Friday, December 29, 2017

What makes your Christmas?

"Madonna and Child" Edward Riojas.
1998. (Collection of the artist)
Copyright © Edward Riojas
Copyright © Edward Riojas

A caller informed the radio DJ, “It isn’t Christmas unless I make banket.”

That was one reaction when a local [Christian] radio station fielded the question, “What one thing ‘makes’ your Christmas?,” and there followed all manner of warm and fuzzy traditions that, apparently, make the season bright. It was rather sad that most callers danced around the obvious. Whether we care to admit it, however, most of us have a similar list of ingredients. Things like “family,” “music,” and “presents” usually find their way into the recipe. Personally, I could throttle all those who prayed so earnestly for a “white Christmas.”

While I can be as sentimental as the next guy, it’s irritating that we put strings on Christmas. It’s aggravating that we feel the need to feed our emotions, and work ourselves up to some euphoric plateau we think worthy of the Holy Day. Christmas, however, comes whether we feel it or not. Christmas is not a state of mind. Most of the time, Christmas is definitely not in our hearts. Claiming that Christmas is in our hearts belies the reality of Jesus’ birth, and is contrary to Holy Scripture.

“He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive Him.” –  John 1:10-11

The simple fact that there was no room for them should give a clue to how much of the Christ was in the hearts of those so near to the first Christmas. Add to that a cranky, self-absorbed ruler who took offense when another king was born, and it’s obvious that many people didn’t want Him. At all.

But still He came.

Even later, when the ruler of the universe revealed His own identity, few wanted Him. Most were not getting warm and fuzzy inside. Jesus was not wanted – not THIS Jesus, anyway. Oh, sure, crowds fed their emotions, and worked themselves up to a plateau of hatred and disgust. They had so much Christmas in their hearts that they nailed Jesus to a tree. The all-knowing God knew this would happen.

And still He came.

That Christ Jesus, knowing beforehand what He must go through to save us; that He, the ruler of the cosmos and only God, descended from His royal throne for the sake of undeserving man, shows the everlasting, perfect love of our dear Lord.

It doesn’t really matter if there is banket or snow or even family for Christmas. It doesn’t matter if your tree is real or fake or if there aren’t any presents under it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a tree at all. It doesn’t matter if you feel alone or if you feel like trash. Christ came for you. Christ came for me. That, in essence, is what makes Christmas.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Hymn for Christmas

"Madonna and Child" Edward Riojas. 2017.
(Copyright © Edward Riojas.
Neither text nor image may be reproduced.) 

Copyright © Edward Riojas

O Boundless Lord of Heaven

O boundless Lord of heaven,
Who tented far below
The canopy of angels
That man Thy Grace might know,

Creation Thou didst measure – 
A span of Thine own hand.
The seas, Thou didst create them,
And richly blessed the land.

Where dost Thy presence faileth?
Where dost Thy train not go?
What space might e’er contain Thee,
That we, our Lord, might know?

Thine never-ending glory
Thou settest near aside;
The Swaddled for the Boundless,
Among us to abide.

The snare wast set for Satan,
Who plagues our fallen race,
To tempt the Tempter’s blood-lust
And thereby sin efface.

O ever-gracious Christ-Child,
To Thee we give our praise;
To Father and The Spirit,
Our gladsome voices raise! Amen.

 – © EJR

Friday, December 15, 2017

Towering Consequence

"The Tower of Siloam." Edward Riojas
(Year C, Lent 3, Ecclesiastical Art CD)
Copyright © Edward Riojas

Death and destruction. If it bleeds, it leads. The Jerusalem events made huge headlines in Jesus’ day, but Scripture spares us the particulars.

Luke 13 records a sensational event that is mashed together with another equally-disturbing news item — both brought up while Jesus was preaching to crowds on topics of interpreting the time and settling accounts with accusers.

Being eager to add a bit of input to Christ’s sermon, a few in the crowd brought up the rather horrific account of Pilate adding martyr’s blood to Jewish sacrificial blood. Apparently, the crowd’s attentiveness was waning. Apparently, they wanted to hear about something more juicy than interpreting the time.

It is human nature. No one but fallen man so richly relishes wallowing in the sins and foibles and misfortunes of his fellows. We have this morbid attraction to brokenness. In our misguided quest to fix things, we also love to place fault where we think it belongs.

Thus, Jesus brings up another event that surely was a topic of their discussion: The collapse of the tower of Siloam. One must be living under a rock to not feel a twinge of recollection from 9/11. Christ then asked a rhetorical question that was a bigger news flash for His audience: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them; do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who live in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

While our fallen state and the compounding of our sins certainly doesn't help our brokenness this side of Paradise, the tragedies of this life are not the direct result of specific sins. In some corners of Christendom, however, this is news, indeed. It may be because the Lord did indeed bring punishment upon specific sins of the Israelites. However, your unemployment and your flat tire and your failing grade and your diabetes and your chemotherapy have little, if anything, to do with some heinous sin. Those of you who beg to differ probably have a bigger argument with the Lord.

If the truth be told; if Divine punishment was doled out with such ferocity for our sin, then more women would give birth to ashes. We are that inbred with sin.

The rude question of “What sin did you commit to merit this?” is poorly aimed. A much better question is: “What did I do to merit Christ’s righteousness; what did I do to merit salvation?” In both cases, the answer is the same: Nothing.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Thirteen Cards A-Failing

Copyright © Edward Riojas

If you’re looking for sincerity, this isn’t the week.

