Friday, March 27, 2020

The Anchor

Anchor, from an early Christian sarcophagus [Roman].
(Copyright © Edward Riojas)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I have a feeling the early Church would have viewed our present crisis as a cakewalk. Let’s be honest, few of us have been dragged from our homes and beaten, few of us have been ostracized because of our beliefs, and few of us have been tortured or crucified or worse. And toilet paper wasn’t even a thing.

The wealth of our society and the gross abundance of things has arguably clouded our eyes to the things that matter, and it is difficult for us to see beyond the things that don’t. It seems that only when faced with uncertainty do we look to the cross.

For early Christians, however, the first place they looked for hope was not the cross. The cross still had a great stigma of shame attached to it and, in spite of what many may think, it was not among the earliest Christian symbols.

The anchor preceded the crucifix, in common use, by hundreds of years. The anchor preceded even the [empty] cross by many decades. Seemingly, it takes a storm to appreciate the anchor’s existence.

With many of the apostles connected to fishing, it is no surprise many references to the Church are in nautical terms. The Church itself was commonly called “The Ship.” Parallels to the ark were also used. St. Paul’s experiences led him to refer to some as making a “shipwreck of their faith,” and men’s tongues were likened to the rudder of a ship. Indeed, the place were we sit in church is still called “the nave.”

It was, however, the writer to the Hebrews that firmly set the idea of the anchor in the Christian’s mind:
“We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebrews 6:19-20)

This is also where the anchor symbol was tied to the word “Hope.” If one reads carefully, however, that Hope is not some kind of spiritual bootstrap that we pull. Rather, it is the One who enters the Holy Place. I think it no accident that the early Christians identified with the anchor, not only because of this Scriptural reference, but also because an anchor’s structure is nothing if it is not fused with the one thing so dreaded, so shameful, and yet so blessed – the cross.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Gardening During These Days

Detail of the "Te Deum Polyptych" Edward Riojas. (Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

One of my favorite images from the “Te Deum Polyptych,” hanging in the sanctuary of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Mich., is a small vignette of Christ pruning a cruciform vine. At first blush, it seems a nice picture of Jesus doing a bit of gardening. His grape varieties must be world class. His orchids are probably exquisite, as well. If He is the Good Shepherd and if He is the Great Physician, then certainly He is the quintessential Gardener.

There is, however, a little pile of burning branches. Some have risen their voices in recent days, suggesting that our Lord, through global events, is getting rid of the dead and decaying rot; that He is doling out Divine justice on a whole boatload of national sin. Perhaps. We certainly deserve it, not only nationally, but also individually.

But every gardener worth his salt knows that there is more to pruning. On occasion, it becomes necessary to prune healthy, leafy branches – even fruit-producing branches. This may, during these days, manifest itself in reducing our access to church, in severely limiting availability of the Divine Service, and in eliminating other things that are beneficial to us.

There is no such thing as a spiteful gardener. As with earthly gardeners, our Gardner knows what He is doing. The Lord is taking the brokenness of the world and using it to our advantage. He is doing this out of His great love for us.

Pruning is done to make a plant more robust and more healthy. It must be done periodically to make it grow in strength. Once we, the Church, have been surgically pruned, just see how much more we will thirst for the life-giving waters of our Lord! See how we will raise our heads and strain toward the saving light of the Word! Our Lord knows that we will not survive in the partial shade of ignorance and apathy; He knows we can only thrive in the full brilliance of the Son.

So take heart. The Lord is tending to our needs, He is continuing the Divine work begun when the Seed of Promise was planted in the Garden so very long ago, and it is for our eternal good.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Faced With Christ

Sinai Icon of
Christ Pantocrator

Copyright © Edward Riojas

There are portraits, and then there are portraits. When faced with images of our Savior, there is a plethora of variations, permutations, and, um, mutations.

I’m not talking about your very favorite painting of Jesus, whether it’s the pleasant one that looks like any Swede in Jerusalem, or that toothy one hanging in the church nursery. I could be writing about any number of images, but this post isn’t going to address copies of the Shroud of Turin. Neither will this be about computer-generated, Neanderthal-like images reconstructed from a period skull.

