ICONS OF THE NATIVITY

adult learning, art, Christmas, Creativity, Faith, grief, Health, holidays, Icons, Meditation, Ministry, mystery, Reflection, Spirituality, vision, Work

Icon of the Nativity

What is the most important image of the birthplace of Christ? For some of us, it’s a stable filled with hay and animals, in which the Holy Family fill with divine light. For others, the essence is the Holy Family alone. For others, those who brought various gifts take prominence. The early icons describe a dark cave, similar to the tomb in which Christ was laid after his crucifixion. This shouldn’t surprise us, for his birth made him at-one-with-us, just as his death and resurrection made at-one-ment for us. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the icons are worth a million words, or a whole theological thesis.

The cave, manger, and swaddling clothes are indications of the kenosis (emptying) of the Godhead, His abasement, and the utter humility of Him who, invisible in His nature, became visible in the flesh for humanity’s sake, was born in a cave, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and thus foreshadowed His death and burial, in the sepulcher and the burial clothes.

Icon of the Burial of Christ

The icons are a window into the holy spaces, into the heavenly realm, or the spiritual world, whereas western paintings from the renaissance onward are representations of our three dimensional world on a flat surface. Icons have their own vocabulary and forms, so a wonder working icon from the 4th century would be copied over and over again into the present age. Modern icon painters would reinterpret the themes of the ancient icons, but until these images prove themselves to be “spiritual windows,” they’ll be mere paintings, but they won’t be true icons.

In the western world, we’re more likely to consider the narrative in traditional art, so the story details are as important as the design and color elements. Over the centuries the style changes with the artists,, but the main elements tend to stay the same.

Durer, Perspective Nativity

With the Renaissance, artists and their patrons were more interested in the humanity of Christ, as well as the human figure itself. The landscape gets rendered in all its glory, and the architecture of the towns calls us to take a walking tour through it. By the baroque period, artists create a full scale Broadway production scene on their canvases. A “cast of thousands” seem to heighten the importance of the event portrayed.

Rogier van der Weyden, Nativity with the Donor Pieter Bladelin

Our class worked these past two weeks on The Nativity. Gail’s memory of her family incubating a premature baby in a dresser drawer became her Jesus in the Manger. While this may sound strange to some folks, my great grandparents also nursed a premie in this same manner in rural Louisiana. Adding layers of color to her ground, as Rothko did in his color field paintings, was her goal. I failed to get another photo. She’s still working on it.

And they laid him in a dresser drawer, for he was too small for a crib

Mike was working on a shed and the sky. This was more exciting to him than anything else. The figures came later. I also failed to photo them.

First stage of the Nativity shed

He had a coworker pass away during this time. If his mind wasn’t in this work completely, I could understand. His vacation painting of the beach chair at sunset was more of what he can do when his mind is free and his heart is at peace.

Vacation is really great

When I’m sick, I have limited artistic ability. By this, I mean I have no spiritual sensitivity to the world. I can’t feel connected to the shapes, colors, or forms. I’m “dead to this world” as well to the world beyond this one. My hand feels like lead, and my one brain cell which hasn’t gone to Pluto is only working at 20% power. I don’t do sick well, for I take it as a great inconvenience, if not an insult to my nature. I have people to see and paintings to make. I may destroy this little work, but it does have the traditional icon themes of the cave and the swaddling clothes of the birth and death of Christ.

Nativity in a Nimbus

When we go back and sit before an icon, we’re struck by the silent voice of the image. We have a choice: we can dismiss this still, small voice, or we can pause and listen to the voice of God speaking to our heart. I hope we don’t race off to do yet one more of the many “got to do lists” of the Christmas season, but sit for a moment, with a hot cup of our favorite beverage and a little cookie, and mingle with the mystical voices from heaven. We will be choosing the better part, just as Jesus said to Martha, “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

NOTES:

Best source for Icons: Ouspensky & Lossky, The Meaning of Icons

Rogier van der Weyden, Nativity with the Donor Pieter Bladelin, center panel of the Middleburg (Bladelin) Altarpiece, ca. 1445, oil on panel, 91 x 89 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, inv. no. Nr. 535 (artwork in the public domain)

The DNA of Gods and Heroes

#MeToo movement, Ancestry, art, Family, greek myths, Imagination, Love, Painting, photography, Reflection, shame, Stress, Uncategorized

Danae and the Shower of Gold

Danae and the Shower of Gold

Danaë was a princess of Argos in Greek mythology. Argos was an island kingdom ruled by Danae’s father, who had no sons to inherit his throne, but a prophecy foretold his fate: his grandson would kill him and rule in his place.

