Sunday, December 10, 2017

Isaiah 61.1-11: Future, No Future

The prophet Isaiah is speaking of the year of the Lord in the reading for Advent 3B (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11). God's spirit has landed on the prophet with instruction to bring good news, to bind up, to proclaim liberty and release. It's good news, concluding with praise and exultation. And who would expect anything else? Expecting all those good things is as natural as dressing up for a wedding, or seeing marigolds grow where marigold seeds were planted.

Isaiah's imagery is vivid. We feel the joy of release and liberty. We touch the roughness of the oak tree and understand its power. We hear the hum of machinery as buildings are rebuilt. We don't smell the lingering acridness of ashes, instead we smell the freshness of a laurel wreath.

Well, that's what Isaiah says. Caspar David Friedrich uses some of the same elements as Isaiah but tells a different story in his painting Abbey in the Oakwood. The painting, like many of Friedrich's, has humans and human-made elements in small proportion to the size of the painting. The majority of the canvas is filled with the vastness of nature.

The mood of the painting is opposite that of the Isaiah reading. "Good news" does not appear to be immanent in this scene. There are mourners in the picture: a line of figures, perhaps monks, are walking toward the graveyard where a newly dug grave is a gash in the earth. There is no oil of gladness anywhere in sight. The ancient ruins (these are presumably Gothic ruins, which were the fashion centuries before Friedrich painted) are not being rebuilt. There are oaks, but they are dormant for winter, if not dead. They are not the best representatives of God's glory
Caspar David Friedrich. Abbey in the Oakwood. 1809-1810. Berlin: Nationalgalerie.
A consensus interpretation of all these elements is uncertain. There seems to be agreement on the prominence of death as a theme, but is it the death of the old ways, the death of the church, the death of Germany or even the death of the artist? About this painting Friedrich wrote: Now I am working on a great picture in which I intend to depict the secrets of the grave and the future [...] Below, with snow-covered tombs, and burial mounds, are the remains of a Gothic church, surrounded by ancient oaks. The sun has set, and in the twilight the sun rises above the ruins, the evening star and the moon the first quarter. Thick fog covers the earth, and, even if one clearly sees the upper part of the masonry, the forms, downwards, ever more uncertainly, and indefinitely become the forms, until at last everything, the nearer the earth, is mistaken."(quoted in: H Börsch-Supan, Berlin 1810, in: Kleist Yearbook, Berlin 1987, p. 75).

Though difficult to see, there are two small lights, presumably candles, behind the crucifix in the church ruin. These two small points of light may be a sign of a future and a hope, but they are such a small part of this pictorial world. Are those two small candles enough to proclaim that there is a future? Did Isaiah's audience feel even those two candles' worth of hope as they said good-bye to Jerusalem? Can such small moments of hope and future carry any of us today who look around the world and understand that all is not well?

For an image of hope and future that is both Friedrich and Isaiah, click here or on the Facebook link below.

For thoughts on the gospel reading for Advent 3B, click here.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Isaiah 40:1-11: The Road

The reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 2B is a familiar reading from the prophet Isaiah. In the text, the subject, perceived by some as literal and by others as metaphorical, is road-building. The landscape is to be leveled so that a way for the Lord can be made. Low-lying places are to be raised. High ground is to be flattened. Stony patches are to be smoothed out.

Such accomplishments are expected in modern road-building. A drive today through mountains requires fewer hairpin turns that find a car and its passengers clinging to the edge of a precipice. Today's interstate highways are multi-lane, comfortably wide, and carved through mountains rather than ascending and descending the full height of the mountain.

The commonness of contemporary road quality was not always the case. The 1375 Catalan Atlas includes the image of a group of travelers on the Silk Road. Identified as both a generic caravan and Marco Polo and his traveling party, the travelers ride horses along the road that ran connected East and West, making trade possible. The cartographer, Abraham Cresques, has drawn a stony roadbed along which mounted and walking travelers make their way.
Abraham Cresques. Catalan Atlas. 1375. Bibliotheque Nationale. Paris, France. 
The so-called Silk Road is actually a network of trade routes rather than a single road. Other well-known roads connected to or intersected and were part of the network as well. One of those other roads was the Persian Royal Road, which ran from Susa to the Aegean Sea - more than 1600 miles. Alexander the Great used the road built by Darius I. A series of relay stations equipped with fresh horses made it possible to cover the route that crossed the Persian Empire within days rather than months. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote of the royal messengers who rode this route that "neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

Why did God need a road? In the ancient near East it was common practice for images of gods to be paraded through the streets and along royal roads (read Isaiah 46:7 for a description of one such procession). For the nation of Israel, however, the road is prepared not for an inert statue. Rather it is prepared for the God who has created the world and moves in it. The "new thing" that Israel is about to experience won't be important because it highlights the efforts of human laborers (or divine beings!) as they build a road. The "new thing" is because the God who moves will once again enter into the life of the nation and in that the glory of the Lord will be revealed. And all people will see it together.

For thoughts on the gospel reading for Advent 2B, click here.

Find out about another road through the Middle East on this week's Facebook post

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Rain, Steam, Speed

The words of the prophet Isaiah are featured the first three weeks of Advent in year B of the Revised Common Lectionary. For Advent 1B, the specific text is Isaiah 64:1-9. In this passage Isaiah prays that God will tear open the heavens, come down, and perform the awesome deeds for which God is known. Those awesome deeds seems more frightening than comforting: the ground shakes, nations tremble. The prophet offers the descriptive parallel of water made hot enough to boil. The combination might truly be terrifying.

Though it does not especially look like it, English painter J.M.W. Turner captured an experience that was literally as ground-shaking as the prophet calls for. The painting Rain, Steam, Speed captures a time when the railroad was changing England. Where development of cities and civilization had previously required access by navigable waters, the railroad made it possible for industry to develop in non-waterside locations. Goods and people could be transported by the railroad. But Turner gives the train more symbolism than that.
J.M.W. Turner. Rain, Steam, Speed. c. 1844. London: National Gallery. 
For Turner, the train tears through the landscape, a dark gash against blue and gold. The bridge and train separate a man in a boat on the river (to the left of the bridge) from a farmer plowing his field (to the right of the bridge). At the left is the increasingly irrelevant road bridge that crosses the river. The boat is powered by the man; the plowing is powered by the animals. The train, of course, is powered by steam. Small bits of red and white paint on the engine are not realistic - there was no way to see through to the engine's firebox. But those paint smudges symbolize the fire that burns, causing water to boil and turn to steam which is harnessed, powering the locomotive.

The train thunders across a bridge (traditionally identified as the Maidenhead railway bridge, across the Thames between Taplow and Maidenhead). Passengers sit in open-air cars behind the engine. They can feel the mist of the steam and the rain as they travel at 50 heart-stopping, breathtaking miles an hour.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. Mountains quaking, fire kindling, water boiling. And God's presence is known. Heart-stopping. Breathtaking.

You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

One of the details that easily escapes notice in the painting is the rabbit. Yes, there is a rabbit. It is running directly in front of the train. What exactly does the hare mean? Is nature going to be vanquished - or at least forced to succumb to "progress"? Is technology about to run over the rabbit? Have we been delivered into the hand of our iniquity? Or is the rabbit still faster than the train? Can we see it as God working for those who wait for God?
Rain. Steam. Speed. Torn heavens and quaking earth. Kindled fire and boiling water. And the first Sunday as we wait for the God who is to come. Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

For thoughts on the gospel lesson for Advent 1B, click here.
For additional thoughts on the impact of steam and the earth, click here or on the Facebook link below.