Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Picture Pentecost

Pentecost......The Artistic Renditions

Well, I couldn't not dig into this topic because for more than 1500 years so many people learned the stories of our faith through pictures rather than words...

When you pick up the Bible and really begin to read, slowly and with meditative intention, perhaps using the form of reading called Lectio Divina, it becomes more evident that there are some varying accounts and even perhaps puzzling contradictions which people of faith must work their way through.

Let me also say, before I go further, that I wouldn't even begin to preach on this topic, and that of course is why I established this blog in the first place. This is not sermon material, it is study material.

I'm intrigued, and maybe you will be also, by what my reading eye sees in words versus the images used to create an account of the day of Pentecost.

I was reading articles on Sunday afternoon and came across a pictorial of stained glass windows depicting Pentecost. These inspired works of religious art date from the 13th century and later. This reminded me that the traditions and teachings of the Church were in large part visual and auditory rather than textual for the majority of people. Literacy was very low, a prerogative of the wealthy and few. In the Roman Catholic Church auditory access even remained very difficult right up to the pronouncements of "Vatican II". In that major changes went into place, establishing vernacular (common tongue of the local context) rather than Latin as the approved language of worship.

All in all, for a very long time, people learned the stories and traditions of the faith through the images that were included within the place of gathering for worship. The same is still true.

So let's begin the exploration today.

Look at each slide and ask ....what is the location... how large... or small?
Look also and ask yourself how many men and women in each figure carry the mark of a flame or dove above their head, or a nimbus (the golden glowing disk of the head).

Then look again at the Lectionary text for this week (following below), coming from the Book of Acts (written by Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke). This story is widely held to be the principle account of Pentecost:

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
`In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' "
I noticed the following in reading the TEXT:
They (the disciples) are in one place, "altogether". The number of all which is referenced being altogether is not specified. Only when it comes to describing Peter's address to the crowd is the disciples count listed, eleven and Peter. Twelve in total. You may or may not remember that one disciple hung himself the same day Jesus was arrested. So, who was the eleventh disciple that is being referenced in Acts 2? Was it a male or female? Although the word is "house", I think our mind tells us little when it really is a reference to House of the Lord; the Temple.

Here is what I noticed in the slideshow: 

6 of the 20 slides depict an intimate or semi intimate setting, rather than a large building.

This is significant because when we consult the original Greek text the word used is oikos. Consulting Geoffrey W. Bromiley's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament we do learn that this Greek word means house or dwelling. It was used to refer to a variety of settings, from "a cave, a temple, a palace or even a grave." (674).

The intimate space pictured might be an upper room of a house where "the disciples hid behind doors". This is in keeping with the account John the Evangelist gives as the place the disciples experienced the risen Lord within the week following the empty tomb, and the time at which Jesus "breathed upon them." These all illustrate one scriptural version, attested to as the tradition for one community of people who followed in the way of Jesus, but not that described by the Book of Acts.

Notice in particular that all of these place a female as the central figure. We can wonder, would that be Mary Magdalene, or Mary the Mother of Jesus? I would venture to guess the artist has this being the Mother of Jesus, just because of the time period of the artwork. By this time tradition was deeply embedded for adoration and access to God through Mary, the Holy Mother of God.

Notice that only one, slide 20, the Greek Icon at the end, does not include a recognizably female figure.

In total 14 out of the 20 slides place a woman I will call "Mary" as the central figure in the art.

AHHH... what happened to Peter in the visual representations? Peter who "stood with the eleven" in the written account? It seems we must look very closely to decide which of those many men would be Peter, since he hasn't been made visually central. Isn't it amazing how the Holy Spirit inspired a correction in the account!! Although the words of the text from Acts makes no reference to gender until the Prophet Joel is cited in Peter's loud address to the crowds, the inspired artwork seems consistently to make a visual correction to the story. Call that #SneakySpirit if you will. It fascinates and excites me to see this work in play across the ages.

In seminary Professor Gregory J. Riley often used the analogy of eyewitnesses to a car wreck for understanding the varieties of accounts in the Gospels. From any angle every witness would see more or less of the actual event. What each person told may differ widely from that of another person because of personal observation and perspective.  It is good to hold that frame of reference when reading scripture.

The differing images address the important role that women carried in the continuing community and especially the special place that the Mother of Jesus attained in Church. Among the Eastern Orthodox, she attained the title Theotokos, "God-Bearer", and to this day veneration of Mary is widely practiced.

Communities form their own stories to fit within the greater story of the ages. Art and Archeology demonstrates the way the Holy Spirit has helped inspire, equip, correct and embolden the people of God to bring about God's Dream for all humanity. That work occurred over time. In each community  artworks were commissioned to create visual pathways to the Divine. The newest of images seem to express great invitations to the Red Hot Holy Dance with the perichoretic nature of God, enlivened by the Holy Spirit. That work continues to this day.

We form our stories for who we are as the people of God by both words and actions which aide our remembering. We form community around a statement of belief, of cherished values, and of a hope for the present age, or for the future. 

What is the "Take Away"  from reading and marking? What might you or I want to "inwardly digest'?

Here is what I think might be valuable, in question form:

The question for us, whether we assume a place in a community of faith or not, is what vision and image of the future has God given you? And how will you convey that vision to others? Will you seek to belong to something that continues the work of breaking down barriers which started even before the first Pentecost? or will you continue move through life only as if you live entirely in the past past, bemoaning any change that draws us closer to the image of God and the full reign of God? Does the Word speak a word of hope to you for the present and future? Will you allow yourself to be known and loved by the Most Holy and therein receive the power of the Holy Spirit so that you can be co-creators with the Holy and Undivided Trinity, regardless of your gender, race, economic status, or any other human means of creating false divisions among ourselves.

What do you think?

Shalom Pax Salaam Paz Paix

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