Archive for the 'Lent' Category

Lent 4, John 3:14-21

November 30, 2011

Historical Description:

One aspect of contemporary art that can prove incredibly beneficial for the church is its willingness to “press the boundaries” a bit through its exploration of theological principles in concrete form.  David Rodriguez’s “Word Became Flesh” is just one of those excellent representations of reality.  In this painting, Rodriguez engages in performance art, taking pages from Scripture, applying them to an 8 foot piece of plywood to form the skin of Christ, and then painting to create a figure of flagellation.  Jesus literally is the Word in flesh who embodies the Lenten message that Jesus came into the flesh for one reason – to suffer and die in the flesh on our behalf.

Devotional Reflection:

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Many Christians are familiar with the Ten Commandments and the many other writings that talk about how we are to deal with ourselves, our neighbor and even God.  Many Christians may be tempted to consider these commandments from God as things that we are to perform and, by performing well, achieve praise from God because of our faithful obedience.  These Christians often pride themselves as they struggle to keep God’s Word.  There are other Christians who will attempt to change God’s commandments.  If what God has said is too difficult to keep, they will slightly “re-interpret” the command so it is more in line with the popular culture and more easily kept.  When it comes to keeping God’s laws both of the above groups attempt the same thing – they judge how right they are in God’s eyes by the works they do, rather than by the works God does.

God is clear why He gave the law.  He gave the law so that “Through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20).  The law was given, in short, so that we would realize we can’t keep the law and desperately need someone who can – Jesus.  In David Rodriguez’ “Word Became Flesh” pages from a Bible are molded into the figure of Jesus.  These are the words that command how we are to act toward ourselves, our neighbors and God and of the punishment for not doing so.

In this painting we can also see the judgments for our sins being crossed out in lines of blood.  The demands of the law and punishment for breaking the law are both being covered in blood, Jesus’ blood.  All of this is being done for one simple reason – Jesus Christ is offering Himself as the receiver of that punishment in our place.

God could have come into this world to condemn the world, but He didn’t.  He came to free this world from a law that we could never keep.  We are free, not because of anything we have done or attempted to do and certainly not because we’ve changed the law to make it easier.  We are released only because of what God has decided to do for us through the Word that became flesh, Jesus Christ.  Through the sacrifice of Jesus, God speaks a new Word to you.  He speaks forgiveness to you.  He speaks mercy to you.  He tells you that you are free, that He loves you, that He really does forgive what you have done in your life.  He forgives and releases you even if you have trouble releasing and forgiving yourself.

David Rodriguez’s artwork fully captures that God did not come into this world to condemn the world.  The Word came into this world to condemn Himself and, by doing so, sets us free.

Lent 2, Romans 5:1-11

November 30, 2011

Historical Description:

Few of us today could even imagine just how polarizing the Sacco and Vanzetti trials and executions of 1927 were to both the nation and the world. Accused of murder, the Italian immigrants became the figureheads of the debate of human rights, the justice system, immigration and politics. Tens of thousands protested for or against their innocence, and after their executions riots sprung up around the world in reaction. In the wake of the political storm that surrounded the trials, the American social artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969) painted the iconic The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1931-32). To this day the painting remains both a striking social commentary on injustice and Shahn’s most famous work.

Devotional Reflection:

The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti faces the hard reality of justice head on. The image itself is cold and imprecise, with muted hues of blue to cast a sad and somber atmosphere. In the foreground of the image lie the open caskets of the two accused men, faces directed up towards those who had sentenced the execution who stand over them. There is little emotion in the faces of the three accusers, they do not rejoice or mourn. Their expressions are detached and cold. Although they have flowers in their hands, as if to represent their intimate involvement in the affair, this is betrayed by the direction of their eyes. Though the dead bodies face them, the accusers do not look back. Instead the accusers stare off blankly over the dead bodies, as if to distance themselves from the event. The heavy and momentous nature of the scene is further defined by the background image of a painting of a Supreme Court Justice. This subtle image looms over the heads of the accusers, the law of the land coldly present in the firestorm of controversy that became of the case of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Romans 5:1-11 also paints a picture of justice, but justice with a different outcome. Shahn’s painting reveals accusers that show no emotion towards those who they helped execute. The law in the painting is cold and justice is matter-of-fact. It is a reality in which we live, where people can die by the accusation of the law and indeed do. Romans 5 also shows a reality of justice – one that can be equally cold. Paul writes that people do not choose to die in the place of others. If justice is to be served under the Law, it will be done to the guilty, not to the innocent. Sure, it is possible that one may choose to die in the place of an innocent, righteous person who is accused, but Paul’s tone betrays the reality that this isn’t likely. No one would intentionally choose to suffer the justice of the Law in the place of a guilty person, would they? But God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. The Law is cold and merciless, but despite this Jesus faced God’s judgment in our place so that we could be released from it. He would carry the burden of the death of an accused murderer so that we, facing eternal judgment, could be forgiven and set free. The Law remains cold and hard and real, but the consequences of the Law have already been suffered by the One who rescues us from the power of sin, death and the Devil. So we look at the painting, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, and are reminded of what the Law of God does when it accuses, but when we look to the Cross we are reminded of what the Gospel does in the forgiveness of Christ.

