Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Three Voices: Anna, Mary, Mary


I waited.  How I waited. But he seemed to grow more distant, and there were so many things in the way … in my way.
Every day I pushed my way through the market place, through all that noise … of animals and birds, the cries of exchange rates and deals to be done, through the haggling and the arguments.  Under the eyes of the soldiers; watching … always watching from their tower.  Past the colonnades, the courtyards, the treasury boxes, the lampstands, into what should have been my place. 
And oh yes, even there I heard the whispers  – the gossiping voices, pitying, scorning voices – “Not as good”, “Not from one of the tribes God chose to return” – as though I was still an exile even in God’s house.
There were times they listened, though: “The word of the Lord came to Anna the prophetess…” But there were other times when no word came, and they wandered away, not interested, bored by the repetition – the wicked, the adulterous, always looking for a sign.

The Lord, my God, though, he was always there. Somewhere … somewhere beyond the crowds of men, the huddles of priests, somewhere behind that curtain. Sometimes seeming too remote, too silent, even for me to feel his presence.
I came each day.  No son to care for me since my husband died – no Sarah’s blessing, no Hannah’s blessing for me.  No daughter-in-law to scold; no grandchildren to chide. 
Just my time here.  Just my time, each day pushing my way as close to God as I was allowed.  My eyes straining through the lamplight and the night vigils.  Peering over heads – glimpsing doors and arches, altars, flickering candles, shadows, and the endless stream of worshippers.  My sight dimming with the years of waiting – a generation, a whole lifetime of waiting.
And then … I did see … something. 
A child. A baby. 
One child and his parents.  One child among many children – his parents one couple among so many who came through the years to the Temple bringing their beautiful babies, their offerings, their prayers. 

And at that moment it was as though all those years – all those obstacles, all the heartache – had fallen away.  It was as though, after years of asking and seeking … and not seeing … I was finally gazing on all the beauty of the Lord in the temple where I’d spent a lifetime waiting for him.


When I stop, my hands throb and become all of me.  I stop. 

I look at my hands in my lap – palm up.  They are rough from the grindstone, tiny hairs scorched and withered by the fire.  The joints ache – it’s worse at dawn and dusk in the cold.  They are red and swollen from washing.  I rub oil into them sometimes – oil for the lamps that I fill, the wicks I trim, the bread that I bake.  But they still throb – this is the echo of work. 

I am not good at being still.  I only set one thing down to pick up something else; even as the light slowly fades my eyes strain to stich, to mend.  My hands throb – I look at my hands in my lap – they twitch for the work they long to do.   

Sometimes the men in the village tell stories – stories of men hiding in the hills or the wilderness; stories of fighting one foreign army after another.  But my hands carry the memories of my own battles – moth, rust, decay – a house that wants to fall down, clothes that will not last another summer’s harvest, a sick brother whose body was hurtling towards death.

There were different hands.  Hands that took the jug from mine.  Hands stilling my hands.  Hands leading me to the shade of our doorway.  Hands that had been subdued by work: axe, hammer, nails.  I looked at his still hands.  I looked at his hands and sat at his feet.  I sat at his feet and listened.  And for a time there was no time.  My world shrank to his words as my hands lay still in my lap.  There I was: dwelling in his presence.


Until my sister’s voice called my hands back – called me back to bread-making, and fire tending; to lamp-filling.  To sweeping, and stitching, and soothing the sick.  But he spoke over that battle – that, just once, it was necessary for my hands to be still.

And these things are changed now.  There is life in the bread that I bake; light for the world in the lamps that I fill; resurrection hope for the hands in my lap subdued by my work, and now by my age.  Here I am: dwelling in his presence.


I think it was his feet that I was aware of first; his feet that brought him to my sea-side town.  I must have been in the dust – I was always wrestling in those days – the claws that crept under my hair – the seven voices – speaking as one, speaking as seven.  I was always tormented in those days.

I remember his forearms, the muscles hard, sinews tense as he wrestled with me, fought for me.  The voices screaming blasphemies, calling up curses, and the sound of his name caught up and fighting with their words.  Jesus.

And then it was over.  And then I felt such peace.  Peace like a house swept clean and tidy.  Peace like a house awaiting a guest.  And he was my guest.  And now there was just one voice inside me – his voice.
What else could I do?  I followed.  We followed – 12 disciples, a handful of women.  All empty or emptied – all strangely filled.  We were all following his feet – up and down the rounds, round the lake-shore, villages and towns without number.  We were with him as he emptied and filled, emptied and filled.