Oh sure, there is a whole laundry basket-full of various shrouds – each more authentic and more revered than the previous. You know, the Shroud of Edessa, that looks more like a Byzantine cartoon than any human. Then there’s that over-the-top, side-burned image on a shroud connected with the suspect Devotion of the Face of Jesus. We’re not going to talk about those.
The Sinai Icon realigned 

The two images that we WILL address are a specific Orthodox icon and another unrelated oddity. Both of these probably began with good intentions but, in the end, only caused a great number of face-palms.

The first image of Christ, known as the Sinai Icon of Christ Pantocrator, is seemingly innocuous and only raises an eyebrow if the viewer lingers over the painting. “Raises and eyebrow” is key. The icon attempts the impossible by trying to simultaneously show the Two Natures of Christ. Split the portrait down the middle, flip the facial halves, and you get the idea. Unfortunately, it is impossible – and heretical – to extract either nature, and if that isn’t enough, the resulting expression is either great consternation or constipation – you pick.
Example of a trifacial Jesus

Our second example shows what happens when a well intentioned artist obviously didn’t stick around for the Athanasian Creed on Holy Trinity Sunday. The image is so disturbing that the viewer never gets within a stone’s throw of understanding the bizarre attempt at explaining Christ Jesus as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Hey artist!, “[There is] one Son, not three Sons!”

Sometimes, artists fall a tad short, and I am not immune in that regard. These examples, however, simply fall on their faces.

Friday, February 21, 2020

The Ill-Matched Couple

"The Ill-Matched Couple."
Lucas Cranach the Elder. c. 1520-22.
(Hungarian National Museum, Budapest)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Among the stranger things the Northern Renaissance produced are paintings on the theme of the ill-matched couple. They show up in different areas of Europe, and several are in the portfolio of Lucas Cranach the Elder.

They were slightly-humorous, morality lessons on marriage. They must have been a bit uncomfortable to look at back in the day. They still are. They typically show an old, ugly man with a young, handsome woman, but the roles are sometimes reversed, as in our example. Usually, there is also a money bag hidden somewhere in plain sight. The image was a Renaissance reminder to beware of gold-diggers, and to be careful of that love-is-blind thing. The prospect was – and still is – ugly on many levels.

For the moment, let us ignore all that and use the ill-matched couple for a completely different purpose. We are now in Gesimatide, and it’s a good time to give ourselves a reality check.

I have for various reasons avoided tackling the artistic concept of the Bride of Christ. There seems to be too many facets and too much grandeur to even ponder the subject. It’s sort of like painting heaven – pardon the irony, but where in the world does one begin? The words with which the Lord describes the beauty of the Church defy illustrating. There are not canvasses large enough. Or white enough. Or pure enough.

Those words of Holy Scripture, however, are written through the eyes of God; they show Divine Love, and they show what is seen through the lens of Christ’s cross and resurrection. There is plenty of artwork out there that attempts to depict this for human eyes. The bride is always a blushing beauty seemingly pulled out of a Miss America pageant. Her train is long. The smiles are big. There are wispy clouds and perfection. And there is something totally schmaltzy and uncomfortable about all those images.
Modern depiction of the Bride of Christ.

Let’s be real. Gesimatide and Lent have little to do with comfort. While we, as saints, should feel giddy about the prospect of collectively being Christ’s Bride, we should also admit that we aren’t exactly the greatest catch. “What does He see in HER?,” might ring in our ears. The name “Gomer” fits. The Ill-Matched Couple-thing fits. This facet of the Bride is often ignored, but there simply isn’t enough lipstick in the world for us Goyim swine to cover our sin and change our ugly snouts. We couldn’t, by ourselves, don righteousness. We sat naked in an antechamber, holding a bouquet of rotting vegetation, helplessly crying, “Lord have mercy!”

But that is not where this Divine Hallmark story ends.

Thanks be to God, Christ paid for a complete makeover with His death and resurrection. In Holy Baptism, Christ Himself clothed us with His perfect righteousness. He sees the Church as His Radiant Bride. The anticipation of that heavenly wedding banquet, the Divine Love that is already ours, and the prospect of being the Trophy Bride of God Himself is enough to sustain us as we slowly, sometimes agonizingly, half-step the long wedding march this side of Heaven.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Beating Around The [Burning] Bush

The original drawing of Goliath, left, and how it later appeared for publication.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The pendulum may seem to be swinging in the opposite direction from last week’s post, but that really isn't the case. The word “catholic” was thrown around in my previous post, in both the universal and Roman sense. Today the focus is on, hmm, less confessional pieces of art one might find in the church and home.

