In honor of the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin:
(Image credit: Wassily Kandinsky, Ohne Titel, 1923; public domain, obtained from Wikimedia Commons)
In the book White Oleander by Janet Fitch there is a fascinating scene in which the protagonist, young Astrid, is taken to an exhibit at the art gallery by her foster mother Claire, practically the first loving mother figure in this otherwise sad tale. The exhibition is a collection of the work of Kandinski.
We walked arm in arm through the show, pointing out to each other the details that recurred, the abstracted horsemen, the color changing as a form crossed over another form. Mainly, it was the sense of order, vision retained over time, that brought me to my knees.
I imagined Kandinsky’s mind, spread out all over the world, and then gathered together. Everyone having only a piece of the puzzle. Only in a show like this could you see the complete picture, stack the pieces up, hold them up to the light, see how it all fit together. It made me hopeful, like someday my life would make sense too, if I could just hold all the pieces together at the same time.
Christians feel the same way about God–he is the Kandinsky in this metaphor, and the universe is the art gallery.
(In many churches, March 25 marks the Feast of the Annunciation, which commemorates the visit to Mary by the archangel Gabriel, to announce that she would bear Jesus).
I have been reading Lionel Shriver’s interesting book We Need To Talk About Kevin, a tale of the birth and development of a (fictional) boy who would go on to become a monster, a psychopathic killer. The story is told from the mother’s perspective in a series of flashbacks contained in letters to her husband. I was struck by the descriptions of how Eva reacts to her pregnancy. Even though her son’s birth would be legitimate, emerging out of union with her husband, she looks upon it with dread. She fusses. She mourns that she can no longer quaff a glass of wine:
Although I didn’t think I had a problem, a long draught of rich red at day’s end had long been emblematic to me of adulthood, that vaunted American Holy Grail of liberty.
… I did not care so much about being deprived of a glass of wine per se. But like that legendary journey that begins with a single step, I had already embarked upon my first resentment. A petty one, but most resentments are. And one that for its smallness I felt obliged to repress. For that matter, that is the nature of resentment, the objection we cannot express. It is silence more than the complaint itself that makes the emotion so toxic, like poisons the body won’t pee away. Hence, hard as I tried to be a grown-up about my cranberry juice, chosen carefully for its resemblance to a young Beaujolais, deep down inside I was a brat.
She muses about how pregnancy is depicted as infestation in horror movies such as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Aliens”:
In Alien a foul extraterrestrial claws its way out of John Hurt’s belly.
She feels humiliated, demoted to an inferior state, from “driver to vehicle, from householder to house”, for a “nine month freeloader.”
She frets about the effects of pregnancy on the woman’s body. She recalls a meeting with a young mother:
…she had recently given birth to her own first child, and I needed only to say hi for her to begin spewing her despair. Compact, with unusually broad shoulders and close curly black hair, Rita was an attractive woman — in the physical sense. With no solicitation on my part she regaled me with the irreproachable state of her physique before she conceived.
Apparently she’d been using the Nautilus every day, and her definition had never been so sharp, her fat-to-muscle ratio was unreal, her aerobic conditioning topping the charts.
Then pregnancy, well it was terrible! The Nautilus just didn’t feel good any more and she’d had to stop—. Now, she was a mess, she could hardly do a sit-up, much less three sets of proper crunches, she was starting from scratch or worse—! This woman was fuming, Franklin; she clearly muttered about her abdominal muscles when she seethed down the street. Yet at no point did she mention the name of her child, its sex, its age, or its father. I remember stepping back, excusing myself to the bar, and slipping away without telling Rita good-bye. What had most mortified me, what I had to flee, was that she sounded not only unfeeling and narcissistic but just like me.
In a sense, the character of Eva speaks for us today. She expresses our individual and cultural ambivalence toward motherhood — nay, toward parenthood of any sort:
“Motherhood was harder than I’d expected,” I explained. “I’d been used to airports, sea views, museums. Suddenly, I was stuck with the same few rooms, with Lego.”
Compare this now with the reaction of Mary to her upcoming birth, as recorded in the Bible. She had good reason to look upon her role as the bearer of Jesus with some degree of dread. Her son’s birth would most likely be perceived as illegitimate, since she was not yet married and Joseph wasn’t involved in the conception. People in ancient Israel were not any more gullible than we are. Mary faced ruin and scandal. She faced abandonment by her family, and by her fiancé, Joseph, who could have walked away.
And yet, she responded to the angel Gabriel with firm assent: “be it unto me according to thy word…” (Luke 1:38) Lest there be any thought that her “fiat” was grudging, this was followed by an outburst that revealed that her heart was singing with joy. Her “Magnificat” has been read, recited and sung for centuries: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoiceth in God my Savior…”
As one pastor stated, “a teenage girl has shown us all up.”
