Friday, February 23, 2018

When Nothing Less Will Do

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Once upon a year, when bow-tied attendants trotted up to cars at filling stations, folks took pride in keeping the old sedan running like a top. “Check the oil for you, sir?” was a standard question asked after rolling down the car window – that’s right, with a crank. That was before air bag recalls and catalytic converters. Auto garages boasted using genuine replacement parts, as opposed to cobbling things together with tractor parts and bailing wire, and they often advertised that fact with a prominent sign. It was a simply courtesy to let the customer know they were getting the best service.

In somewhat similar fashion, it has become a tradition to hang a crucifix near pulpits in Lutheran churches. While it isn’t a rule, it certainly is a help.

At very least, such sanctuary fixtures help congregants stay focused. As Swiss sculptor, Emil Thoman, said of one of his pulpit crucifixes, "It is a worthy presentation of Christ in His self-oblation. What preacher would not be satisfied to know that, even if the sermon might be poor, the people had something worth-while to attend to?"

Many of us, however, have a higher regard for our pastor’s preaching skills than that to which Thoman hinted. Indeed, it is significant when a pulpit crucifix is commissioned, and it speaks of the pastor and his congregation. I recently finished a commissioned painting that will serve as pulpit cross. A frame must still be constructed and fitted to the painting before delivery, but the image is enough for our present consideration.
Prep drawing for "Crucifixion."
Edward Riojas. 2017.
Copyright © Edward Riojas.
Image may not be reproduced.

Not everyone likes the idea of a crucifix. Some folks view history in purist fashion. They understand the past’s significance, but want to live in the present. Christ’s crucifixion, they argue, was only three hours out of His much longer life. And here I come, rubbing everyone’s face in His death.

To be fair, I have pulled a few punches with my depiction of the crucified Christ. Jesus was naked. It is only out of respect that I follow the path of most artistic forebears and use a drape to cover His nudity. Also, Jesus would have been more bloodied, but the viewer should certainly get the point without a more graphic representation. The weight of His dead body piled by sin, however, is plain enough. The transept of the cross bends. His flesh pulls at the nails. The words of the hymn writer echo harshly,

“O sorrow dread! Our God is dead.”

But the image of the dead Christ is enhanced further. Blood and water flow respectively into a chalice and baptismal font. The Gospel writer, John, drove home the fact that blood and water flowed from Christ’s wound. In writing the Gospel account, it seems overkill as John conveyed it, until one considers the point at which he was driving.

“But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness – his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.” (John 19: 34-35)

Being a good proto-Lutheran, John was pointing directly to the connection between the Sacraments of Holy Baptism, The Lord’s Supper and Jesus’ Death. While there was certainly no hovering chalice or baptismal font at the crucifixion, the connection is made confessionally clear in the painting.
Detail of "Crucifixion." Edward Riojas. 2018.
Copyright © Edward Riojas. Image may not be reproduced.

In fact, much is confessed in this image. One cannot enter the sanctuary and mindlessly gaze about the place without being confronted by what is taught there. And if there is any confusion about the visuals in that painting, then certainly the words it contains serve as a declaration that the faithful will not simply get acceptable service, but Divine Service, and that same worshiper will neither hear self-help preached, nor ten steps to better living preached. Rather, as the image boldly states, “We Preach Christ Crucified.”

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Flu: Women and Children First

Copyright © Edward Riojas

We have just started the season of Lent, but sometimes even the Church calendar gets trumped. It’s also flu season, and if you’ve been hit as I have recently, you know how effectively schedules and calendars can get re-worked due to illness. Everyone knows the flu is serious stuff – especially this particular season – but if we can’t chuckle over it’s short-lived command of our lives, then we must all go mad. Being forced to ponder the illness has allowed me to randomly collect one or two thoughts that don’t necessarily connect in any logical way. Blame it on the flu.
"The Doctor Schnabel (Dr. Beak) from Rome."
Attributed to Paul Fürst. c. 1656.

How it works:
Woman: “I think I’ve got the flu.” (*sniff)
Children, of no particular clan: “We don’t feel too good.” (*sniff)
Me, the pile of humanity that appears to have just been dropped by a large-bore elephant gun: “flu.” (*wheeze.hack.cough.)

