-by-one, from their earthen vaults to be with Him.

So it is that we rejoice knowing the sound of our Good Shepherd’s voice. If tomorrow we were to stray from our shepherd, He would seek us out; He would leave the others to bring back just one of His lost sheep.

And as we look forward to the day when the Good Shepherd will call us to be with Him, we can also look backward; we look back knowing that we are not the only ones who have rejoiced in the Good Shepherd. This painting of the Good Shepherd from over seventeen hundred years ago reminds us: Christ has been leading His sheep for millennia. He is not just the shepherd for you and for me. He is not just the shepherd for a few hundred or thousand sheep. He is the Good Shepherd for all of God’s sheep for all time. He is the Good Shepherd now and He has always been the Good Shepherd.

Easter 6, John 15:9-17

December 1, 2011

Historical Description:

Very often our world loves to hear themes of human reconciliation.  Reconciliation among the races is a very popular artistic motif, with visuals encompassing various shades of colors to represent various races.  Here, however, one has a different take on the world’s theme.  This unnamed banner could hang in any congregation.  Its design is simple.  Some might even dismiss it as pedestrian, as not true “art.”  But this simple banner made of common materials reminds us of the love of God.  A love as common as a carpenter, who takes the materials of our flesh and a builds a community of love within this world.  A love as simple as the daily things you do for one another.  In this banner, notice how the races don’t take centrality, the cross does.  The cross, with a discarded crown of thorns on top of it, becomes the rallying point for all people to look upon and remember exactly how they are to love one another – through Christ’s sacrifice.

Devotional Reflection:

Love one another as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”  John 15:13 (ESV)

Peter denied him.

Thomas doubted him.

Nicodemus questioned him.

A rich man walked away from him.

Sinners flocked to him.

Babies were held by him.

Mourning women followed him.

Soldiers crucified him.

And yet . . . Jesus died for all of them.

It is amazing how many people Jesus met during His earthly ministry.  He met people who loved Him, and some who hated Him.  He met people who admired Him, and others who were jealous of Him.  But whomever Jesus met, He was willing to die for them.  He laid down His life so that anyone and everyone might have the opportunity to become enwrapped within the sacrifice of His great love for us.

Jesus told his followers that they were to love one another in the same way that Jesus loved them.  Western styles of romantic love flower and fade quickly.  They flash hot like a firework and dim just as fast.  But the type of love Jesus describes is long lasting.  It immediately implies longevity, endurance and serving others.   This is the type of love that motivates a husband to lay down not only his physical life for his wife, but to spend all the years of his life sacrificing for her.  Sacrificial love is what motivates a mother to sacrifice her cherished sleep for a crying infant at 2 am who needs no one other than “mommy.”  The love Christ showed us on the cross can allow us to sacrifice our will to always be “right” in an argument (maturity does come at a cost).  Christ’s sacrificial love teaches us to be patient with others and forgiving of their sins in the same way Christ forgives our sins.  We truly can love one another with the sacrificial love Christ loved us.  After all, as Christians, how else could we possibly love one another?

Easter 2, John 20:19-31

November 16, 2011

Historical Description:

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (c. 1601-1602) is by artist Michelangelo Merisi del Caravaggio (1571-1610). Caravaggio was a hot-blooded and self-destructive individual whose bad temper was constantly getting him into trouble. However, he endlessly read the Bible and had a desire to realistically depict Biblical events. For this reason his art broke away from the classical world of a perfect humanity, and focused on the realism of human weakness.

This realism comes through very powerfully in his painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.In the background are two of the disciples watching with rapt attention. In the foreground are Jesus and Thomas. Jesus’ hand is guiding Thomas’ wrist into his side. Thomas’ eyes widen with shock, watching his own finger enter the scar formed by a fatal spear only three days ago. Thomas gets to see and feel, without a doubt, Jesus is the risen Lord. But if one looks at Jesus’ eyes, one sees he is the only one in the painting not staring at his wound. Instead, he is focused on grasping Thomas’ wrist, guiding it into his side, and bringing Thomas to belief.

Devotional Reflection:

Focus on the disciples’ eyes in Caravaggio’s painting ‘Doubting Thomas.’ Two of the disciples’ brows are furrowed in concentration as they stare at this scarred spectacle. Thomas’ eyebrows look like they’re about to his the ceiling, as his eyes widen with shock, amazement, and surprise, watching his own finger enter the scar formed by a fatal spear only three days ago. All eyes in the painting are fixed on this miraculous sight.

Or are they? There are three disciples in the painting and three pairs of eyes fixed on Jesus’ side. But there is a fourth pair of eyes, and those are Jesus’ own eyes. Where is Jesus looking? Is he looking down at his side, smirking with smug satisfaction that he has finally proven this know-it-all to be wrong and shown without a doubt he is alive? No. Jesus’ eyes are fixed on his own hand, which is fastened around Thomas’ wrist, guiding his hand to his side. Jesus’ attention is entirely focused on bringing Thomas from doubt to discernment, from unbelief to belief, from a lack of faith to an abundance of faith. Jesus has risen from the dead, but his work is not over. Now he continues his saving mission, to bring faith into the world. Caravaggio’s painting shows a savior who won’t give up on sinners, who won’t be put off by skeptics, who won’t strop trying even when someone says ‘I will never believe!’, who won’t quit until he hears the words ‘My Lord and my God!’

Every week at church, God is reaching out with his hands and giving you faith. He reaches out through his Word and through the Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He reaches out through things you can hear, taste, and touch. The word creates faith in those who hear or read it. After the Lord’s Supper we pray, ‘Now may the true body and true blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you in the true faith until life everlasting.’ All the way through this service, Christ reaches out with his raw imprinted palms to beckon and rescue you from doubt, as you sing in the hymn ‘These Things Did Thomas Count As Real‘ (LSB 472).

More than that, Christ reaches out through you to beckon your friends and family from doubt.

What does this look like, if say for example you have your unbeliever relative over for a holiday dinner? A knockdown drag-out vicious debate that runs from the time your unbelieving relative enters the house until the short while later when they leave in a hurry? No. Here’s what it looks like: The meal with fmaily is peaceful and friendly. After the meal, you ask your relative to come with you off to a quiet place, and there, you tell them about your concern for their salvation. You tell them about the comfort you have in your life because of Jesus. All the while, you are keeping all of your attention focsued on bringing your unbelieving relative from doubt to faith.