Friday, July 10, 2020

“The Axe Is Laid”

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Some of us grew up having school teachers who gave subtle hints that we shouldn’t trifle with them. You know who they were. Those particular teachers didn’t necessarily incessantly yell or haul students by the ear out of the classroom and into the scholastic netherworld or burden students with punitive tasks. Those teachers simply made sure a yard stick was visible for all to see. Perhaps they would conspicuously place it on the chalkboard’s bottom rail [even though measuring was rarely needed]. Maybe they gently laid it on their desk at the start of the day. We all knew what its presence meant, and most, if not all, students strove to keep that yardstick in its place.

A while back I was asked by Rev. Michael Holmen to create cover art for a newly released book, “The Hardening of Israel’s Heart & The Hardening of Heart in the Church.” Holmen edited the volume, which was written by Rev. Paul Hensel and translated by Floyd Brand.

Several visual concepts were fused into one simple image for the cover art, but the theme lays heavily on the scathing words of John the Forerunner:
“But when [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”” (Matthew 3:7-10)

Because the thrust of the book is on hardening, however, I pushed John’s visual a bit further in time. While the axe is an inanimate object, the tree begins to throw itself to the wind. Without taking in nourishment from the ground, its foliage scatters; its limbs bleach; its life wanes. This is a tree that has ignored the axe. This is a tree that strives to be something it is not. The tree’s future is foreshadowed as dropping leaves reveal a not-so-subtle skull of death.

While we may chastise, with 20/20 theological hindsight, the hardened, foolish Israelites or the wayward early Church, John’s warning is certainly for us also. We simply cannot live on our own without the life-giving waters that flow from our Savior’s side. We dare not attempt to ignore the Gospel in preference of our own supposed goodness. Our limbs will surely fail when we lift them up to the ugly persuits of man instead of the glory of our Lord. To that end, it is wise to listen carefully to the Forerunner’s admonition; to see in our mind’s eye that yardstick gently laid for all to see. The sharpened axe is indeed laid at the root of the tree.

Giclée prints of cover art, “The Axe is Laid at the Root of the Tree,” are available from the artist. Prints are signed, and domestic shipping is included for U.S. residents. Sizes/Prices for prints:
21” x 30” / $150
17” x 24” / $120
12.7” x 18” / $80
To order, or for more information about this print or any other that I offer, please e-mail me at

Friday, June 26, 2020

Things that [Ultimately] Matter

"Christ Icon."
Sizes/prices of giclée prints
can be found at

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Now is the time. If you have ever considered hanging an image of Jesus on the wall of your home, then now is the time. If you have ever thought of using memorial funds to place an image of our Savior in the sanctuary of your church, then certainly now is the time.

A few insistent voices have been urging the wholesale removal of monuments, and it doesn’t seem to matter if those monuments are in opposition to activists’ views or if they actually support the same activists’ cause – they must all come down. Ignorance is more contagious than any virus ever was, and stupidly spreads more rapidly than any pandemic ever could.

Most recently, the targets are ‘images of white supremacy’ – Jesus. This idea is at the urging of BLM activist, Shaun King. King must surely be a conflicted man, because his own mother is white. But I digress.

Iconoclasm – the destruction of icons, or images, of Christ – is as old as the hills. Long before anything seemed to matter, man has fought over whether or not it is right to have images of Jesus; whether or not it is blasphemous. More blood has been shed over images of Christ than even this sorry generation can possibly imagine. Historically, it’s been that bad.

Lutherans, however, are a feisty group. Whether it’s that inbred German stubbornness or cues taken from the blessed Reformer, Martin Luther, we have a tendency to show our mettle when things look dire.
Sizes/prices of giclée prints can be
found at

When some insisted that it was NOT the body of Christ on the altar; when they “broke” the Host in full view to represent their theological position, Lutherans suddenly became discreet in that simple act, if only to protest the Protestants’ errant ways. When some insisted that only red wine could be used in the Sacrament of the Altar, many Lutherans instantly switched to white wine. Some churches still use that variety, exclusively. When Protestants started destroying ‘idolatrous’ sanctuary artwork, Luther blew a gasket and lambasted the moronic imbeciles.