The bigger they are
Women in general, and moms in particular, are by nature loaded with extra antitoxins, antibiotics, and anti venom. Children, by playing constantly in the dirt, have built up resistance to common maladies such as typhus, diphtheria, amoebic dysentery, rhinitis, whooping cough and compound fractures. Perhaps I’m just a baby, but I seem to always bear the brunt of symptoms. When I go down, I go down hard.

Casting call
Even when attempting to appear heroic and getting a couple of aspirin to ease my own suffering, I tend to look and sound like an extra from a zombie movie. I stumble across the house with one foot dragging and eyes half-closed. I grunt and groan and say unintelligible things more often than normal. Yes, more often than normal.

Dealing with light
Sometimes there aren’t enough curtains. The first room in which I quarantined myself did not have enough light-blocking window treatments. It also did not have enough sheets of plywood, small paintings, boxes, towels, blankets, pencils, paperclips, paint brushes, stacks of newspapers, furniture, mattresses and foam remnants to cover the windows. When all was said and done, it looked like the premises was overtaken by a hoarding vampire. And still the light came in.

Dealing with more light
The second room in which I quarantined myself had sufficient, light-blocking shades, but it also had a computer and a modem. The array of randomly-blinking lights drilled into my brain until subdued by piles of socks.

Whining like a baby
All I wanted was to burp. If you don’t know this feeling, then you’ve never had the flu. Pop and soda are never present in our house, so the request for something carbonated took a while to move up the chain of command. It seemed days. All I wanted was to burp. In a stretch, soft drinks sort of count as clear liquids – at least that is how logic works when one is ill. Honestly, all I wanted was to burp. One can then imagine my disappointment when the bottle finally arrived, massive quaffing began, and a single, sickly “blip” came out. All I wanted was to burp.

A forced vacation
No one wants to book a vacation to the middle of the Black Plague, but these two past weeks have certainly felt that way. Besides dropping everything on the calendar, I’ve muddled my brain with illness and with drugs that supposedly ease the same, and I’ve arrived at a destination feeling like a beat-up piñata. All this without leaving the comfort of a darkened room.

Maybe a beer will help me burp.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Things That Fly (And Others That Don’t)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Sometimes artists are to blame. Sometimes it’s Hollywood’s fault. Sometimes the problem is sentimental. And sometimes all of these ingredients are baked into one crappy casserole that shouldn’t be swallowed.

I’m talking about sappy ideas some folks have about angels, and a host of other things that are not even remotely associated with the host of heaven. Unravelling the truth from stupidity is long overdue, and it’s high time we wrap our heads around the difference.
"Nike of Samothrace"
220-185 B.C.
(The Louvre, Paris)

This gal is most assuredly the one most influential image behind many artistic renditions labeled as “angel.” The sculpture belongs to the cult surrounding Athena Nike, an ancient Greek goddess of victory. This particular piece, however, does not follow the traditional pattern of the goddess, in which she was shown wingless. Presumably, that was so victory would never leave the Athena Nike temples and their surrounding area.

This can be a generic term for specific heavenly ranks or, in proper context and in the singular, can even be used to indicate the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. It’s hard to get a good handle on the garden-variety angel, because they are not always given detailed descriptions in Holy Scripture and because there are different kinds. The typical commercial image, however, of a smiling, golden-haired damsel with fiber optic wings, does not fit at all with the reality of spiritual beings doing the will of God perfectly – even when man stupidly gets in their way.
"Cupid in the Landscape." c. 1510.
Giovanni Antonio Bazzi.
(The Hermitage, Russia)

This annoying little intruder loves to show up on St. Valentine’s Day. He is so stinking cute that few bother to ask what the heck an erotic, pagan god is doing at a party for a Christian saint and martyr. We can only hope that he overdoses on a ten pound box of questionable chocolates and retraces his steps across the river Styx.

Renaissance artists allowed their day’s massive interest in all things Classical run away from them. These Cupid-like punks flew straight out of Ancient Greece and started showing up everywhere, including sacred art. Apparently the only way to stop a running child, sans diaper, is to clip their wings. To make things even more confusing, sometimes the little tykes are referred to as “Cherubs.”
"Sistine Madonna" with
putti below. 1513-1514.
(Old Masters Gallery, Dresden)

These are the real deal and not some pack of squealing, flying kids. Don’t even think of getting on their wrong side. Three pairs of wings, but they only need one pair to fly.