And then I was aware of his feet again.  I could barely see them for my tears and his blood.  They were all I could see.  I couldn’t bring myself to look at his face – barely recognisable as it was.  And for the first time those feet were still.  No more walking, no more following.  His feet still as stone.

I was afraid.  Out there, in the darkness, I could almost hear those voices again.  My ears strained, I trembled and flinched at the slightest sound.  And we waited.  Wept and waited.

And so I went.  I went creeping my way through the darkness and the faintest glimmer of dawn.  And found his body gone.  I could have howled.  Just when he’d stopped moving – he was gone.

And then he was back.  I heard my name again – Mary – and I clung onto him, desperate to stop him moving, desperate that he should stay.  But ever so gently he left.   And now I was the one moving, my heart full of his aliveness.  I’ve never stopped.

He is with me, constantly, filling my empty house.  Gone but not gone.  Moving me – moving you?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Gospel of John in Pictures: John 2: Jesus and the money-changers

Thanks to the BBC/Public Catalogue Foundation Your Paintings project for Stanley Spencer's painting Christ overturning the Money Changers' tables (1921)This episode is recorded at the start of John's gospel: Jesus goes to Jerusalem in time for the Jewish festival of Passover.  Angered by the sale of animals for sacrifice, and the bureaux de change of those trading Roman (and therefore 'idolotrous') coinage for temple-money, Jesus drives out the animals with a whip, and overturns the tables of the money changers (John 2:13-25).  A similar/the same episode* is recorded much later in Jesus' life in other Gospels.

Now I don't know whether Spencer's painting was specifically intended to depict this episode as recorded in John's gospel but given that it was originally intended as a panel for a triptych, perhaps this picture does demand interpreting symbolically.  John's commentary on this episode is that Jesus justifies his behaviour in terms of his own death and resurrection.  And perhaps there are echoes of this in Spencer's painting: the picture flattens out the figure of Jesus and the overturning table and in doing so strips this of the physical action from the story; it become formal and stylised, and so becomes more of an icon, an image of religious devotion.  The table is blood-red, after all.  Does the size of the table, and the darkening archway beyond create a shadow of a garden tomb blocked by a heavy stone across the doorway, and does Jesus' plain white robe demand something of a shroud in our eyes?

So I'm left with an image that owes most to John's telling of the story - with its symbolic interpretation as a sign of Jesus' death and resurrection, and an delicious ambiguity as an object of devotion: here is an image challenging the systems and traditions which can cluster around religious belief and practice whilst at the same time (as an altarpiece) being one too.

* a debate for discussion elsewhere!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Gospel of John in Pictures: John 5 - John the Baptist

Puvis De Chavannes' painting, The Beheading of John the Baptist ostensibly portrays the end of John's life as recorded in both Matthew 14 and Mark 6 where Herod, having held John in prison for some time, gives in to a request from Herodias' daughter Salome at a banquet and has John the Baptist beheaded.

But perhaps the painting takes its symbology from elsewhere.  The details of the narrative are there, but the scene imagined.  Salome waits with the plate, the executioner is captured in all his physicality as he swings the sword to strike.  And John, John is there transcending the moment.  His stare is elsewhere - directed towards us. His head, surrounded by a halo, gives us the clue as to the other narrative reference - intended or otherwise.  In John's gospel Jesus says: "John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light."  And so as the sword arches towards the illuminated head of John the Baptist we have, captured in a visual moment, the extinguishing of John's light as commented upon by Jesus. 

The bitterest irony of both the comment, and its visual representation, is that Herod is specifically named as one who 'chose for a time to enjoy his light': 'Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man.  When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.' (Mark 6:20)  And so the painting telescopes too Herod's fascination, and termination, of the 'light' of John the Baptist.

Finally, the painting depicts the end of John's life but by depicting John in the clothes he wore at the beginning of his preaching:  'John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist.' (Matthew 3:4) this picture takes us back to the start of his life.  And John's clothes reach back farther into the past than that: they are the clothes which the Old Testament prophet Elijah wore (see 2 Kings 1:8), a prophet whom Jesus explicitly identifies with John (see Matthew 11:13 and Malachi 4:5). 

