For years this painting–Albrecht Dürer’s Christ Among the Doctors–has seemed to me profoundly odd. It’s so crowded! All those heads and hands and books. Why on earth would the artist pack a painting that way? And truth to tell, it feels a bit uncomfortable and almost creepy. What is going on here? I couldn’t figure it out, but this summer I had the opportunity to see the painting in person, and standing in front it, I felt like I finally made some progress.
I knew the subject, of course: a young Jesus is in the temple among the teachers, “and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (Luke 2: 41-52)And I knew that gesture has long been an important carrier of meaning in art. “These movements of the soul are made known by movements of the body,” wrote the great Renaissance humanist Leon Battista Alberti. So I at least had some context for this painting that Dürer created in five days while working in Venice.
One of the things I like to do in a museum is take pictures of paintings with my cell phone. Not just pictures of the entire painting, but close ups of the interesting bits. Details. I find it helps me think. And after looking at Dürer’s painting with my camera, here’s how I see it.
It’s the composition that reveals the story. At the center of the painting is a wheel of hands. Jesus’s young hands are making a point while the pale hands of the aged, blind teacher reach out to touch his arm and restrain him from speaking. That teacher–a doctor of the Law–is painted as a caricature, and caricature, like gesture, can be a quick way to convey a entire packet of meaning. We should understand this man’s blindness as both physical and spiritual. His hands are large and cold-looking as they try to overwhelm the boy Jesus’ hands.
While none of the other faces are caricature, some of their expressions contribute to the viewer’s feeling of discomfort or danger. On either side of Jesus are two groups of three figures that mirror each other. Two of these figures are searching in books, arguing with Jesus about points of law. Two men catch our attention with their wild eyes: one looks at Jesus with suspicion; another looks out at the viewer with an expression of alarm.
But in the midst of this swirl of confusion, mistrust, denial, and disputation, one of the teachers has stopped arguing. He looks at Jesus with what seems to me a world-weary hope, and Jesus, who has turned away from the blind doctor, meets his eyes with compassion.
While all around people are moving their hands and rustling pages, this man has closed his book, and rests his hands on top of it as he listens attentively. In this stillness, he receives understanding.
The story that began with a wheel of hands, ends with hands at rest. As he does throughout this work, Dürer first makes his point by showing us a pair of images–here two books. And then, like a storybook’s closing “The End,” the artist completes the narrative and confirms its meaning his by placing his signature and date on a bit of paper slipped between the pages of the closed book.
“The movements of the body reveal the movements of the soul,” says the artist. “Be still and know that I am God.”
I suspect that for many people, that question is the first theological issue they tackle. It was certainly a topic for discussion among my middle school peers. We’d heard this phrase “the Unforgivable Sin” and the idea that there could be any sin so bad that God wouldn’t or couldn’t forgive it was mind-blowing. What could it be? Of course, it never occurred to us to look in the Bible, so we just talked about it. Usually we decided that it must be suicide–figuring that if you were dead you couldn’t ask God to forgive you and that was the crux of the problem.
The question is a good one, but middle-school theology is about as reliable as middle-school explanations of sex, so having reached adulthood, let’s take a look at the two places in the gospels that mention this sin. You’ll find it in Matthew 12 and Mark 3. I’ll excerpt from Mark:
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. And they watched him, to see whether he would heal him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Hero′di-ans against him, how to destroy him….
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Be-el′zebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And he called them to him, and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; then indeed he may plunder his house.
“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
When Jesus heals people in the gospels, those actions are called “signs.” That word is important, because the purpose of these acts of power is to indicate the source and nature of authority. Signs are proof that someone speaks for God. They point to God, not to the power of the person who performs the act, which is why people glorify God and not Jesus after these signs. Think about Moses asking God “How am I going to convince the people that You sent me?” Think about the passage in 1 Corinthians 1 “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom” where Paul contrasts the various types of proof.
In Mark and in Matthew the scribes and the Pharisees see the signs of Jesus’ authority and the Holy Spirit’s actions and they are not confused. They know this is God’s work. But their hearts are hard, and knowing it is the Spirit, they name it Satan. And that’s their sin.
Calling the Spirit evil is blasphemy, but it seems to me that there’s even a bit more to the story than that. The Pharisees and the scribes are turning spiritual matters into political ones–and by “political” I mean issues of power and control. What they want most of all is to retain their own authority and power, and so they will not yield even to God. They would lie about the nature of God (and it is a lie, for they are learned) rather than lose control.
