Friday, October 27, 2017

Luther: For All the Saints

Copyright © Edward Riojas

In many Lutheran congregations, Church festivals are celebrated on the Sunday after the actual date. Because we don’t want to minimize the importance of the Lutheran Reformation, the festival of All Saints is most often kept separate from the festival of the Reformation, even though they are but a day apart.
“Martin Luther on His Deathbed”
Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder.
1546. (Lower Saxony State Museum,
Hannover, Germany)

At the risk of appearing as a morbid curmudgeon while the rest of the Lutheran church is celebrating 500 years of the Reformation, the death of Martin Luther is something worth considering.

The fact that he was not burned at the stake as were his reformist predecessors is noteworthy in itself. Luther avoided the death of a labeled heretic, even when he constantly spoke his mind in the presence of nobility and clergy alike; even when he wrote against errors in the Roman Catholic church; even when he wanted to give the common folk what was denied them and protect them from church-endorsed heretical practises. It is easy for us to thump our chests and declare that truth always triumphs – we have 500 years of insulation between us and the reality of Luther’s day. Luther’s “peaceful death,” therefore, is important.

Regional folklore had a tight hold on the people of Luther’s day, and superstitions were sometimes interwoven in the already-questionable teachings of Roman Catholicism. Hence, the church was quick to invent accounts of the reformer’s death to suit their agenda. To us it may seem a trite matter, but Luther’s opponents did not want him to have a “peaceful death.” Doing so would force the papacy to recognize that Luther was indeed in heaven, and that, in turn, would topple massive chunks of their theology. Instead, they wished he died either suddenly or in his sleep – both would bolster convictions that he died an evil death and therefore was of the devil. Such were the superstitions of the day. Ill rumors were spread immediately after his death that ranged from shrieks in the death chamber to demons fluttering about Luther’s room to Luther’s empty grave emitting a sulfurous odor. To preempt such nonsense, the death chamber was filled with many witnesses who recorded a far different event.
“Luther’s letztes Bekenntnis”
(Luther’s last Confession)
William Pape. 1905.
(Luther’s Death House Museum,
Eisleben, Germany)

Ever the reformer, even in death, Luther did not exchange his clothes for a monk’s frock, as would have been acceptable – especially to those who expected him to repent of his teachings and return at the last to Roman Catholicism. Luther did not recant any of his beliefs. Neither did he hold a rosary, as was customary.

In his final moments, Luther was asked,"Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ and the doctrines you have preached?"

He simply replied, “Yes.”

Luther’s resolute confession, along with his empty hands, could arguably be one of his greatest sermons.

We rejoice that Luther died thus, we rejoice for all the saints who have gone before us with the sign of the Cross, and we rejoice that Jesus Christ defeated death by His own death and resurrection so that we may be added to His train.

May The Lord keep us ever in the palm of His hand, and bring us to that day when we, too, may endure a “peaceful death.”

Friday, October 20, 2017

“Christ Carrying the Cross:” A lesson

"Christ Carrying the Cross"
Hieronymus Bosch, or a follower of Bosch. 1510–1535.
(Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, Belgium)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Hieronymus Bosch always seemed a tad “off.” My guess is that his elementary school report card often carried the comment, “Runs with scissors.” He was the kid who was blessed with imagination disproportionate to his ability to filter anything passing through his noggin. If there is one quintessential Bosch piece, it must be his “Garden of Earthly Delights.” Most folks are at least vaguely familiar with the painting, most adolescent boys laugh at the artist’s propensity for putting things “where the sun doesn’t shine,” and most everyone assumes Bosch often got confused over which mushrooms were actually edible.

The quirky artist had lasting influence, however, and there is a possibility that at least one artist walked a very similar path. If this is so, then Bosch bequeathed not only his artistic approach, but also his mushroom bisque recipe to the unnamed follower who painted “Christ Carrying the Cross.” The debate over who painted the original – whether a follower or Bosch himself – is relatively recent, but we all know the thing was painted by an odd duck.

“Christ Carrying the Cross” simply bothers us.

There is a bit of logic behind the cast of uncomely characters, but it doesn’t much help in our appreciation, or lack thereof, of the piece. In the upper right, a death-like man rolls his eyes back, as if to heaven. He is the repentant thief, who is read the riot act by a snaggletoothed monk.

The thief’s unrepentant counterpart is in the lower right, who growls defiantly at his accusers – each of which is uglier, in turn.

At lower left is St. Veronica, who apparently is so enthralled by the holy shroud that she misses the reality of the Lord behind her. In that respect, her singular beauty is highly suspect.

In fact, there is so much ugliness in the masterpiece that the quiet visage of Jesus Christ sticks out like a sore thumb, and the mere existence of the painting challenges the viewer’s idea of beauty in art. The artist uses a different brand of ugliness that even Italian Renaissance master da Vinci couldn’t – or wouldn’t – pull off in his own drawings. The faces smack of something drawn on the edge of a boring Math book. They are caricatures of humanity. Their piercings might shock even the most radical Goth of today. Their warts and dental hygiene are questionable. The crowd is simply hideous, and it bothers us.

When pondering “Christ Carrying the Cross,” Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13, somehow came to mind. ‘The love chapter’ is one of the most-used – and arguably one of the most inappropriate – sections of Scripture read during wedding ceremonies.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

One can easily imagine the bride batting her eyelashes under a veil while the passage is read at the altar, and we can see the groom stealing sideways glances with fawn eyes. If, however, St. Paul‘s words are used as a shopping list of what should be expected in this life, let alone a marital life, then all of us would realize how bankrupt we are when it’s time to “check out.” “Christ Carrying the Cross” comes back to haunt us with its reality, we find ourselves in that painting, and it isn’t pretty.