Lent 1, Genesis 22:1-18

November 30, 2011

Historical Description:

“The Lord Provides” is an oil painting by Yvonne Benzinger from 1991. “I was looking at retiring from many years of commercial art and pursuing fine art again,” Benzigner says. The idea of story plays a key role in her painting. “There is so much drama in many Bible stories that they ask to be painted.” The pages of Scripture speak, they describe, they evoke, they are real-life stories that ask to be told. In “The Lord Provides,” Benzigner creates a static image that asks your eyes to dance while it tells an unfolding story.

After researching the text, studying the characters, and brainstorming about the visual symbolism, Benzigner describes a transformation: “But to me it was no longer just a story of Abraham and Isaac, men of great faith tested by God. It is a story that climaxes with Atonement.” At this time in her artistic life, Benzinger was influenced by a quotation from the 12th century priest Gerald of Wales. The way Gerald describes an Hiberno Saxon Gospel manuscript influenced how Benzinger went about composing her image. “Look at them superficially with the ordinary casual glance, and you would think it an erasure, and not tracery. Fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it. Look more keenly at it, and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this was the work of an angel, and not of a man. For my part the oftener I see the book, and the more carefully I study it, the more I am lost in ever fresh amazement, and I see more and more wonders in the book.”

Devotional Reflection:

“The ordinary casual glance” often overlooks the “delicate and subtle” nature of this painting.The image is “so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid” that most passersby see nothing more than a medley of bright colors. As a matter of fact, this painting is so subtle, that those responsible for displaying it in a church have hung it in between the “Coffee Nook” and the “Child Care.” Eighteen inches from the box of Sunday morning donuts: maple, chocolate, glazed and sprinkled. Ten feet from the open door where parents can deposit their children with a nursery attendant during the worship service (I wonder how many parents would be so willing if they looked more carefully at the painted scene next to the nursery). Fifteen feet from the church’s “Food Pantry” which freely distributes bags of groceries two days a week.

It’s a scandalous painting, hidden in plain view. Its offensive (yet grace-filled) message is hidden and dulled by its bright colors. Imagine being a part of this oft repeated scene. A man comes to the church because he needs help with groceries. While the volunteer fills bags full of provision, the man meanders around the waiting area. He stops to see this bright painting on the wall. After a few quick seconds of seeing the different colors, he’s ready to continue his stroll. But before he takes his next step, the pastor asks him, “Do you know the story?” At first he didn’t know that there even was a story to know. The pastor says, “It’s a story from the Bible. There’s a boy in the middle, his name is Isaac. God provided this family with a promised child. He’s carrying wood for a fire, for a burnt offering. And over here is menorah, a kind of candle, the kind they’d later use at the Temple for sacrifices. And then over here is Isaac’s father, Abraham.

“You see what’s in his hand? It’s a knife. It’s raised above Isaac. His son, his only son, whom he loves, is about to be sacrificed. God told him to. God told this father to sacrifice his only son. And Abraham is about to do it, but then this angel stops him. God sees Abraham’s faith, so he sends this angel to stop him. And God provides. Instead of Isaac being the sacrifice, God provides another one. It’s that animal at the bottom of the painting. The painting is called, ‘The Lord Provides.’ And it’s just like when God the Father was about to sacrifice his only son Jesus. Only that time, there was no substitute.Actually, Jesus was the substitute. He was my substitute, and your substitute. He was sacrificed on the cross so that we could live.” And as the man takes a few steps away to receive his food, he glances back and notices red cross in the background of the scene.

If no one talked with the man, that painting would be nothing more than some pretty colors. The Gospel is often hidden in plain view. Sometimes its scandalous message is hidden behind the general niceties of God’s people. Other times, God’s provision is buried in the jumble and confusion of daily life and a struggle for daily bread. But the story must be told, and the scandal must be revealed, so that God’s grace and eternal provision might be received.