As an inauguration approaches in 21st century America, the church calendar takes us back to another inauguration in 1st century Palestine. Jesus began his public ministry by being plunged under the running waters of the Jordan river.
(“The Baptism of Jesus”, by Antoine Coypel, 1661 – 1722)
It is a deep mystery why the Sinless One would submit to being baptized by his cousin John. John’s baptism was one of repentance. It was a purification rite to ceremonially cleanse people of sin. Baptism was not something a perfect God-man would require.
John said as much when Jesus approached: “I should be baptized by you.” Jesus’ answer was short and cryptic: “Let it be so, to fulfill all righteousness.”
One Rev John Watson, a 19th century Scottish Presbyterian, described Jesus’ motives this way:
What Jesus desired was to forget His perfect purity and Divine dignity, and to plunge into the very depths of ordinary sinning, sorrowful human life. In His pity and sympathy, Jesus desired to lift the burden, which would be on His own shoulders, but could be no part of Himself. According to the excusable idea of the Baptist, his Lord should have gathered His white garments around Him with fastidious care and stood alone on the banks, while at His feet the waters were stained with the sins of poor struggling humanity. But according to the heart of Jesus He must descend into the midst of the river so that in the end what neither the water of the Jordan nor any other could do would be accomplished by His lifelong Passion and His death. This baptism was a sacrament of the messianic love–a pledge of utter devotion to His fellow men, a symbol of identification with Humanity. (The Life of the Master. New York: McClure, Phillips, 1901).
Today, we celebrate this great mystery. Jesus didn’t need baptism, but he chose to undergo it as a way to identify with us, and to inaugurate his ministry.
Central Italy was struck by a 6.6 magnitude earthquake on Oct 30. This is one of several devastating quakes experienced in this region recently, including the August earthquake that killed some 300 people and reduced much of the town of Amatrice to rubble. Apparently 15,000 people have been made homeless in the current disaster.
The world of art is mourning the loss of some treasures. The still standing tower of the town of Amatrice, and the facade of the Sant’ Agostini church, were finished off. In Norcia, the fourteenth century basilica of San Benedetto, pictured above, was destroyed. Fortunately in the latest quake, no lives were lost, but the destruction of historic art and architecture has been lamented.
As the Guardian opines:
From Pompeii to Florence to Norcia, the people of Italy have lived with disaster for millennia. Out of that instability they created beauty. Any loss of that great human fabric is a loss for us all.
We agree. Our prayers go out for the people of these towns.
O Myghell! by grace of Cryst Iesu
Callid among angelis þe hevenly champioun,
Be a prerogatyf synguler of vertu,
Held a batayll, venquysshed the dragoun,
Be thow our sheld and our proteccyoun
In euery myschef of daungeris infernall,
Dyffende our party, presente our orisoun,
Vp to the lord that gouerneth all.
– John Lydgate
(Image and verse are Public Domain)
“Ecce Homo” is from the Latinized version of the Passion narrative in the Gospel of John. “Behold the man” cries Pilate to the crowd, as Jesus is on trial for his life. As most know, he was crucified very soon afterward. This scripture is often said or sung as part of the liturgical celebration of Good Friday. Of course God has the last laugh, so to speak, as Jesus comes back from the dead on the third day.
I was led to the following fascinating story. In the village of Borja, Spain, in the Sanctuary of Mercy Church is a fresco entitled “Ecce homo”. It was painted in 1930 by a local artist and by 2012 was in a serious state of decay. Cecilia Giménez, an 80-year-old amateur artist living locally, painted over the fresco in an attempt to restore it. Critics hooted at the result: BBC Europe correspondent Christian Fraser says the delicate brush strokes of Elias Garcia Martinez have been buried under a haphazard splattering of paint.
“The once-dignified portrait now resembles a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic, he says.” You can read more at BBC News. “She had good intentions” stated the city councilor patronizingly as he prepared to meet to discuss the future of the fresco.
Well, it appears that God honors good intentions, and had the last laugh in this situation. The fresco became an Internet sensation and pop icon. The fame garnered by the painting allowed the church to charge admission for the opportunity to view it, and the church has raised 50,000 pounds for charitable causes. See article at The Guardian.
On a small scale, God took the foolishness of a “botched” painting to accomplish great things, just as on Good Friday 2 centuries ago God used the “foolishness” of the cross to perform a great work of atonement and our redemption.
(Full disclosure here: I don’t especially like the new version of the fresco).