We might as well start with a sofa-full of “Believe” pillows and offend half the planet in the process. One can find these in just about any home decor department, but they always beg the question, “Believe what?” We could continue with shabby chic wall hangings declaring “Faith. Hope. Love.” or “Family. Friends. Flatulence.,” but I don’t want to lose any more readers at this point.

The fact is: Some church denominations avoid confessional art, and they do it on purpose. This avoidance of imagery is intended to skirt around having graven images. Granted, there isn’t much wrong with having faith, hope, and love in the home, but it does point to a symptom of something far more important when, instead of simple fondness, there is insistence behind the decision.

This is a far more subtle issue, however, than slapping a gem-encrusted crown on the Mother of our Lord and taking issue with it.

Decades ago I was asked to illustrate a reprint of “The First Rainbow,” by John Calvin Reid (Eerdmans, 1991). (Yes, I know: The Author should have been the only necessary clue.) It was an opportunity for me to use my untried illustration skills on a large project with a focus that, in theory at least, was right down my alley.

Things were going swimmingly-well until Goliath came along. I had a blast illustrating the Biblical antagonist. but then was informed that a change was needed in the drawing. I could not figure out what might be wrong with the image, but finally was told that it was a skull in the margin of the illustration – it had to go. I got really confused. Surely, I thought, the publisher had a skull in his head. Surely, the author had one... okay, I did doubt that one a little. The powers that be thought the skull looked “demonic,” at which point I got really, really confused.

The publisher did not want to offend, and THAT pointed to a symptom of something terribly wrong. Scripture clearly indicates that Goliath defied the Lord; that he was therefore indeed demonic. Withholding the truth of the Word for the sake of offense is heresy, plain and simple. This odd unwillingness to fully confess the truth of God’s Word often shows itself in what is NOT seen in many sanctuaries.
"Dirk Willems Rescuing His Antagonist," an etching
from the 1685 edition of "Martyrs Mirror."

I once met a Mennonite gentleman at an art show and our conversation immediately turned to sacred imagery. While he was very accepting of my observations and opinions on what constitutes good confessional art, he eventually revealed his most inspiring image – an engraving of Dirk Willems rescuing his antagonist.

The image, I am sure, is unknown outside of Anabaptist circles, as is Dirk Willems. The engraving shows an incident in which Dirk Willems, while being pursued across a frozen pond, turns back to rescue his foe, who had fallen through the ice. Willems was later recaptured and eventually martyred. While being historically important to Mennonites, I was told the event is also an allegory to what Christ did for us.

The problem with allegory, however, is that it often avoids the greater truth behind it. In this case, it beats around the Divine bush. It is far better to cut to the chase and depict Christ Jesus in the act of rescuing us, than to extract inspiration from a lesser allegory of someone feebly attempting the same and eventually failing.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Too Catholic?

Copyright © Edward Riojas

At least three times within the span of a month, the question was asked of artwork: “Is it too Catholic?,” and here I am, sitting in front of a project that contains the Latin text, “... ecclesiam catholicam...”

Whether it is an in-grown Lutheran fear, angst against Papal idiocracy, or simply an attempt to get a handle on the unknown, being “too Catholic” is a recurring question, especially where art is concerned; especially in the Lutheran Church. Typically, this would be addressed during an adult Bible study, or in a pastoral e-mail string. Being a producer of such images, however, brings the oft-needed opportunity to explain a few things.

In a recent interview for LCEF’s “Interest Time” magazine, I was asked, “[What] makes a piece of art distinctly Lutheran?” Of course I started with a Smart Alec response of “When it has enough Luther’s Seals,” but then I got serious. Sacred art confesses a great deal [to church visitors], and it does so long before any parishioner opens their mouth.

Good Lutheran art does not simply ride a comfy path between Roman Catholicism and American Evangelicalism – it clings to Holy Scripture while redressing the errors of other denominations. Thus, we show a crucified Christ – for that is what we preach – and we care not if Evangelicals get squeamish. We also keep elaborate crowns off of Mary’s head, refusing her preeminence, and we care not if Rome takes offense.