So this image encompasses the whole of John's life, and his past as viewed prophetically by Jesus, and in his posture - his hands open in acceptance, his pose echoing so many of those images of Jesus himself at the point of trial and execution - this points forward to another execution too.  As Herod himself is reported to have said of Jesus, after the execution of John the Baptist: “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” (Matthew 14:2)

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Gospel of John in Pictures: John 1: Nathanael

I started writing about images depicting episodes from John's Gospel much earlier in the year.  Here is another.  Mark Cazalet's Nathaniel (asleep under the fig tree)* does and doesn't portray a visionary moment from John.  Philip, already a disciple of Jesus, persuades Nathanael to come with him to meet Jesus:
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.
How do you know me? Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, I saw you while you were still under the fig-tree before Philip called you.
Then Nathanael declared, Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.
Jesus said, You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig-tree. You shall see greater things than that.
He then added, I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.  John 1:47-51
Unlike Cazalet's painting the narrative doesn't suggest that Nathanael was asleep but perhaps what Cazalet's image is doing is intensifying and compressing into a single 'moment' some of the allusions already playing out in the narrative.  Jesus' statement about 'the angels of God ascending and descending' sends his readers back to Genesis 28:10-22 and Jacob's dream at Bethel of a stairway to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it; in John's gospel Jesus himself is the stairway to heaven.  And perhaps by depicting Nathanael as asleep under the fig-tree, Cazalet gives us a visual reminder of sleeping Jacob, where the text of the gospel gives us a written one.

* The conditions of use of the The Methodist Church Collection of Modern Christian Art mean that I can't use the image directly within this blog but I hope that you'll follow the link and appreciate both this painting, and the many other beautiful things in the collection.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

At the End of the Year

As this year draws to its end,
We give thanks for the gifts it brought
And how they became inlaid within
Where neither time nor tide can touch them.
from John O'Donohue, 'At the End of the Year', with thanks to TBH.

Friday, September 9, 2011

'Seeing' religious art

Some interesting discussion on The Guardian's Cif Belief pages at the moment responding to the question 'Do we need faith to see religious art?'  Here's a brief quote from Catherine Pepinster's response:
Is [religious art] really appreciated by those who don't believe? Can they fully understand it, indeed conceive of these other minds in another time and place where faith held sway?

That must depend on the extent to which the viewer can accept the possibility of the divine, or the existence of the religious impulse. I suspect that there is a growing tendency, for all Richard Dawkins's efforts, for people to accept that there is such an impulse.

Friday, August 19, 2011


Holidaying friends brought me back a postcard of The Wenhaston Doom, a C16 painting of resurrection and judgement:

Other people have written more knowledgeably about how this time-capsule from our mediaeval ancestors survived the protestant iconoclasm of the C17 under a coat of whitewash, emerging after a rainy night on a later restoration project to speak to us so eloquently of ways of thinking and worship now irrevocably lost.  My interest is in how this piece of art brings both a future, and the spiritual, into our present. 

It's a curious piece of social commentary that the rich - king & queen, cardinal and pope - are shown at the centre of the picture being welcomed into heaven.  The message from the painting to its mediaeval audience seems clear: those of high social status are righteous, and will inherit an eternal reward.  This view is supported by the Bible text beneath the picture from Romans 13:1-4
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.  For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
But perhaps the painting's message is more complex.  The four rich people are all naked, apart from their identifying headwear; under the trappings of prosperity, all humans are equal.  In its own time, and perhaps in ours too, a salutory reminder to those of us insulated from human suffering by prosperity and social status often derived from education or profession of how fragile these things are, and ultimately how meaningless.  For our society, increasingly divided by disparities between rich and poor, this painting reminds us of some essential equalities. 

Also interesting is how this painting externalises the consequences of how lives are lived.  Human beings are notoriously bad at evaluating the future consequences of present actions; in one of my past roles this was called 'optimism bias'.  There is no optimism bias in this picture, no hope of 'getting away with' a life lived with no understanding of the consequences of injustice commited in the present, no comfort that things will work out with our best interests preserved.

However warm the promised punishment for the wicked, this painting could just be viewed as cold comfort for those who suffer(ed) an impoverished present.  A future heavenly reward for the 'good' and a future hellish punishment for the 'bad' might offer the comfort of a changed perspective on current circumstances but little else of present benefit.  You can't eat this painting or its vision.  Material comfort came, and comes, not just from the painting itself but from the response it tries to provoke in those who I think are the real targets of its message.

This portrayl of judgement as a single point in the future should remind us, as perhaps it reminded those who saw this before it was hidden away, of the very real needs of our world and the ability of our actions now to influence this.  By bringing a future into our present, along with a spiritual dimension to our present lives, this painting reminds us of how far a response to its message of essential human equality could carry, with all its consequences of good towards those without a crown or a cardinal's beretta.