It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that this Lutheran artist strongly suggests we up the ante and increase our display of the Only Begotten of the Father. We do not do so to increase His presence among us, for He will be where He promises. We do not do so to show our piety or supremacy in any way, for we openly acknowledge, with Paul, that we are chief among sinners and we are slaves to the Gospel. We place images of Christ Jesus simply to remind ourselves – and the whole world – that some things really DO matter.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Healing and Forgiveness

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s no surprise that I have mouths on my mind. My mother was recently diagnosed with stage 3 or 4 cancer of the tongue. Also recently, one of the lectionary readings was from Isaiah 6, which describes a burning coal touching the prophet’s mouth after he had declared in verse 5, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

This passage was the basis for one of several proposed drawings for Higher Things. That was before the theme was massaged a bit, rendering the image unusable. In the drawing, a cross, stylized crossed keys, and a burning coal are fused together. It’s a strange image that, to my knowledge, has rarely – if ever – been done, and this time it only got as far as a rough drawing.

Isaiah’s account, although strange, prophetically points to something more familiar – Holy Communion. One can see the parallel between taking the burning coal from the altar and touching the prophet’s mouth, and taking the Body and Blood of Christ from the altar and placing it in the communicant’s mouth. We also echo Isaiah’s words, “ eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!,” when we repeat Simeon's “...for my eyes have seen Thy Salvation...”

During the pandemic stay-at-home order, my mother languished in her home, as medical appointment after medical appointment was postponed. The oral surgeon would have to wait. She also was not able for two and a half months to go to church. The cancer did not care.

Finally, she was able to see an oral surgeon, and finally she was able to receive Holy Communion, which drives me to a different part of Scripture. In Mark 2:9, the event of Jesus healing the paralytic comes to a head when the Savior asks, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?” Pondering my mother’s condition, I want the cure for her bodily suffering. We are told to bring everything to the Lord, including petitions for those in need, so I ask the Lord as a beggar would.

Yet there is more at stake than these inherited, rotting bodies. For that reason, there is great joy knowing that my Mom finally received forgiveness at the Lord’s Table. What is more, she received that forgiveness, of all places, on her tongue.

Friday, June 5, 2020

“But Watch Lest Foes With Base Alloy”

What I on earth have done and taught,
Guide all your life and teaching;
So shall the kingdom’s work be wrought
And honored in your preaching.
But watch lest foes with base alloy
The heav’nly treasure should destroy;
This final word I leave you.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

This illustration for Martin Luther’s final verse of “Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice” (Kloria Publishing), is a counterpart to the book’s cover illustration. There is greater meaning beneath the two pretty pictures, but because of the times, we are forced to understand it more keenly.

There is no social distancing among those who approach the Lord’s Table. More importantly, there is no social distancing between the Lord Himself and those of His flock. He is not concealed by a mask, and we, because of Christ’s sacrifice, fear neither sickness nor death as we approach Him.

Hence, we bow as the crucifix processes past us. In some traditions, we bow as the Gospel – or, more properly, the Word – passes. Hence, we bow at the altar, acknowledging the very body and blood of the Lord Himself. While human reason cannot grasp this truth, we take our Lord at His Word.

Here, the words of Luther’s stanza drive home. The Reformer’s thinly-veiled warning does not directly regard Satan, but rather a more subtle foe. By context, most of us get the gist of the phrase “foes with base alloy,” but Luther paints a picture, through metallurgical terms, of those who may be counted among the  Believers, but whose beliefs are tainted by questionable and impure doctrine; those who wonder why we can’t ALL kneel at the Lord’s Table; those who ask, in eerily-familiar style, “Did He REALLY mean “This is my body?””


