Archive for the 'Epiphany' Category

Transfiguration of Our Lord, Mark 9:2-9

February 13, 2012

Historical Description:  

Jeremy Cowart is a designer and professional photographer from Nashville, Tennessee.  Recently relocated to Los Angeles, California Jeremy is a Christian professional who uses his platform as a celebrity photographer to engage in the creation of social art.  He has worked to bring attention to those without a voice throughout Africa as well as in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake there.

In this composition, Jeremy captured two young people from Kiev, Ukraine standing in front of a wall mural at the entrance to St. Michael’s Church and Monastery.  It depicts the glories of the heavenly host as standing in sharp contrast to the two very modern (post-modern?) young Ukrainians who look otherwise occupied and very much less than impressed.  Although the Transfiguration is a text that brings attention to Christ’s heavenly glory, I do not know of a better composition for visually juxtaposing the glories of the heavenly which, though always with us, seems somehow to leave Christians today asking bizarre questions about what is “relevant” in our message and proclamation to a modern world that seems equally otherwise occupied and less than impressed.

Devotional Reflection:

The whole scene in this photograph reminds me of the tension felt in John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter” where, in reference to Christ’s glorious resurrection, Updike performs the tension between modern skepticism and the faith encouraged by the gospels when he writes of “a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages.”

In this photograph by professional photographer Jeremy Cowart we see an entire wall mural that stands at the entrance of the Church and Monastery of St. Michael’s in Kiev, Ukraine.  And the tension in the photo’s composition is palpable.  There are two young people, a man and a woman, who could serve as Ukraine’s new Adam and Eve emerging out of years of Soviet oppression, but also having to leave the garden of Eastern Orthodox belief (because many leaders in the Orthodox Church colluded with the Soviets) in order to take their place in the modern world.  Behind them stands their history as a Christian nation, perhaps now nothing more than “a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages.”  And at the entrance to a golden-domed church and monastery, the division between Church and World couldn’t be more strongly felt.

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ Transfiguration fills Peter, James, and John with awe-filled fear.  Peter, speaking for the group, says: “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.  Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Mark 9:5)  The desire to remain in the presence of the holy is a desire felt by many modern day disciples of Christ.  There at the entrance to a glorious house (tent) constructed as a monument to the holy, monks and priests in Kiev remain within while the modern Ukraine marches on outside, otherwise occupied and seemingly unimpressed by living in such close proximity to an expression of the holy.

Jesus’ transfiguration, however, blurs the lines between heaven and earth; the holy and the secular.  In his transfiguration Jesus makes manifest his heavenly glory that is always present, yet hidden most of the time.  In this fitting finale to the season of Epiphany Jesus shows forth his glory to three of his disciples.  The only fitting response is attested to by the Father who says “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”  And the temptation to remain on the mountaintop in the presence of this divine glory is exposed for what it is- a temptation.  The only response appropriate for disciples of Jesus is to listen to his word that gives life.  The only action appropriate for disciples of Jesus is to then descend the mountain back into the World with a message of heavenly glory that is not relevant to the World as it is, but is relevant to the resurrection that would follow.  That heavenly glory is also our future.  It is the future of those two Ukrainian young people.  The resurrection of their nation is nothing in comparison to the resurrection of all flesh that is coming.


Baptism of Our Lord, Romans 6:1-11

January 19, 2012

Historical Description:   Winslow Homer (1836-1910), born in Boston, began his career by illustrating popular periodicals, including Harper’s Weekly.  His early experience sent him to cover the Civil War in 1862.  After the war, he spent ten months in France where the Realism movement inspired him to capture rural subjects.  Homer’s last significant influence came from his time spent in a small English fishing village on the North Sea coast.  There the rugged, dramatic climate evoked an almost equal admiration for human bravery and innovation.

In The Life Line, Homer captures a coast guardsman rescuing an unconscious woman with the help of a breeches buoy.  He highlights realism, heroics, and human ingenuity.  In the original sketch of this oil painting, Homer does not conceal the identity of the coast guardsman.  He adds the scarf in the final rendition in order to emphasize, not only the victim, but also what he considers the true hero—the breeches buoy life line.

Devotional Reflection:  Survivors of near-death experiences often recall seeing their entire lives flash before their eyes.  Their lives are changed forever in an instant.  Death’s cold, dark reality has a way of reshaping the perspective of all who tarry too close.