To defy the gods, Danae’s father sealed her up in a prison so she’d never get pregnant, but Zeus, the king of the gods, transformed into a rain cloud, came to her in a shower of gold. As a result, she bore a son, Perseus. The king put his daughter and grandson into a chest, set them adrift upon the open sea, and left them to their fate. They would either drown in the sea, or drift so far away, they couldn’t harm his kingdom.

As fate would have it, Danaë and her son washed up on a far land, where a fisherman took care of them. It’s at this point I chose to enter Danaë’s story and combine it with images from my travels and imagination. This seascape is from a photo from a journey to the Oregon coast. The sunset’s crepuscular rays reminded me of the golden rain of Zeus’s disguise. Magritte has a famous painting of a “merfish” (a Fish headed body) on a beach with a seascape similar to this one, but Picasso’s beach paintings are more like the figure itself. All artists owe a debt to the images from our culture and history. We can trace our artistic DNA from the masters who went before us, just as we can see the influence of our forebears on the faces and health of our children.

While Danaë already had given birth when she washed up on the beach, this is a dream construction of her memories prior to that time. The stress of losing her parents, her home, and her support system must have been overwhelming. Add to this the burden of knowing her own child will kill her father. On top of this, she had conceived by unusual means, which portends ill for those who attempted to circumvent their fates. The giant sea shell is a reminder of her sexual union with the god, as well as her openness to the power of the gods. Danaë doesn’t resist her fate, but surrenders to it.

In the ancient world, the Greeks believed humans were foolish if they attempted to manipulate fate, for the gods had their own designs in mind. In the Greek myths, you can run, but you can’t hide. Destinies are fixed and immutable, due to fate. The three fates wore white robes and were incarnations of destiny. One spun the thread of life, another wove the cloth, and the third snipped the cord to determine the length. They controlled every mortal from birth to death.

Happiness comes from accepting one’s lot in life, for the gods will prevail. Today, we are more likely to believe we can change our destiny by our own efforts and will. Gone are the days when women submitted to powerful men, whether they were fathers, husbands, employers, or “gods.” In the context of the #MeToo movement, women today read this myth and say, “I reject a destiny of submission to another’s power over my own body. I claim the right to my own body, not only for the sake of love, but for the power it represents when I give it to another. No one takes it from me.”

Today women are more likely to chose the hero route, to take on the role of Perseus. As Perseus grew up, the king of the place sent him on a quest for the head of Medusa. While he was gone, the king tried to marry Danaë, but Perseus returned, just in time, and froze the wedding guests into stone with the dread head.

With his mother free, Perseus and Danaë returned to Argos. His grandfather had fled to Thessaly to avoid his fate, but while Perseus was competing in athletic games there, his wayward throw of a quoit, an iron ring, struck his grandfather in the head, killing him instantly. He couldn’t bear to rule Argos, so he swapped city states with another king, and ruled there instead.

If this story sounds familiar to you, perhaps you’re thinking of Jason and the Argonauts, a hero of later myth. He and his hero pals sailed in the Argo, a ship built by Argus, who was from Thespiae, the city of the Muses. His hero story shares many similarities with that of Perseus, but that’s for another day. For each of us today, the ancient myth calls us to reconsider how we relate to one another, from the most toxic evils of date rape and sexual harassment in the workplace to the commonplace demeaning behavior known as “mansplaining.”

If men need to rethink their behaviors, women need to choose to speak up and risk public humiliation, rather than staying silent with private shame. Silence only enables bad actors by giving them continued cover. The heroic women, who take on the quests to defeat the monsters they fear, redeem their mother’s shame and silence. They also make a better world possible for the next generation. The DNA of gods and heroes flows through the veins of Danae’s descendants.

