Thursday, December 15, 2011

Advent 3.5

Yesterday, Saint Lucia's Day, was dark and rainy here in southeast Michigan, but we spent several hours of it wandering the Detroit Institute of Arts. We saw the suits of armor in the grand hallway, a history of American art, ancient clay bowls and mysterious statues, but we were there in particular for a  special exhibition on Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus. The exhibition, which gathers Rembrandt's work from all around the world, from sites as distinct as Bob Jones University and the Louvre, explores how Rembrandt's artistic representations of Jesus changed over his lifetime, particularly with his experience living in a Jewish neighborhood in Amsterdam. The curators also do a wonderful job of showing Rembrandt's developing religious artistry, posting drawings and paintings of similar subjects from different points in his career side by side, decking the walls with quotes by contemporaries about cosmopolitanism and religious life in Amsterdam, and including large-scale representations of excerpts from the Bible translation (and Calvinist commentary) Rembrandt would have had as a source for his biblical scenes.

I love museums, and the exhibition itself was gorgeous. Walking through an art museum always feels a bit holy to me, maybe because it holds so many examples of human attempts at making meaning or stretching toward the mysterious, maybe because it protects so many ancient religious relics, maybe because its architecture emphasizes its status as a place set apart. Museums often get me to thinking, open up the space in me for pondering even in the middle of a busy season of life.

This is what I have been thinking since the Rembrandt exhibition: how does the face of Jesus change for me, over a lifetime? (Or for you, dear reader?) Rembrandt went from imagining Jesus as a white, European ideal of beauty to seeing him in the face of his Jewish neighbors; his art seems to have shown a development away from representing Jesus's holiness as just shining light and difference from everyone else to also representing his compassion in portraits where he looks out at the reader, his eyes kind and steady.

The first passage of this week's Advent readings, the one from Isaiah 61, relates to my thinking here.  For much of my life the story of Jesus I heard was a story that didn't have much to do with his life, except that he was categorically perfect, "spotless" or "sinless." This image of Jesus was of him as a substituting sacrifice, like a lamb, who was "born to die." The good news he brought was that he came to earth as God's perfect son to take on the punishment for human sin by dying on the cross, then rising again, and that if we trusted in him we could be saved forever.

I still believe this is true, somehow, in the mysterious narrative of redemption. But I have also realized that this is not the only image of Jesus the Bible gives us. Just like Rembrandt for much of his life missed out on the fact that Jesus was a Jew, and that the Jewish people his culture derided or mistrusted were in fact beautiful representatives of Jesus, I missed out (and I believe a huge swath of contemporary Christianity misses out) on the richness of the person of Jesus. When we focus exclusively on the fact that he lived, died, and lived again (and often even the resurrection is left out of this picture), we forget about the biblical stories of not just what he was (a sacrifice, a redeemer) but also who he was (his character, his actions, his teachings).

A story that challenged me to change my image of Jesus is the one in Luke 4, where after being tested in the wilderness, Jesus goes to Nazareth and reads from the scroll, from Isaiah, quoting this week's passage from Isaiah 61 as well as a bit of chapter 58: "The spirit of the Lord is on me / because he has anointed me / to proclaim good news to the poor. / He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners / and recovery of sight for the blind, / to set the oppressed free, / to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." At one point I believed Jesus was speaking just spiritually here: he was proclaiming good news to the spiritually impoverished, to the spiritually imprisoned, to the spiritually blind and oppressed. But then I read about his historical context, and began to realize that Jesus was often speaking to people who were literally, economically poor, literally imprisoned and oppressed by the Roman empire. He was speaking to people who were literally blind and ill. And along with going around teaching radically counter-cultural lessons of humility and simplicity and trust in God, Jesus in his lifetime went around literally healing people's literal blindness and illness and oppressions. Jesus's work in his lifetime was both material and spiritual, and he refused any easy distinction between the two.

I began to see Jesus not just as a born-to-die savior whose miracles and strange teachings functioned just to prove the point that he was God, but as a self-emptying God-made-person whose life, his teachings and actions, were just as important as his death, not to mention his miraculous triumph over death in the resurrection. The stories of Jesus's life collected in the Gospels show us a colorful, challenging picture of who God is. My image of Jesus began to shift from seeing him as a shadowy being who "paid it all" to also seeing him as one who has shown a way for us to follow through the pains and complexities of real human life, by the sanctifying power of the Spirit. The Good News of Isaiah 61, which Jesus quotes, is not a formula for getting out of hell. It is good news of hope, of comfort, of healing, of rebuilding, and as Jesus boldly asserted to his listeners in Nazareth, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."

"I am the way," Jesus said, and I often hear it quoted. But instead of sitting back and nodding my head and feeling secure in my tiny picture of Jesus, it seems to me that the follow-up questions (also quoted from Jesus) must always be:

"Who do people say I am?"

"Who do you say I am?"

No comments:

Post a Comment