Winslow Homer grants us a glimpse into what surely seems a near-death experience.  The woman appears unconscious, though her situation may be even more dire.  She may be approaching death’s door; knocking just as incessantly as the waves crashing around her.  She may already have passed death’s threshold.  If so, only a timely rescue can bring her back.  But no matter the extent of her peril, hope looms large in the faceless man who has secured her in his arms.  Risking death himself to save her, we look on in hopeful anticipation that cold, dark death will not claim them this day.

In our text from Romans 6, Paul describes an experience with death.  In fact, he describes the experience of all who have passed through the treacherous waters of Baptism.  Of course when we look at the Baptismal font with its still, calm waters it fills none of us with fear or trepidation.  But it could.  It should.  It should because, as Paul asserts, those waters are where we knocked on death’s door.  “All of us who have been baptized in Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” (v. 3).  We crossed over.  We went under.  In those waters we drowned and experienced death with Christ.  As each person is brought to the baptismal waters, we can catch a glimpse of a moment—the moment—when death rages around them.  Death takes them.

We don’t know how the woman in Homer’s painting arrived in her predicament, dangling limply over the whitecaps, swinging aggressively between death and the hope of life.  I suppose she may have slipped and fallen overboard the ship.  She may have been lured into the waters by a friend’s tempting dare and lost herself under the weight of the waves.  Whatever the reason, accidental or incited, she is now limp and cold, lifeless and weak.

Paul reminds us of the reason for our predicament.  We all share in the slip of the first man and woman.  Adam and Eve’s plunge into darkness brought the promise of death.  We can’t avoid it—the waters loom too large and the depths are far too deep.  We may try to swim for a while but to no avail.  We can’t breathe.  Our eyes sting with tears.  Our muscles fatigue.  Light and life seem only a distant memory.  In the end, we sink into death’s dark pit.

But in that pit, Paul proclaims the presence of Jesus.  Not faceless.  Not shrouded in anonymity. Jesus is there.  He secures us in His arms—our hope looms.  “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him” (v.8).  We rise from the depths and return to life.  We breathe freely and richly in the hope of the resurrection of all who die with Christ.

An experience with death has a way of reshaping perspectives—shifting priorities.  Whatever led to the young woman’s fall, I cannot imagine she will be quick to do it again.  Her view of life and death and the dangers they contain will affect her every step.  She will be wary to let herself fall again.  So too with those who have passed from death to life in the Savior’s arms, rescued and claimed by God’s Son Himself.  “The one who has died has been set free from sin” (v. 7).  We know the place where sin leads us.  We’ve ventured through those hostile waters.  Thanks be to God Jesus was there.  Thanks be to God Jesus continues to carry us into life everlasting.

Epiphany 6, Mark 1:40-45

January 19, 2012

Historical Description:   Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), a Dutchman born in Leiden, painted prolifically during the Dutch Golden Age.  He studied under the principal painter in Amsterdam, Pieter Lastman, who exposed him to the styles of naturalism, drama, and extreme tenebrism.  He first gained fame for his depictions of Biblical and historical scenes, but later received recognition by his prolific portrait painting. Rembrandt fell into financial ruin late in life.

Rembrandt began painting landscapes in the late 1630s, but incorporated dramatic themes instead of contemplative, tranquil settings.  Landscape paintings like Landscape with a Coach received less attention compared to Rembrandt’s evocative Biblical scenes, but capture a similar dynamic atmosphere.

Devotional Reflection:  When I first looked at Rembrandt’s painting Landscape with a Coach, the light drew my eyes to the city below.  I longed to venture down the shadowed hill from whence my view is cast and break forth into the beaming city streets, surely bursting with life.    My feet are set in a desolate place where clouds hover, shadows lengthen, travelers trudge along the path, and the grass scarcely recalls its shade of green. Out of the shadow, into the light.  That is where my eyes are drawn—down to the city of light.  But yet I remain standing in the dark with only a flicker of hope in my heart.

The leper in Mark’s account stands at the outskirts of a village in Galilee. He is outcast, sitting by himself, dejected, away from life itself.  An onlooker to what he may once have taken for granted but now has only a flicker of hope to return.  One who dwells in the shadow.  Alone.

But then comes Jesus.  I can picture the light far down the path moving along with Him as He comes up the hill.  Can it really be?  The Light enters into the darkness.  Hope begins to flicker within the leper’s breast—he runs to Jesus and calls out, “If You will, You can make me clean!”  And He does.  He reaches into the shadow and the leper is never the same.  But neither is Jesus.