Giclée prints of images from ‘Dear Christians’ are available for purchase in two formats. To order or for more information, please e-mail me at

Sizes/prices for giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Eucharist Spread:”
30” x 19” / $140
24” x 15.2” / $110
16” x 10.1” / $75

Sizes/prices for giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Eucharist Vertical:”
18.8” x 24” / $120
12.5” x 16” / $75

“Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice,” (Kloria Publishing) is available through Concordia Publishing House and 

Friday, May 29, 2020

“I Am Your Rock And Castle”

To me He Said:
Stay close to Me,
I am your rock and castle.
Your ransom I Myself will be;
For you I strive and wrestle.
For I am yours, and you are Mine,
And where I am you may remain;
The foe shall not divide us.
Copyright © Edward Riojas

Parallel trains of thought ran behind this illustration in “Dear Christians One And All Rejoice” (Kloria Publishing), and a section of the “Te Deum Polyptych” I created for Our Savior Luther Church, Grand Rapids, Mich. I hit a visual roadblock with the Te Deum’s “...we therefore pray Thee to help Thy servants...,” until I was reminded how the Lord helps us through an inundation of Word and Sacraments. Even observant artists don’t always see the obvious.

Martin Luther’s stanza in ‘Dear Chrisitans’ gave me similar pause when thinking of visuals. Unlike the understated phrase in the ‘Te Deum,’ however, Luther’s verse is packed with almost too much theology to illustrate. I understood what the words meant, but I could not easily envision it.

The solution lay again, in part, with Word and Sacrament. I also appealed to the historical approach I was using throughout the book by giving a nod to ancient architecture, and by using the type of decorative embellishment Luther might have seen in his day. But the slightly over-wrought design is more than simple decoration.

The last lines of the stanza echo Christ’s analogy of ‘The Vine and branches,’ illustrating how we are inseparable from our Lord. It takes a little straining of the eyes, but behind the Host, the Vine is cruciform in shape, hinting at greater truths behind the words, “ransom” and “strive and wrestle.” The complexity of leaves and tendrils point to the whole Christian Church that is nourished by The Vine.

See how true it is that, especially in these days, The Word and Sacraments  – and our longing for them – are our rock and castle! See how by them there is abundant life that flourishes beyond the telling! See how nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!”


Giclée prints of images from ‘Dear Christians’ are available for purchase in two formats. To order or for more information, please e-mail me at

Sizes/prices for giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Chalice Spread:”
30” x 19” / $140
24” x 15.2” / $110
16” x 10.1” / $75

Sizes/prices for giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Chalice Vertical:”
18.8” x 24” / $120
12.5” x 16” / $75

“Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice,” (Kloria Publishing) is available through Concordia Publishing House and 

Friday, May 22, 2020

“Now To My Father I Depart”

Now to My Father I depart,
From earth to heav’n ascending,
And, heav’nly wisdom to impart,
The Holy Spirit sending;
In trouble He will comfort you
And teach you always to be true
And into truth shall guide you.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I chose to showcase this illustration on the day after Ascension Day for obvious reasons. It was created for the book, “Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice” (Kloria Publishing), and illustrates a stanza written by Martin Luther.

Luther’s words condensed two ideas in this verse, which ultimately made for an unusual piece of art. I doubt that I am original in this, but a little visual research didn’t turn up anything identical. Sure, there are plenty of paintings depicting the Ascension of our Lord. Yes, there are paintings of the Holy Spirit descending. There are even paintings of Christ Jesus, reclining on clouds, watching the Holy Spirit descend, and there are paintings of the Holy Spirit [and The Father] waiting as Christ ascends into heaven. In the painting for this book, however, I intentionally did something different.

In a scene that, for lack of a better analogy, is very much akin to the workings of an elevator, Christ ascends, while the counterweight of the Holy Spirit descends with equal speed. The worm’s-eye view also helps to accentuate the feeling of motion. We strain our necks to watch the fast-fleeting Lord, even as the Dove comes down to earth.

Of course, we always associate the coming of the Holy Spirit with Pentecost, so there has always been a bit of a lag in the Church year between the two events. Those nine days have traditionally been a time of fasting. And waiting.