A great deal of Lutheran artistic purpose clings mightily to the Church Catholic – the whole Christian Church on earth – and not the Roman Catholic Church. The terms are not synonymous, but are always a point of confusion. Luther never wanted to relinquish the word “catholic,” and neither should we.

Things can get sticky, however, when folks take certain images as an indication that we are somehow realigning ourselves with Rome. Crucifixes – crosses holding depictions of the dead [or dying] Christ – are often seen as the crux of the problem. If I got a nickle every time someone chimed, “Can’t we just get past the cross?,” I would be a wealthy man. But we will certainly be spiritually bankrupt the minute we sanitize the very blood that bought us. So we remind our stupid, forgetful selves of the cost of our salvation with an image of our Lord on the cross. No, we don’t re-crucify Him every Sunday. Instead, we confess Christ crucified and we daily kill the Old Adam.

Of course, that catholic-thing rears itself in other ways. Images of saints bearing halos, too many Biblical images in the sanctuary [however many THAT might be!], beautiful vestments, and using Latin [gasp!] seem for many to be too far off the Lutheran reservation.

To this layman, however, Latin rocks. Phrases like “Te Deum” and “Agnus Dei” and “Magnificat” uplift me, even without the benefit of being a linguist. A current Ecclesiastical Sewing project on which I am working is rich in this ancient language, while confessing the “credo” of the Church Catholic. The ‘Apostles project’ will have, in part, a gorgeous, vintage set of Apostle’s symbols interwoven with the Apostles Creed. It will be augmented by yet more designs of my own hand, making it arguably the most comprehensive collection the vestment manufacturer will offer.

The ancient symbols and old language and deliberate richness of the set will, in themselves, remind us that we are not islands of rightly-preached theology; that the train of redeemed saints extends backward into time immemorial and forward to the ranks of those who will, in time, believe. This is true Christian Church; the Church Catholic; the “Ecclesiam Catholicam.”

Friday, January 24, 2020

Little Boxes All In A Row

The poplar sides roughed out.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

To be fair, the first one was not little. In a spur of the moment decision, I blurted out that I wanted to make my Dad’s casket. Perhaps it was my way of grieving. Maybe it was one last project of which I thought my Dad would be proud.

At any rate, I tackled a woodworking project with little to go on except the inner dimensions of a vault and the outer dimensions of a casket liner insert. That first box had to be strong enough to hold an adult and, with my heavy-handed building skills in mind, it had to be light enough to be carried by [only] six men. And, pardon the pun, there was a deadline.

Armed with lack of sleep, I shopped for lumber while store employees were hyping it up with their morning pep rally. They had no clue that their first customer was grieving and was about to begin the somber task of building a box for a man.

Fast forward a few years. There was a still-born death in the family of a friend, and the grandparents of the child were distraught over the fate of the body. Would a shoebox suffice? Was that irreverent? Was it even legal? I stepped forward and offered to build a small casket. That casket would serve as a model for successive boxes – I just didn’t expect the next one to be for my own grandchild. And then another.
The roughed out top and bottom fitted to the sides.

Creating these little treasure boxes – for that is what caskets and vaults are – is an act of caring of the most intimate kind. While working on them, I run my hand over the unfinished wood, knowing that it will touch the body of a fellow redeemed. I consider the box joints, knowing that the tiny joints of that infant were considered by the Lord while it was still growing in the womb. I look at the finish, and wonder if a thing so destined for hiding displays the love of a grandfather. For hours on end, this is the path my grieving takes for the least of these, my brethren.

What a stark contrast there is between these little boxes in a row and the bodies of children for which no boxes are made; for which no grieving is given; for which convenience is bartered for a life. Lord have mercy.

Here we could simply cry for the mountains to fall on us, but we do not grieve as others do. Being a peculiar man of a peculiar people, I strongly considered removing the quilted casket liner that I also made, folding it, and placing it back in the box. What a confession is made by simply folding a burial cloth and setting it to one side! We mourn here in time, but we will rejoice there, in eternity, where such cloths will have no use, and where boxes, both large and small, will finally be emptied of their treasures – including little Matthias John.

The finished casket. The poplar box is black-stained poplar. The cross is hand-rubbed ribbon sapele. The five brass, cap nuts
represent the five wounds of Christ. Four of them cap threaded rods passing through the box sides, holding the lid in place.