You see, Rembrandt’s painting is a glimpse of both a before and an after.  First it offers the perspective of the leper whom society has cast out into the darkness.  Jesus heals him and now he can reenter the city of light.  But then our text records what happened to Jesus.  The man, though told not to tell anyone, could obviously not keep such a transformation to himself.  He tells everyone!  Consequently, “Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places….”  There you see Him, outcast, sitting by Himself, dejected, away from life itself.  One who dwells in the shadow.  Alone.

This is what happens when the Kingdom of Light breaks into the darkness.  The deaf hear, the blind see, the lepers are made clean.  The downcast are lifted up, the guilty are cleared, the lost are found.  The wounded are made whole.  The shamed receive dignity.  The slaves are set free.

But because He brings forth this light, Jesus finds Himself atop a hill cloaked in shadow, nailed to a cross.  His eyes are drawn down to the city below.  Dark clouds press in.  Even the grass scarcely recalls its shade of green.  His Light, His Life, goes out.

But the darkness did not overcome Him.  Instead the clouds peel away with the rising sun.  Christ’s resurrection proved that death’s power is but a shadow that will fully fade away when He returns in glory.  The Kingdom of Light, starting as a small flicker, continues to grow and break into the darkness of the world.  Wherever you stand, no matter how gloomy your view or how small your hope’s light, Christ approaches you and promises an exchange.  He’ll take your darkness.  He’ll give you a new life.  He’ll bring you into the City of Light.

Epiphany 2, John 1:43-51

January 7, 2012

Historical Description:  Matthew Rosebrock, a graduate of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (MDiv) is a visual artist and theologian pursuing graduate study in Theology and Visual Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary under William Dyrness.  He has a wonderful blog entitled “Eyes of Faith” where he offers visual art and theological reflections for the lectionary readings.  We are appreciative that in the midst of his own work he was able to offer this contribution to this site.

Devotional Reflection:  This text is one of those moments early in John’s Gospel account where Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is being foregrounded for the hearers of this text. Indeed, these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:31). As Nathanael is amazed at Jesus’ knowledge of his presence under the fig tree, Jesus redirects him beyond this foreknowledge to a much greater substance for faith. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

This last verse of our pericope is the focus of this drawing. Jesus’ words immediately remind us of Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28:10-31 where he saw a ladder (or staircase) coming down from heaven with angels ascending and descending upon it. He comes to name this place Bethel, which means, “house of God.” It was a place where heaven touches earth, where God presence is among His people. Therefore, when Jesus now speaks of the Son of Man being this ladder or staircase, he is equating himself with the place where heaven and earth meet. However, as the story of salvation unfolds, it will not happen in a way that anyone expected. It will happen when he is lifted up, not on a great royal throne, but on a cross (cf. 3:13-15).

This drawing is meant to bring these two images Jacob’s ladder and Jesus’ cross together by way of perspective. So as to show the heavens being opened up, the Son of God on the cross seen from below is the locus where heaven and earth meet. Only by given eyes to see by His Word, can we see this moment on the cross as the place where God comes to visit his people and offer to them life and salvation. It is not the way that the world or Nathanael would have expected, but it is the only way to the Father. An unexpected result of this drawing was the imposing way in which the cross takes over the scene. In this way, there is no room for a way to the Father except by way of the Son and His cross. In this way, an important caveat can be made: A disembodied escape into heaven and fantastical thoughts of foreknowledge run the risk of missing the point of this reading. So we are directed once again to see that Jesus is the place where heaven and earth meet, the Word made flesh.

Baptism of Our Lord, Mark 1:4-11

November 29, 2011

Historical Description:

The artist is the remarkably talented but publicly obscure Anne Tinetti. She also happens to be my wife.”Kamikaze” was painted in 2004, as she wrestled with the nature of the Christian life as presented by the Scriptures. The artist confesses, however, that this was an instance of the original intention being surpassed (happily) by the final product.

Devotional Reflection:

The peaceful dove, alighting on the Prince of Peace below, with wispy wings and a whimsical descent: this is the familiar depiction of the Holy Spirit. That picture of the Spirit corresponds to a certain understanding of his work, that he is the “feel-good” person of the Trinity, bringing about the abundant life in those he indwells. In St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, however, the dove is there and his descent–but his work is not so much peace, as the sword. He offers the familiar image of the Holy Spirit, but with an unfamiliar twist.

Anne Tinetti’s painting “Kamikaze” invites us into deeper reflection upon Mark’s depiction. There is that dove, but his descent looks less like the gentle fall of a leaf and more like the nosedive of a missile. The Spirit plummets with a pointed aim. He has a mission.