On the other hand, the Lord promised, “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.” It’s with that comfort that I depicted the Spirit passing Christ Jesus as the Savior ascended, and, if you catch the detail, Christ’s pierced hand is in a position of blessing. Even as He departs, He does not leave us as orphans.


Giclée prints of images from ‘Dear Christians’ are available for purchase in two formats. To order or for more information, please e-mail me at

Sizes/prices for giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Ascension Spread:”
30” x 19” / $140
24” x 15.2” / $110
16” x 10.1” / $75

Sizes/prices for giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Ascension Vertical:”
18.8” x 24” / $120
12.5” x 16” / $75

“Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice,” (Kloria Publishing) is available through Concordia Publishing House and

Friday, May 15, 2020

Signs and Confessions

“The Son obeyed His Father’s will...”

Copyright © Edward Riojas

These two page spreads do not appear back to back in the book, “Good Christians, One And All Rejoice,” (Kloria Publishing), but they are very closely related. The birth, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus is expressed by Martin Luther in two verses of his hymn.

It’s a bit hard to unravel the rich theology Luther weaves into the hymn, but visual strands of the whole can be seen when, for example, these two illustrations are placed side by side. In the one, a docile lamb rests. In the other The Lamb of God , obeying His Father’s will, is docile in death.

In the one, a seemingly insignificant sign, given by angels, is shown. In the other, the same sign is made manifest in the swaddled body of Christ, placed in a stone tomb.

In the one, a heavenly light points the way to the New King. In the other, our Lord IS the Light that draws the world to Himself.

Hopefully, the illustrations in this book give proper homage, as do Luther’s words, to the rich tapestry of the Gospel we confess.


Giclée prints of images from ‘Dear Christians’ are available for purchase in two formats. To order or for more information, please e-mail me at

Sizes/prices for giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Nativity Spread:”
30” x 19” / $140
24” x 15.2” / $110
16” x 10.1” / $75

Sizes/prices for giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Nativity Vertical:”
18.8” x 24” / $120
12.5” x 16” / $75

Sizes/prices for giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Easter Spread:”
30” x 19” / $140
24” x 15.2” / $110
16” x 10.1” / $75

Sizes/prices for giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Easter Vertical:”
18.8” x 24” / $120
12.5” x 16” / $75

“Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice,” (Kloria Publishing) is available through Concordia Publishing House and

Friday, May 8, 2020

“Bright Jewel of My Crown”

God said to His beloved Son:
It’s time to have compassion.
Then go bright jewel of My crown,
And bring to all salvation.
From sin and sorrow set them free;
Slay bitter death for them that they
May live with You forever.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

This illustration, created for “Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice” (Kloria Publishing), was the most difficult to conceptualize. I wanted to stay true to Martin Luther’s hymn text, but visualizing those words eventually went down and unusual path.

The stanza begins with a conversation between Persons of the Holy Trinity, to which we are oddly privy.

This divine dialogue shows up in Holy Scripture. Genesis 1:26a, declares, “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Again in Genesis 11:6-7, regarding the tower of Babel, “And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech.” The words “us” and “our” are significant.

Visualizing the “jewel” in Luther’s stanza teetered between brilliance and heresy. Admittedly, it is impossible for mortals to fully understand the mystery of the Holy Incarnation, and it is lunacy to claim as much. It is with that lack of full understanding that I dared to show the preincarnate Christ as a tiny fetus while still descending from heaven. However, I stand behind the truth that, as a seemingly insignificant Being, the Son’s preeminence was – and still is – blindingly significant and brilliant. He is, indeed, the bright jewel of the Father’s crown.

While reminiscent of a cross-topped crown, the gold ornamentation around the fetal Christ is actually formed in a tri-radiant nimbus, confessing that Christ Jesus is a Person of the Holy Trinity. In Honor of Him, the angels dare not even look on His countenance. And in a preemptive, divine action against those who futilely strive toward the perfection of heaven, The Father's Hand of blessing brings down to us His greatest Blessing – The Son.


Giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Procession,” are available for purchase in two formats. To order or for more information, please e-mail me at

Sizes/prices for giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Crown Spread:”
30” x 19” / $140
24” x 15.2” / $110
16” x 10.1” / $75

Sizes/prices for giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Crown Vertical:”
18.8” x 24” / $120
12.5” x 16” / $75

“Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice,” (Kloria Publishing) is available through Concordia Publishing House and

Friday, May 1, 2020

“My Own Good Works”

My own good works all came to naught,
No grace or merit gaining;
Free will against God's judgment fought,
Dead to all good remaining.
My fears increased till sheer despair
Left only death to be my share;
The pangs of hell I suffered.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Martin Luther continues his dark train of thought in this stanza of “Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice,” pointing to the Reformer’s state of despair. The book of the same name was produced by Kloria Publishing.

In the illustration for this stanza, Luther walks past a morality play in progress. Such productions were often a strange conglomeration of drama, dark humor, and questionable theology. They typically included unsuspecting actors being swallowed by the ugly maw of hell, as is shown here. The threat of damnation must have been a constant companion for those who depended on their own good works for salvation. In Luther’s case, it was an unbearable weight. To highlight his emotional and spiritual state even more, I’ve included a couple of blissfully-ignorant children, whose relative innocence has not yet been polluted by the teachings of Rome.

Even the invented, misplaced hopes so deftly promoted by Rome did little to ease troubled minds. In a silhouette behind Luther, a banner bearing official Papal seals urges the faithful to buy indulgences.

Luther could not escape these ever-present reminders of his own insufficiency. Thanks be to God, neither could he escape the Hound of Heaven, Who pursued the Reformer with the Light of the Gospel and eventually led him to discover the Grace of a loving Savior.


Again, I don’t plan to offer giclée prints of this particular image unless someone twists my arm.

“Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice,” (Kloria Publishing) is available through Concordia Publishing House and 

Friday, April 24, 2020

“So Firmly Sin Possessed Me”

Fast bound in Satan's chains I lay;
Death brooded darkly o'er me.
Sin was my torment night and day;
In sin my mother bore me.
But daily deeper still I fell;
My life became a living hell,
So firmly sin possessed me.
Copyright © Edward Riojas

Not every waking moment of the Christian’s life is filled with joy and exultation. Sometimes life seems to have little meaning. Oftentimes Satan wheedles his way into the nooks and crannies of our being and threatens to undo us at every turn. Sometimes life just sucks. It is very comforting for us, therefore, that Martin Luther opened up and revealed the less-heroic corners of his mind.

Illustrating this stanza of “Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice” (Kloria Publishing), was a bit of a challenge, and it was also one of the reasons I decided to use a historic approach to the book. Most of us are familiar with the intense doubt, the fear of damnation, and the self-flagellation which consumed the Reformer.

Besides Death visually looming over Luther, there are other clues to his inner turmoil in the illustration. I intentionally included an unlit candle. The man could not yet see the Light of the Word in its fullness. Divine Wisdom was not yet his. Although volumes lay before him, he lived in the dark; he was constrained and tortured; he was “Fast bound in Satan’s chains.”

It is almost as if the viewer of this illustrations WILLS the plagued figure to simply raise his head and see the image of Love and Grace before him; we want him to look to Christ as the all-atoning sacrifice, not only for Luther’s sins, but for the sins of the whole world.


Thus far I don’t plan to offer giclée prints of this image – that is, unless someone twists my arm.

“Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice,” (Kloria Publishing) is available through Concordia Publishing House and

Friday, April 17, 2020

“With Exultation Springing”

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The cover art for “Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice” (Kloria Publishing), is also the illustration to accompany the first stanza of Martin Luther’s hymn. It is, in a sense, the centerpiece of the book.