MY ACCIDENTAL VACATION

Creativity, Fear, Food, generosity, Holy Spirit, Imagination, Ministry, poverty, purpose, renewal, Retirement, Spirituality, Strength, Stress, Travel, Uncategorized, vision, Work

20140603-002121-1281276.jpg

Everyone should take at least one accidental vacation, at least once in their life. This event will throw you off your game plan, sweep away your plan B, and leave you up a creek without a paddle. This is your Kobayashi Maru, your Waterloo, and your Little Big Horn all rolled up into one. Most of us think we trust God, but we really trust our own strengths, capabilities, support systems, and friendship ties. We aren’t prepared to “go to a land God will show us” or to go as the 12 were sent, taking “nothing for our journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money, not even an extra tunic.” (Luke 9:3) I planned to be gone to visit my nephew’s organic farm for 2 weeks; I was gone a whole month. I got bit by an attack telephone pole on my way out of the gas station. It’s my story, I’m sticking to it. Once I got the big red Ram rental truck, I headed out of Dodge in my Dodge. By the next day, I was on the beach in North Carolina.

Like a pirate, I stayed as long as I had a room, and then I moved on. Some accommodations were great, but some I bought cleaning products for my personal safety. I found a welcome everywhere. I ate mostly from the grocery and the icebox in the rooms. Fresh fruit, cheese, cottage cheese, spinach, carrots, mushrooms, avocado, and bread made up my living off the land menu. One night I did get fresh cooked shrimp from the deli for a great salad. My last night on the beach I treated myself to a fake pirate’s ship venu restaurant, but it was a fine meal. I ate the appetizer sampler platter and a salad, so that was more than enough rich food for me!

When I came back to the tiny town where my busted baby sat, I stopped in the arts coffee shop to ask the barista if she knew a nicer place than the motel on the highway. They called Yvonne at the bed and breakfast, and talked her into giving me a discount since I would be an extended stay and was here as a “victim of circumstances.” I was glad, for the highway motel looked suspect and I was ready to be treated as a princess for a change. I guess all my pirate swagger had “swigged” out on the trip back. I was ready for lace curtains and 48 acres of piney woods quiet, not to mention three course breakfasts in the morning. Those breakfasts were to die for! My spirits were being revived daily.

While I’m not much of a drama queen, I do tend to worry. This is one trip that I did not worry, for I realized that I was getting a beach vacation out of this, due to my prime of life coverage, as well as the rental car. I might as well enjoy it to the fullest of my ability, within the limits of the finances available to me. The beach provided long walks for the morning and evening. Then of course, I did have to climb America’s tallest lighthouse, just to say I had done it.

The second week at the B&B would be on me, but there wasn’t anything I could do about that, so I could be thankful that I got a great price from the locals who showed hospitality to me. I vacationed in town, ate there, took photos, wrote, drank coffee in the cafe, and hung out. I was relaxed. I did pay some bills and wire some money to the bank, just to be safe. I washed clothes. An ordinary life.

What isn’t ordinary is leaning on others and receiving from them more than I gave in return. As a giver, I am always on the pouring out side. This time I was on the receiving end, and I have never been so filled in my whole life! From the day I hiked up the Rainbow Falls Trail, I discovered that while I might be able to almost get there by myself, I sure couldn’t get down without help. Thank God Trevor, Angie & that unnamed angel turned up with the hiking stick to help me down! The clerk at the hotel upgraded my room to the jacoozi when he heard my story, and I was again thankful.

Most of us don’t receive well, because it puts us in the weak position. We would rather be in the giving or strong position. That’s why we like that verse “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (acts 20:36) it claims to quote Christ, but no gospel contains that quote. Someone always has to receive, however, for the giver to get the blessing. If we aren’t on the receiving end, we rob the giver of the blessing of generosity. If we aren’t in the receiving end, we rob ourselves of the blessings of humility and poverty. These are blessings because in them we can share he nature of Christ. It was for our sakes, that though he was rich, he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).

So I commend to you the idea of an “accidental vacation.” Perhaps you won’t need to bash in the front end of your vehicle to get the message, but some of us are like ornery mules: God needs to get our attention in a big way. Even the worst events God can use for good, for those who love God and are called according to God’s purposes. I discovered that each person I met on this trip was at a crux in their life, just as I was. They were at a decision point, a transition point, or a new calling was taking hold in their lives, just as it was in my own. Perhaps what seemed to be only an accident to some, God was able to make into a greater design for good: not just for me, but for the people who shared their stories and lives with me on my accidental vacation. I’m looking forward to retirement, but for me that just means redefining my calling to “word, sacrament, & order.” My word will be my creative endeavors, both painting and writing, serving the sacraments in the congregations and communities in which I fellowship, and being faithful to my brothers and sisters in our order of the elders.