Then there are the colors: cool blues give way to hot reds, with flames like fingers reaching upward. We expect to see movement from heaven to earth, life to life, as countless paintings of Jesus’ baptism have shown. But this dove’s plunge from celestial hues to less than heavenly ones suggests that may be too superficial a scene.

Finally the jarring word, broken across the painting: “kamikaze.” It evokes a pilot with a one-way ticket down. This dove has a mission, all right, but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with abundant life. This painting gives a different perspective on the peaceful dove, to say the least.

And likewise St. Mark. The heavens don’t merely swing open, like the door of a birdcage; they are torn, rent asunder like some heavenly curtain, for the Spirit to come through. And after descending upon Jesus, we are told that the Spirit casts him out into the wilderness–the way Jesus will later cast out all manner of evil spirits.

This is not a Spirit who merely stirs up good feelings in those he indwells. This is the Holy Spirit, who imbues Jesus with a mission: a non-transferable ticket down. Throughout His ministry, our Lord moves inexorably from the heavenly heights down: incarnate in our very flesh; down, obedient unto death; down, down, to cast us all out, hell-bound, from the clutches of those fiery fingers. And he has succeeded.

This is the Jesus into whom you have been baptized: the One who came down for your salvation; whose ticket to the grave was not one-way, but round trip, from death and back. His resurrection is now yours. And so also His Spirit: not the one who would just give you warm Jesus-fuzzies, but the Holy Spirit who has given you a mission, who compels you constantly to lay down your life on behalf of your neighbor.

Epiphany 3, Mark 1:14-20

November 29, 2011

Historical Background:

Diego Quispe Tito, a Peruvian painter, created a series of paintings, Signs of the Zodiac.  This series was based on Flemish engravings by Adriaen Collaert that joined each sign of the zodiac to an event in the life of Christ.  By recreating this series for display in Peru, Tito invites the viewer to worship Christ and his work instead of astrological powers.  In this painting for Pisces, a water sign, one sees a radically expansive vision of daily life over which the stars were thought to have influence.  There in the corner of the painting, however, Christ, the true Morning Star, does his work.  He enters into the daily life of Peter and Andrew and transforms it, bidding them to come and enter the kingdom of God.  This painting captures the way in which Christ enters into daily life and changes it, for him, for us, for ever.

Devotional Reflection:

What if the gospel reading for this Sunday went something like this . . .

“Jesus saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.  And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’  Then Peter responded, ‘Just a minute Lord, let me go ahead and drag these nets back onto the shore before we go.  We’ll fold up the nets and I’ll get a small boy to carry them back to my house.  I’ll also make sure he tells my family where we’re headed.  Do you know when we might be back, I don’t want to be too late for supper or the wife will worry?  Don’t worry though, this will just take a minute or two and then we can get on our way.’  So Jesus folded his hands together, politely smiled and said, ‘No problem, I understand.’  Then Jesus, afraid he may have inconvenienced Peter said, ‘Oh, I hope this isn’t too much of a bother.  I feel bad asking you to bring your nets back in after you just threw them out.  Would it be better for you if I just came back tomorrow or maybe we could find a time when you’re not too busy with fishing.’”

Needless to say, the above story is not recorded in any Bible I’ve ever heard of, however, it would be a more normal thing to hear.  The Bible’s version is very radical to say the least.  Jesus calls, the apostles obey, and they literally leave the net they just threw out in the water and walk away from it.  This is crazy stuff.  This is not how we normally live our lives.  There is no planning, there is no preparation, there is no discussion.  Christ calls, the apostle’s follow, and an old way of life is left behind.

Christ has called out to each and every one of us in baptism and through His Word to follow Him.  This calling does not always fit with our schedule.  This calling is rarely convenient.  This calling challenges us to drop things that we have carried for years or maybe our whole lives.  Following Jesus sometimes means trouble for our family or friends, it sometimes means our cherished lifestyles must be changed for a new “Christ-style.”  Christ’s call to us is nothing more than life changing.  Andrew and Peter could have told Jesus to wait, or to come back later, or to never come back at all.  But they didn’t.  They heeded Jesus’ call to have new lives led by Jesus, to live new lives guided by Jesus’ hand, to forfeit their own lives for this new life Jesus was promising them.  To follow Jesus can be frightening, it can be scary to watch Jesus to change our lives.  But who is better to guide our lives than the One who is able to not only guide us through both life and death and into a new eternal life?