I assume some of you have already mailed a batch of Christmas cards to friends and family. Others are opting out, and still others haven’t yet found the right card that is oozing with enough sentimentality – and glitter.

In an attempt to be helpful, I’ve decided to give you some ideas in the form of vintage greeting cards. One can hardly call them Christmas cards, in spite of the sentiments. I will try to give explanations where needed, or simply make stuff up. It's often better that way.

Let’s get started with the first one.

This is about as safe and useless as they come. A snowman with undisclosed "best" wishes. Seriously, that's the best you can do? And the only thing I wish is that they had picked blue for sky and snow instead of visceral red.

Everyone I know has root crops on their minds when the holidays roll around, so what's not to like about, uh, Mr. Beet, or whatever-the-heck he is, on a card. Makes sense to me.  Here's a hint: A walking stick and monocle will never sufficiently dress up something you pull out of the dirt. (My apologies to Mr. Peanut.)

Rockets and interplanetary travel have lots to do with Christmas. How else does Santa do it? Hopefully, jolly old St. Nick has miscalculated his trajectory, and will fly past Pluto and into a black hole.

"Kris Kringle" and "kleptomaniac" are pretty darn close in the dictionary. Otherwise, why would he give us a weird grimace with all that crap stuffed in his boots? Call security! This guy bypassed the checkout lanes and is already halfway out the door.

The Ghost of Chewbaccas Past is apparently not a new thing. Pondering the misery of frozen terriers during the holidays is also old hat. This card has "Merry" written all over it. Well, okay, only on the bottom in nearly-illegible type.

Here's an idea: Let's put dumb animals in a dumb tableau doing dumb things. Sheeesh. Everyone knows kangaroos don't wear slippers. They wear wingtips.

Let's spread a little cheer with a dead bird. Hey, there's always someone less fortunate than you, so put on your Stitchy McYarnpants sweater and smile for the camera already!

Drinking too much spiked eggnog is bad for all concerned, as is evident with little Suzy Snickerdoodle, who obviously fell down in front of her intoxicated cat. But we can make a card out of that.

A creepy Santa playing with dolls and an unconscious child warms the hearths and hearts of everyone. Yeah, right. I'm pretty sure some kind of interpersonal boundaries have been crossed here.

And what about clowns?! And policemen?! And a gutted deer?! I'd rather get roughed up by a Krampus than look at this uncomfortable scene.

Who knew the ornaments on your tree could be so heinous? Apparently, there's a part of Christmas that I've been missing.

Anyone want a helping of Christmas pudding? Just for the record: It's not my fault if you have nightmares of pockmarked, peg-legged men wearing glasses of milk on their heads. No wonder the artist used B-movie horror type and then stuck a fork in it.

Finally, a greeting card that actually says what I want it to say.

Friday, December 1, 2017

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

Copyright © Edward Riojas

In every communicative endeavor there are two parties involved. This is true of art. An audience does not benefit anything unless something is first produced, and the work of authors, artists and musicians is for naught unless there is an audience.

I was recently blessed in creating an image of the risen Christ behind the altar in a local church. Working on-site allowed occasional conversations with the pastor, and at several points Rev. David Rufner and I discussed the visage of Christ Jesus.

As an artist and creator of what must necessarily be an idealized image of Christ’s face, there is but one opportunity to render an appropriate likeness, and much thought and effort goes into its execution. For some scenarios – Jesus praying in Gethsemene, for example – it is fairly straightforward; simply show an anguished face dripping with sweaty blood. Well, okay, it is somewhat straightforward. In other scenarios it is not simple at all.

An artist is often torn between showing a just God and a loving God. There are Orthodox icons that attempt to show this very thing simultaneously and fail miserably in the attempt. A resurrected Christ, in similar manner, should show deep joy in being crucified for our benefit, but a toothy grin is simply wrong. The degree of expression becomes critical.

The viewer, too, is faced with a dilemma of equal importance. Like the goyim who approached Philip as recorded in John 12, we desire to see Jesus, but our expectations are rarely in tune with reality, and therein lies all manner of problems.
Detail of "Resurrected Christ"
Edward Riojas. 2017.
(New Hope Lutheran Church, Hudsonville, Mich.)
Copyright © Edward Riojas. Image may not be
reproduced for any purpose.

When St. John the Forerunner was in prison and wanted to definitively know about Jesus, the latter sent a message to John describing miraculous fulfillment of prophesies. Jesus then added the somewhat odd, “...Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Later in the same Gospel account, Jesus preaches about John, and asks some very pointed questions of his audience.

““What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. What then did you go out to see?””

John was indeed a prophet, but Jesus, in His role as Prophet, could have asked the pointed questions of Himself. We wish to see Jesus, but what do we go out to see? What do we expect to see? When confronted by the reality of Christ, does jealousy ensue as in the case of the Pharisees, or does awe manifest itself as in Peter’s confession?

In the case of the Resurrected Christ I painted for New Hope Lutheran Church, I am thankful that the image is not so crucial as the reality behind which it stands. How appropriate that my artwork, no matter how adequate, is but a pale shadow compared to the reality of Christ’s body and blood on the altar of the Lord. There is what the faithful come to see, and not only see, but to “Taste and see and the Lord is good.” Many might take offence. Others might content themselves with seeing a reed shaken by the wind – or less.

Not by our own determination or righteous resolve, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, are we brought to the portals of the sanctuary and humbly inquire, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”