But Paul’s words are not a shopping list for us; Paul’s words aren’t Law. They are Gospel.

If 1 John 4:8 is correct – and it most certainly is – then it is proper, at least for the purpose of illustration, to insert “Christ” where Paul uses the word “love” in his letter to the Corinthians.

This is where immense beauty returns to “Christ Carrying the Cross.” In spite of the sheer weight of ugliness, Love outshines every stroke of hideousness that we could ever bring to the tableau, and indeed have brought to the cross.

In this, we rejoice that Christ bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Friday, October 13, 2017

About That Cross

Copyright © Edward Riojas

A cross is a cross is a cross, until one starts digging into its history. What originally was a symbol of a gruesome Roman death eventually became something so diverse in design that it spilled over into the secular realm. The earliest forms of crosses – tau, anchor, and Latin varieties – were soon joined by Greek and Orthodox versions. Variety, of course, is the spice of life, even in a symbol of death. Renaissance coats-of-arms were emblazoned with enough variations that heraldic words were employed to describe them. Terms like “fitchy” and “pattée” and “cercelée” were employed to define the different forms. Leave it to the French to have a different word for everything.
Horse chamfron engraved
with the Smalcaldic motto

One variation that you might notice more recently is a Greek version (of four equal “arms”) with the letters V,D,M, and A in each of the angles. This particular cross is distinctly Lutheran in origin. Martin Luther, however, probably had little, if anything, to do with its inception. Perhaps he had other fish to fry.

The VDMA cross first appeared in the court of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony – also known as Frederick the Wise – who had it emblazoned on the sleaves of his court officials and servants. Luther most certainly saw the cross, because Frederick the Wise was one of the Reformer’s staunchest allies.

The device became a sort of informal banner around which the Smalcaldic League rallied. A loose confederation of German princes with the common enemy of papal intervention, the group took its name from the town of Schmalkalden. Originally, the group’s emphasis was theologically-based, but later it became militaristic, and the league antagonized the Holy Roman Emperor and his plan to thwart Lutheranism.
Cross designed by the author.
Copyright © Ecclesiastical Sewing

The League’s cross became emblazoned on armor, weaponry and foot soldiers’ tunics. Eventually, the expanded version of those abbreviated letters went beyond swords of war and horses’ chamfrons and onto coins and architectural details – some of which are still visible today.

The VDMA cross still has staying power. Its military connection has faded into history, but the theological significance is perhaps greater than ever. In this 500th year of the Reformation, we can still claim the motto, “Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum,” as our own. In a world in which the Church is still assaulted by powers of earth and hell, and in which lives of the Faithful are spent like so much grass, we yet join in proclaiming Peter’s inspired words, “The Word of the Lord Endures Forever.”

Friday, October 6, 2017

ArtPrize 2017: The Cause Effect

Detail of martyr names and rape victim names from the floor in front of "Ambrei as Potamiaena."

Copyright © Edward Riojas

ArtPrize 2017 is almost over, but there is plenty of reason to dwell on at least one aspect of the event – what happens when causes are taken up by artists. In a world where “Art for art’s sake” was once a catchword, it sometimes comes as a slight annoyance when artists shout their art atop a soapbox.

There are causes seemingly everywhere in the ArtPrize landscape. Topics ranging from equality to environmental responsibility to unjustified violence always pop up, and this year’s entries were no exception.

But there is a range of inherent hazards in the pursuit of awareness and causes and agendas.

Take the piece that hung next to mine during the event. The massive conglomeration of Chihuly-like plastic bottle florals might bring awareness to the problem of litter, but one wonders how long it will be before the thing itself heads to the dump instead of the closest recycling station; viewers stood in awe of the artist’s ability to deftly turn 200 lbs. of trash ... into 200 lbs. of trash.

Consider, too, the piece that hung on the other side of my piece. The 8 by 18-feet drawing brought to light issues dealing with water quality and availability. But it was done on paper – produced by mills which historically have been among the worst polluters of water.

In similar manner, a humongous image that floated in the Grand River forced us to think of native Americans being forced to contend with oil production in the Dakotas. But the message became mixed when the artist had the image printed on a plasticized material – an oil byproduct. Even the artist admitted the incongruity, leaving the viewer more puzzled.

My own piece, however, contained its own kind of hazard – a heartfelt one for which I was not wholly prepared. “Ambrei as Potamiaena” was essentially about Christian martyrdom, and the reality of clinging to Faith in an evil world. The names of more than 2,000 martyrs through history and across the globe bled down the frame and onto the floor. Because St. Potamiaena eventually became a patron saint of rape victims, I also allowed those who “shared in her suffering” to put their names in a slotted box so I could add them to the mix.

To my knowledge, I have no connections to rape victims, so the first name I found on a folded piece of paper was a jolt. The degree of separation between my cushy world and reality grossly diminished.

Rarely would anyone put a name in the box when the crowds thronged, but piles of names would await me in the quiet mornings, pointing to the lingering stigma of being a victim.

Visitors who stopped and read my artist statement were thankful. Some had tears. Some were young. Some were old. One woman chatted with me at length, thankful that I, a man, was addressing the issue. She was a rape victim and a published author on the subject.

Visitors stopped in silence, as if at a shrine. I tried to keep a noble face all the while – with one notable exception that brought me to my knees and produced tears.

Visitors occasionally asked if they might put in a sister’s name or a daughter’s name or a friends’ name, and I always allowed them. One smiling mother asked if she might put her daughter’s name in, so out of habit I said, “Yes.” She then turned to her daughter – not more than 9- or 10-years-old – and asked, “Honey, would you like to put your name in?” The girl smiled, then carefully spelled out her own name with big, loopy letters, and put it in the box.