Unfortunately for some of us, we must forego what is seen in that illustration. With common sense, Federal limitations and, in some cases, excessive state mandates heaped on for good measure, the gathering of believers has been greatly curtailed. Our only defense is that this has not happened out of neglect. I had no idea that this particular painting would one day create yearning to simply gather in church.

On the other hand, I did intend to play the “yearning card,” albeit with different purpose. When kneeling at the Lord’s Table, I am reminded, through the liturgy, that we are not alone in our praise of the Lord. Together with angels and archangels and all the host of heaven, we adore The Lamb. In the illustration, those sainted members of the family of God hover, as it were, above our heads. We don’t normally see them, but we know they are present. Family members in glory, the glorious company of the apostles, the noble army of martyrs, the goodly fellowship of the prophets, the young, the old, men, women, members of every nation; they join with us “with exultation springing.” We deeply yearn to one day be reunited with them.

Central to all this is an image of our Savior, Christ Jesus, which leads a procession into the sanctuary of the church. His ransomed children bow in honor as a reminder of His death passes by. And if such an image does not stir our memory, then surely Luther’s words do: “What price our ransom cost Him!”


Giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Procession,” are available for purchase in two formats. To order or for more information, please e-mail me at PLEASE NOTE: Due to the current stay-at-home mandate, prints will not be shipped out until the end of April, at the earliest.

Sizes/prices for giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Procession Spread:”
30” x 19” / $140
24” x 15.2” / $110
16” x 10.1” / $75

Sizes/prices for giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Procession Vertical:”
18.8” x 24” / $120
12.5” x 16” / $75

“Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice,” (Kloria Publishing) is available through Concordia Publishing House and

Friday, April 10, 2020

“My Wretched State”

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It is easy, on this Friday we call “Good,” to focus on the pathetic state of Jesus as He poured out His blood on the cross. With unseen sanctuaries draped in black; with our minds dwelling on the Passion of our Lord, we remember the bloody wretch of a God-Man slowly dying on a wooden cross. Christ, however, was not alone in his wretchedness.

In his hymn, “Dear Christians One And All Rejoice,” Martin Luther reminds us of our own condition in the words, “But God had seen my wretched state before the world’s foundation...” WE were wretched.

To illustrate this verse of the hymn, I chose to use a diptych – a double panel. The left panel shows the Fall, with its antidote, the crucifixion of Christ, on the right. Bridging the two panels is a figure of the Satan, who descends the first tree and is impaled by the second, greater tree. This reflects the Proper Preface for Lent, “...that he who by a tree once overcame might likewise by a tree be overcome, through Christ, our Lord...”

The illustration also alludes to the words of 1 Corinthians 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” and again in verse 45, “Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”

The fact that Satan is done in, that his head is crushed, and that his accusing black tongue is silenced by the Word Incarnate is beyond significant. Our nakedness is now covered by Christ’s righteousness which was laid bare, on the cross, for the world to see. This is, indeed, Good.

Giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Salvation,” are available for purchase in two formats. To order or for more information, please e-mail me at PLEASE NOTE: Due to the current stay-at-home mandate, prints will not be shipped out until the end of April, at the earliest.

Sizes/prices for giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Salvation Spread:”
30” x 19” / $140
24” x 15.2” / $110
16” x 10.1” / $75

Sizes/prices for giclée prints of “Dear Christians: Salvation Vertical:”
18.8” x 24” / $120
12.5” x 16” / $75

The book, “Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice,” (Kloria Publishing) is available through and Concordia Publishing House.

Friday, April 3, 2020

“Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice”

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Finally, the book is out. “Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice” (Kloria Publishing), may seem ill-timed in its release but, even after a year and a half in the works, its timing is spot on. If anything, current events have forced us to consider what makes us happy versus what makes us joyful. For Christians, there is a vast difference between the two and hymns, such as the one illustrated in the book, show us why.

In this and upcoming blog posts, I hope to give insight into some artistic decisions that went into the project. I also hope to add a smidgen of insight into Martin Luther’s life as he wrote the hymn.