We could stop there, feeling superior, and then move on some other theological question, but I want to linger a moment, and think some more about that rhetorical move: the use of the spiritual for political purposes.
These are dangerous times. All times have their dangers, but just as they did in the first half of the twentieth century, there are people today seeking to impose their will on the rest of the world through violent means. It’s terrifying.
I came to understand more about one aspect of these struggles through an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. Terry Gross interviewed Maajid Nawaz, a most insightful and articulate man. Nawaz became an Islamic extremist at the age of 16, but by profound study and contemplation while imprisoned, and by considering George Orwell’s Animal Farm, he came to believe that the creation of a theocratic utopia was impossible. He is now the co-founder of a think tank called Quilliam, which is dedicated to countering extremist beliefs.
In the interview, Nawaz explains clearly the difference between an Islamist and a jihadist, and also the logic behind what seem like inexplicable actions to those of us living in democratic societies. Though they differ in their methods, both the Islamist and the jihadist believe that a theocracy must be established–that spiritual power must be made into earthly political power in order to preserve their religion and do the will of God.
Now in these dangerous times, the President of the United States spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast about the two sides of faith. His remarks were immediately greeted with outrage by people who would have criticized him no matter what he said. No surprises there, but this time the nature of the criticism hit me in slightly different way. It reminded me of the Pharisees and the Islamists and the other religious people in history who have believed that their understanding of the Divine (or whatever they call the Nature of Reality) must be The Understanding for the world. Those people talk about protecting religion, but it’s really about politics and power–and not even religion’s power, but their power. The Romans set out to conquer too, but they were at least honest about their motives.
So having wandered our way from middle school to the present day, where have we arrived? What have we learned? How then do we live?
…how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religion for their own murderous ends?
…as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends. And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom — freedom of religion — the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.
Antique shops range from the high-end and museum-like to the crazy hodge podge of the junk shop. I was was somewhere in-between at a quirky, used items emporium when I found this medal in a case of lapel pins. Recognizing the papal keys but not the face, I thought I’d add it to my small collection of Sunday school and church pins and see if I could learn more about it.
The back of the medal shows the Madonna and Child with two angels.
When I got home and was able to look more closely, the glasses and the distinctive nose, along with the image of Mary convinced me it was Pius XII, and indeed, with a bit of computer-aided enlargement I could just make out the “IVS XII” on the left.
Pius XII is perhaps best known for being pope during World War II, but during his nineteen-year papacy he also defined the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, namely that she “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”
Whether or not that dogma carries any significance for your personal spiritual life, it is one of the Church’s elegant solutions. To understand the beauty of that statement you should know that there have been many debates about what exactly happened just before Mary went up to heaven. Did she die? Was she taken up before she died? Did she die in the process of being taken up into heaven? Did her soul precede her body? Should this event be called the Dormition of the Virgin or the Assumption?
You can see where this leads. If you really try to nail down all the details, the minute-by-minute, you’ll venture into a dangerous place. You can argue forever. A lot of theology is like that. You have to know what you can say (or can agree to say), and when to stop.
Which is why that phrase “having completed the course of her earthly life” is so fine. It says what can be said, but no more. Sometimes living with a little ambiguity is the most honest thing you can do.
Five Joyful Mysteries from Catechetical Scenes: Grace and Holy Baptism by Rev. M. Coerezza, S.D.B. Salesian Catechetical Centre c/o Tang King Po School, Hong Kong, 1957.
The Conversion of Saul from Catechetical Scenes: Grace and Holy Baptism by Rev. M. Coerezza, S.D.B. Salesian Catechetical Centre c/o Tang King Po School, Hong Kong, 1957.
These pictures come from a 17-volume series of catechetical pop-up books created in 1957 by the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Roman Catholic religious institute whose primary focus is on Christian education of young people. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the Salesian Society’s work this way: “In carrying out its principal work, instead of the old punitive or repressive system, it adopts the preventive one, thus promoting confidence and love among the children, instead of fear and hatred.”
And while we’re visiting Asia, here’s a Christmas anthem from the Cheung Lo Church, Church of Christ in China.
