~ Art Tears Open The Veil ~
The Gospel of Christ is so radical that many Christians devise clever ways to make the narrow way and difficult teachings more palatable. "Love your enemies" and "love your neighbor as yourself" present such great challenges, so we invent truthful-sounding but unscriptural platitudes like, "love the sinner but hate the sin." Ah, now that makes the teachings easier to follow in our eyes! Others repeat this without thinking because it relieves us and sounds like Scripture. ("God helps those who help themselves" sounds like Scripture too, but it isn't.) The sin makes a person a sinner. What a person does is intertwined with who he is. When we say "love the sinner but not the sin," are we not saying "when I separate you from your sin, I can then love you"? It is easy to love someone who is sinless.
Sinners and sin are a package. Our response to sin, according to Jesus, is not hate, but rather forgiveness, redemptive love and prayer. Another response is to remove the log from our own eye before working on the splinter in someone else's. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone [at the other sinner]."
The adage "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is another truth-sounding platitude that people repeat without thinking. The feet of prophets, disciples, missionaries, of Jesus Himself were typically callused, sun burnt, caked with dirt or dried mud, sometimes with blistered, bony toes. So the host of a home would first offer water to wash the feet of travelers. In his letter to the Romans (chapter 10), St. Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah, who declares, "How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, 'Your God reigns'" (Isaiah 52:7, NIV). Let me suggest Isaiah is not using metaphor. Those unwashed, trail-worn feet are beautiful whether or not you have beauty in your eyes. Conversely, the clean, manicured, scented-powdered feet of a dictatorial oppressor and destroyer of life and peace walking to a radio or television microphone to spew verbal poison are ugly.
Artists depict more truth than photographers. Artful photographers can manipulate angles, lighting, shutter speed, etc. and show us things in an object or scene that our eyes would not normally notice. But an artist with a brush or pencil can reveal the invisible. And as the Little Prince was taught, what is invisible to the eye is the essence.
A cross is typically horrible to behold. The sight of slivers of skin and muscle jammed into the splinters of a blood stained beam of rough wood turns the stomach and hurts the heart. Photographs of it do the same thing.
An artist, however, paints the Cross of Christ with exquisite colors, adorned with designs, symbols and images of the spiritual realm. The Cross is beautiful. I am not saying the artist made the Cross beautiful. The artist is showing us the beauty that was previously invisible to our eyes, but clear to his…like a sculptor who sees a figure in a rock and frees it for us to see.
"But that isn't realistic," some object. I suggest it is more real and true than a photograph of the original Cross would be. A plain wood cross I possess has the Greek word Kairos stamped on it. Kairos means "God's special time," when God interrupts our earthly routine with an intercessory event or message. The original Cross did not have "Kairos" stamped on it, but someone saw the Cross as God's special time for us and marked that reality for others to see. That imprint doesn't make the Cross less realistic, but more so. Now, when I look at any cross, or anything that inadvertently looks like a cross, like the mast of some sailboats, I "see" the invisible, the reality of God's special time.
The phenomenon of the stigmata, the wounds some people have received symbolic of their identification with Christ, is well documented. (The last case I know was in 1968.) The method of Roman crucifixion is also well documented. Any hunter or butcher knows a heavy animal cannot be hung by holes through the tender, bony tissue of the paws or hoofs, but rather by the strong ligaments. A nail through a hand would rip it apart under the weight of the body. Jesus was nailed through the wrists.
Yet the stigmata appears in the hands. Paintings depict Jesus hanging by His hands. Furthermore, when Jesus appears to His apostles after His resurrection, He shows them the wounds in His hands (Luke 24:39). There is a holiness about the hands and feet. With our hands we create, we nurse the sick, hug our loved ones, give physical form to spiritual, invisible realities. We raise our hands in worship and praise. Despite the physical necessity of a Roman executioner pounding a spike between the ligaments of a man's wrists, the spiritual reality is that the healing hands, beautiful feet and pure, sacred Heart of Christ bore the sacrificial wounds. Today, we are His hands, feet and heart, and that is where our stigmatas, visible or invisible to the physical eyes, belong.