Those who open the book will immediately be confronted by a conscious decision that was made. The publisher and I discussed the setting of the book, and whether it should be a modern setting or something else. I decided to go with a historical setting that would be close to Luther’s day. There were two reasons for this:

Firstly, modern settings quickly become dated when illustrated. Even the most up-to-date clothing fashions, hairstyles, and the like become embarrassingly-passé within a few years. Books illustrated with that sort of modern appeal soon find themselves collecting dust on a shelf. A historical approach, on the other hand, has a much better chance of standing the test of time, and has a much longer – and useful – shelf life.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, there are verses within the hymn that seem to have been very personal to Luther. While we can identify with most of his words, phrases such as, “Death brooded darkly over me,” point to specific crossroads in the Reformer’s life. Those sentiments can only be best expressed when using visuals drawn from Martin Luther’s day; when forcing the reader to see things through sixteenth century eyes.

It was a bit unnerving for me in making an attempt to visualize the hymn-writer’s intent, and daunting to supplement such an important example of Lutheran hymnody. I do hope Luther would approve. Some day, I’m sure I will find out.

“Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice,” (Kloria Publishing) is available through

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.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Apostolic Symbols: The Sharpest Tools In The Shed

One of several symbols
for St. Bartholomew

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Let me preface this post by conceding the Apostles probably didn’t have a cushy life. I doubt any of them considered legal action when they were slandered. Or when they were thrown out of the synagogue. Or worse. Being given the title of “Sent one” in Jesus’ time meant that you also made Satan’s most-wanted list.

That being said, tradition sometimes gets out of hand, and this is true with the Apostles and their lives. I recently started work on a project for Ecclesiastical Sewing which will be based on the Apostles. My chief source for imagery is “Church Symbolism,” a book by the respected F.R. Webber, who was a Lutheran pastor of considerable artistic skill. His collection of recognizable symbols is well-rounded, and many more symbols not visually included are given mention in the pages.

What becomes clear is that, based on their symbols, the Apostles met some very sorry ends, indeed. Sure, you will see the crossed keys of St. Peter. You might see a rooster symbol for him, too. Then you see an upside down cross, and things get ugly.

One of St. James’ symbols is a sword. One of St. Philip’s symbols is a spear. St. Bartholomew has a scimitar – and flaying knives. St. Thomas has a carpenter’s square, but there is also a spear and a quiver of arrows. St. James the Less has a fuller’s bat (I had to look that one up, too), some stones, and a saw. Not to be outdone, St. Simon has a saw, a boat hook, a couple of oars, and a halberd. St. Matthias overkills things with a glaive, a battle ax, a spear, a sword, and some rocks. Overkill, indeed.

This unwieldy collection of sharp tools and weapons points to a rather convoluted history of the blessed Apostles. I was always under the impression that they were all martyred, save John. This view is probably the most popular, but by far the most unlikely. The apostolic symbols point to a collection of rather unreliable histories, legends, and hearsay. “Histories” were based on sometimes-dubious stories handed down through an oral tradition akin to a bad game of telephone. One might also surmise that some stories were invented to enhance the devotion of a given Apostle. No one, after all, wants to venerate a saint who dropped dead from high cholesterol. There is no symbol for that.

Hence, some histories relate that an apostle was thrown from a parapet, then stoned, then, after reviving, was run through with a spear, and finally was sawn in two for good measure.

In fact, Holy Scripture does not mention how most of the apostles met their ends. Only James the Greater is spoken of in the opening verses of Acts 12. Although counted with the original apostles, we simply won’t talk of Judas Iscariot.

Interestingly, the early Church recognized only Peter, Paul, and James the Greater as being martyred apostles. Perhaps even more interesting, some theologians place John the Baptist among the martyred apostles.

We needn’t get squeamish, however, if we spy a sinister saw in a stain-glassed window that commemorates an apostle. Inaccuracy has morphed, over the years, into identifying symbols for some of the most beloved saints in Scripture. And while Scripture itself may describe them as being "not many wise," yet the Church has counted them among the sharpest tools in the shed.