Title: In Bethlehem A Babe Was Born (有一嬰孩生在馬槽)
Words / Music: John Carter
Date: Sunday Service, December 23, 2012
Choir: Cheung Lo Church, Church of Christ in China (中華基督教會長老堂)
Some billboards in Texas are causing a commotion. The images, which are part of a campaign by the Christian outreach group JesusTattoo.org, show a heavily-tattooed Jesus covered with words like “Outcast,” “Hated,” “Addicted,” and “Faithless.” An accompanying YouTube video presents a parable in which Jesus appears as a tattoo artist. People come to him with tattoos naming their sins and griefs, and the tattoo artist changes them into positive messages. Only at the end of the story do we discover that the artist has accomplished this by taking the original tattoos onto his own body.
The tattooed Jesus is a modern illustration of the idea that Christ shares our suffering and takes on our sins. “Surely he has borne our griefs,” we read in Isaiah, “a man of sorrows…and he bare the sin of many.” While the image offends some people, it brought to my mind a much older picture: the Crucifixion panel of the Isenheim Altapiece.
Painted by Matthias Grünewald in the early 1500s, the Isenheim Altarpiece was created for the Monastery of St. Anthony which specialized in the care of plague sufferers and those with skin diseases. The body of the crucified Christ is covered with sores to show patients that Jesus understood and shared their afflictions. It’s not pretty or heroic, but it’s very powerful.
Like the billboards in Texas, Grünewald’s painting emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, even as it asserts the power of his saving work. Perhaps that’s one reason for the offense.
Our life in this world changes us. Suffering and sin mark us like ink and scar. Thanks be to God whose Love takes us as we are and make us new.
If your experience is anything like mine, there’s a pretty good chance that at some point in the sermon on Trinity Sunday you will hear the minister proclaim what a difficult concept the Trinity is. On this Sunday we may hear again how St. Patrick used the three-leaved shamrock to explain the idea to the people of Ireland, or we may consider the image of the egg (shell, white, and yolk), or perhaps, if our brains are to be stretched a bit, we’ll hear how in Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis used our understanding of the dimensions of space to explain this mystery. I suppose it’s a tough Sunday for preachers, but sometimes I wonder if we don’t back away from the idea of the Trinity more than we need to.
The Trinity is a Mystery, one of many holy mysteries, and why we should find it more difficult to comprehend than any of the other mysteries is beyond me. Perhaps our difficulty comes when we try to turn that mystery into an explanation, or perhaps we overestimate our grasp of the other paradoxes of faith. Honestly, given our admittedly imperfect understanding of concrete phenomena such as the atom and the human brain, I don’t know why we should imagine that it would be any easier to comprehend the nature of God. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it. Try to learn more.
At this point in my life, I have come to believe that the Trinity is a revelation about the nature of God and the universe. I don’t know how it works, but I sense that it is and that it is true. And what the Trinity reveals to me is relationship.
Our God does not even exist without being in relationship–it is his essence–it is his truth. And the essence of that relationship is unity and love. The truth of the world is also relationship, and the work of the world is reconciliation. Like God, we humans are always in relationship. We are born into families. Our meta-cognition is as good as a friend: that voice inside our heads, the way we watch ourselves. And all our sense-making–all the meaning we derive out of our time in this world–is at its foundation an exploration of the connections between things. Even our mirror neurons (which fire both when we do a thing and when we see it done) connect us to the world and the people we share it with. This is our nature, this is what we do.
Sadly, our relationships are not so unified as the Trinity, nor are they always grounded in love. We perceive our separation as often as we know our oneness. Even the Body suffers.
But that’s the story, isn’t it? The Fall, Salvation…we know where we are and what we have to do and what we cannot do on our own. I was struck this morning by this passage from Ephesians 4:
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.
It’s always the joints that give us trouble: achy, inflexible joints. As the years pass, I understand this more and more too.
“Forgiving love is a possibility only for those who know they are not good, who feel themselves in need of divine mercy, who…know that the differences between the good man and the bad man are insignificant in [God’s] sight.”
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
from An Interpretation of Christian Ethics
As I read this, I am struck by the words “the Spirit searches everything” — and I wonder “why does the Spirit search?” The Spirit moves, actively probing, penetrating even the depths of God. Why? Perhaps because the Spirit wants to know, because the Spirit has an inquiring nature, and because God wants to be known.