We’re definitely on holy ground. Whenever you hear cherubim and seraphim in the same sentence, it’s probably a good idea to bow your head and acknowledge that the Lord of heaven and earth is nearby. And be ready for some serious post and lintel vibrations when they start praising God.

There IS a place for naked babies in sacred art. Context is the key. The Holy Innocents may LOOK like putti or cherubs, but they are young males from the region surrounding Bethlehem. They took the hit for the infant Jesus, when Herod found out he had serious kingly competition. The Holy Innocents can sometimes be seen in Christian imagery playing near Mary, the mother of our Lord, and occasionally can be seen carrying palm branches – a symbol for martyrdom.
"Madonna and Child Surrounded
by the Holy Innocents" 1616.
Peter Paul Rubens.
(The Louvre, Paris)

For some stupid reason, a lot of folks lean on the idea that humans earn wings when they die. Never mind the fact that Scripture pointedly says that Jesus Christ died for man – and not the angels. This alone should give real comfort, but apparently man wants more than that. “Every time a bell rings...” is a nuisance phrase that has lodged itself into the sentimentality of sappy dolts, thanks to Hollywood, and it has morphed itself into all sorts of nonsense. The belief that a child turns into an angel at death is an unfortunate, misguided, and false notion, and often is written into heart-rending obituaries. It is one idea, however, that simply does not fly.

Friday, February 2, 2018

It Should Have Been Me (No, It Shouldn’t Have)

"Crucified Slaves on the Via Appia." Fedor Andreevich Bronnikov. 1878. (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Even in our most-contemplative states, we Christians can be so blessedly stupid.

Christians, like every other segment of society, largely plod along in this life. We have jobs. We go to school. We buy groceries and drive on roads and wonder what the weather will be like.

But none of us lives in the hamlet of Hunky-dory. In spite of our hopes of getting a great deal at the grocery store and beating that red light, we know the life on which we plod is screwed up. Besides the multitude of little things that annoy us – like missing out on last week’s produce sale and getting a warning for running an orange light – there are usually bigger things that make our life’s road way more bumpy than usual. And often it’s our own stinking fault. Sin, it seems, is inescapable.

The Law has a way of convicting us of our sin in a way that is most unpleasant.  It is meant to be that way. The Law was not given on embroidered, chenille pillows. The Law was given on tablets of stone – a material that, at first blush, seems very unforgiving. It cuts us off at the knees, so that we have nothing on which to stand; so that we are forced to lay prostrate before the King of Glory in all His Divine Perfection, and realize, without question, that there is nothing but imperfection in our wretched selves.

It is at that instant the our gracious God speaks to us His Gospel through the Word. How can we not be thankful?! Our Lord’s love is so inconceivably boundless that it defies pondering. Yet we try. And it’s around that point that we sometimes jump the tracks and start pondering some stupid ideas.

Like, “It should’ve been me.”

This is where I get to tell you, “Don’t be such a doofus!”

Solomon sacrificed 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep during a week-long festival dedicating the Temple in Jerusalem. Those 144,000 sacrifices [see what Solomon did there?] weren't sin offerings, but it gives an idea of the scale of things during the daily life of the Temple. The blood poured out for sin must have saturated the ground. It must have inched awfully close to the water table. One must assume the smell alone was powerful. And yet all those offerings were only pointing to a singular sacrifice to come.

And what of punishment? Did any of the thousands crucified – Christian or otherwise – ever make satisfaction for their own sins? No. Luther found out the hard way that self-flagellation was pointless, yet penitents still flog themselves and are crucified with surgical steel nails – to their own detriment.

Scripture’s account of the Jesus‘ crucifixion includes the two criminals for a reason – neither could atone for their own sin. The unrepentant criminal regarded his earthly punishment with curses, and the repentant criminal, accepting his earthly punishment, appealed to Jesus blood to erase his eternal punishment.

Even though there is even song declaring as much, declaring “It should have been me” is simply heresy. If millions of oxen and sheep cannot erase your sin, then neither can you. And if you still think you can atone for your own sin, then why did my Lord have to die?

No, it couldn’t have been you. For that, we are all eternally grateful.