Let's get back to the difference between seeing and looking with the eyes. Mary Magdalene was first to go to Jesus' tomb, after the Sabbath was over so she could travel. "She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus" (John 20:14, NIV). Some have explained this "looking at but not seeing" or recognizing was due to the tears in her blurry eyes, or that Jesus wasn't familiar in His glorified body, or He deliberately blinded her as to the reality of His presence. Allow me to suggest another dynamic in operation here.
Another adage, "Seeing is believing," also doesn't witness to the truth. "Believing is seeing" is more existentially real. Mary already made up her mind to believe she was looking at the gardener. She did not believe Jesus was alive, for she had come not to see if Jesus was still in the tomb, but to continue the ritual of anointing His body. Jesus said the "magic word" to shake Mary from her self-delusion: Jesus just called her name. We are taught to call upon His name to make the unseen seen.
Soon after Jesus' encounter with Mary, and after the apostles were informed that He was resurrected, "Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples [who were fishing on a boat] did not realize it was Jesus" (John 21:4, NIV). They were within talking distance however. Jesus told them to cast their nets on the right side of their boat where they caught such a huge amount they couldn't haul the load onboard. Multitudes of fish had often characterized their time with Jesus. Fish was used as a symbol by Jesus and that symbol predated the cross as an image of Christianity. The reality of fish in the net was overshadowed by the greater power of its symbol, which stopped John cold. He then "saw" Jesus for Who He is, and Peter lost no time in jumping off the boat, making haste toward his beloved Master and Lord. So which was more "real," the fish or the symbol that jarred them into seeing what was invisible or unrecognizable?
On the same day as His resurrection, Jesus joined two disciples walking to the town of Emmaus. These two didn't believe Jesus was alive, so, of course, this Stranger could not have been Him. Their hearts were burning with intrigue and wonder, however, and they invited the Stranger to stay the night. All Jesus did was hold the dinner bread, gave thanks to the Father, and held out pieces to His hosts. This symbolic gesture "opened their eyes," and Jesus vanished back into the invisible world.
"I am with you always…You will live in Me and I in you…Whatever you do to the least of My brothers and sisters, you do to Me." These statements of Jesus and the teachings we are His body, His hands and feet, His heart and mouth, are realities. But do we have to take them on faith or do we really see Him in the many forms around us? Christ is the incarnational Person of the Trinity. He incarnated many times throughout the Old Testament era as "the Angel (or Messenger) of the Lord God."
What if Mary ran past the "gardener" she saw, too distraught to speak to Him? What if the apostles stayed too busy to answer that "on-looker" on the shore who was curious about their catch? What if the two disciples didn't invite the "Stranger" to stay the night when they reached Emmaus? They would have never seen the Christ clothed in that physical veil.
Jesus explained that many will be perplexed and ask Him, "But when did we ever see you hungry, naked, sick or in prison?" Mary will be quite in joy not having to ask, "But when did I see You at the tomb?" And the disciples happy to not have to ask, "But when did we hear You calling from the shore?" or "But when where You walking to Emmaus with us?"
I have a fear of the Lord. I fear not seeing Him as I am looking at Him. I fear mistaking my Beloved for someone else. There is a great burden on my heart which requires repentance. I ask His forgiveness for being blind to His tangible, incarnational Presence with which He must have graced me so many times, and ignoring Him.
A well known story tells how a teacher asked a child what she was drawing.
"A picture of God," the
"But no one knows what He looks like."
"They will when I get done!"
This story is far more profound than the cuteness of a child's world. This child is an artist who tears the physical veil. Jesus said unless we are like her, we cannot enter His Kingdom.
Lord, grace me with eyes that see You everywhere, for that's where You said You are. Also, grace me please, to respond accordingly, with the love, care, honor and attentiveness that is due Your Divine Majesty.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Weekly Reflections © December 15, 2001
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