Friday, July 31, 2015

A Lesson from Christian Imagery

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I thought of St. Martin of Tours the other day. Then I thought differently.

My mind was wandering a few days ago, as it is often wont to do, and eventually it hovered over a back-burner project of mine – a collection of Christian symbols that may number 1,000 when I am finished. And I thought of St. Martin of Tours, and his symbol.
"St. Martin of Tours symbol"
© Edward Riojas
(Collection of the artist)

St. Martin of Tours usually shows up on Roman Catholic radars, but not so much on Lutheran screens. According to tradition, Martin was a conscripted Roman soldier. As the saint was riding his horse one winter, he came upon a poor beggar dressed only in rags. Immediately, he unsheathed his sword, cut his own cloak in two and gave one half to the beggar. Historians have tacked on other events in his life and embellishments have been added, but this simple and immediate act of charity is perhaps the one thing for which the saint is known. His symbol is a sword with a cloven garment.

The charitable act of the saint resonates with many. These days, acts of charity can get pretty convoluted. “Service Projects” pop up like mushrooms on some church calendars, drawing folks who want to lend a hand to those in need. You can heft a wheelbarrow or haul concrete in impoverished locations. You can knit scads of little caps for newborn babies. You can put together care packages for children of prison inmates and do the same for poor kids in third world countries. There are quilts to make, diapers to purchase, and mailings to fill. The list is seemingly endless. But needs don’t always show up on a church schedule, and they don’t always happen in third world countries conveniently sporting tropical beaches. Oftentimes there are needs in lack-luster locations. Sometimes a need pops up down the road. Sometimes it slides under the radar, going nearly unnoticed until you re-read someone’s social media post.
“St. Martin of Tours”  12th Century.
(Basel Minster, Basel, Switzerland)

If you think about it, we’re all “projects” in God’s eyes. We may not need clothing to keep us from freezing, and we may not need cash to keep collection agencies at bay, but we all are in desperate need. Without Christ, we are dirt-poor.

The sword-cloak thing seemed so noble a vision to me. And then I thought of another image - Christ hanging on the cross. I thought of His garments being divided and His tunic taken away. I thought of Him in unflattering historical context and not with a covering of modesty as artists have most always portrayed the Corpus. I thought of Him completely naked and humiliated, without privacy and without the benefit of a single grape leaf.

The link between Moses’ bronze serpent and the naked, crucified Christ is closer than we realize. Not only were both hoisted between heaven and earth; not only were they both the remedy for death, but both were also visual abominations. Both were unclean. The early Israelites knew a thing or two about serpents. The Fall was much closer to their existence than it is to our day, and the bronze serpent must have conjured up visions of Satan-turned serpent. Look at an unclean snake for a cure? No wonder many said “No, thank you,” and promptly died. So it was for the dying Christ, hanging as a bloodied, naked, cursed Man on a tree. Even the Father turned His countenance away, and because of it the earth darkened in damning shadows. Many still refuse to look to the Christ, even after His resurrection. Many still die an eternal death.

Rare examples of the naked Corpus: “Crucifix Gallino,” left,
attributed to Jacopo Sansovino [possibly Michelangelo].
c. 1495. (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy)
“Crucifix,” right, Michelangelo Buonarroti. 1492.
(Santa Maria del Santo Spirito di Firenze, Florence, Italy)
St. Martin of Tours gave the beggar half of his own cloak, but our Gracious God does not deal in half-measures. His Holy Charity grossly overshadows that of any saint – Roman or otherwise. Christ was denuded. Completely. In the end, The Savior of the world even gave His life. He was spent. What He gave, He gave entirely for us. While many dared not look at that ugly spectacle on the cross, He was looking out for us all. He was looking to our needs, and provided, as He still provides, all that we ever need – namely, forgiveness and salvation. Without our merit. Apart from our works.

But Christ did not remain dead. He arose to life in order to give us eternal life. Because He lives, we live. And because He gave, we give. We help those in need. We haul concrete; we knit caps; we give of our own blessings to reflect – if ever so dimly – our Gracious Lord.

Still, there is no out-giving The Giver of all good things. We can give to our neighbor, but our hands are always completely empty in futile attempts to bring something to God and to our Salvation. Martin Luther, named in honor of St. Martin of Tours, laid bare this blessed truth in his simple statement, “We are all beggars before God.”

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