Friday, March 29, 2019

Vestments Gone Bad

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Not all vestments are created equal. Some are the result of too much of a good thing. Others are the result of too much of a bad thing. Yet others seem to the be the result of psychoses, or the improper administration of prescription drugs.

I will admit, however, that I might be a bit prejudiced on the subject and will, therefore, submit a few for the reader's consideration. Just don't blame any of them on me....

Some pastors have vast collections of crosses that have often been given as gifts, but that doesn't mean there is a Church season celebrating the same. Pick one, please.

This chasuble doubles as a felt board. It comes in pretty handy during the children's sermon on Easter. (But PLEASE don't tell me Mr. Chicken and Mr. Sheep were on the road to Emmaus.)

This chasuble-thing was obviously designed by children, who apparently scrubbed their own faces out of the photo. Pr. Whats-his-name is doing his best to look thrilled that a bunch of bananas are on his new frock, but we're not buying it.

Mr. Burger has a new spokesperson.

The Hippy-Dippy Pastor-man loves his new chasuble, but, for the record, a few are wondering if it's incense burning in the censer.

Some folks like to celebrate the whole Church year. Every day. And Legos.

There is good reason why darts, arrows, and throwing axes are not permitted in the sanctuary at First Church of the Reformed Tie-Dye.

Just in case you didn't already realize that she is the Queen of Tarts.

No one takes this pastor seriously – especially Sarah, who obviously made his stole.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Have You Been Immunized?

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Sometimes we inoculate ourselves for the wrong reasons.

I’m not talking about chicken pox or rubella. Neither am I suggesting the government is secretly scheming to turn us all into GMO monsters that resist every strain of illness only to grow an extra set of arms. That’s just silly. But we HAVE, in many ways, become immune to specific horrors that appear in Holy Scripture, and that, dear friends, is not silly at all.

This came up just yesterday in a social media post in which a small piece of art I created for Oculi Sunday seemed, on occasion, to create difficulties among parishioners. The image shows a demon-possessed man being exorcised by Christ Himself. It is an ugly thing. It is odd and repulsive and shocking. Somehow, it seems inappropriate for church, and folks have brought this to their pastor’s attention. In medical parlance, however, this is a symptom of something bad.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Bible, you must know, if filled with all manner of unseemly, unsettling, and unnatural things. When Scripture was being written, the ugliness of hell occasionally showed up. It was visible. It was tangible.

Heaven, too, showed up. It was unearthly. It was so powerful that folks trembled at its reality, begged not to look on it, and thanked the Lord when they did see it and lived to tell the tale.

This was not some movie set or high-tech special effect – it was real. It was tangible.

And this bothers us.

We would eagerly watch planets collide in thunderous surround-sound, while super-villains threaten hopeless humankind, knowing it is fake, rather than see the haunting and glorious reality of what Scripture plainly tells us. This is a puzzle.

Hearing of the reactions to my Oculi Sunday art is nothing new. I once was told to remove a couple of human skulls from an illustration of Goliath because, well, it was ‘sort of demonic and might make some denominations squeamish.’ Huh? My skull – and yours – were knit together in our mothers' wombs by the Lord. It is His handiwork. It is not in any way demonic. What is more, apparently we can’t abide Goliath being demonic, which is also a lie.

It does not matter if folks don’t like my artwork, but it DOES matter if parents or pastors or other adults can’t explain the ugliness contained in Scripture. Being squeamish is good. Ignoring the ugliness or denying it defeats the purpose of the Law, and dulls, in turn, the power of the Gospel.

So if an ugly, little illustration gives us pause, then we should indeed pause, and explain the ugliness of sin and death and hell to our children. And if we cannot do this simple thing, perhaps we should take real time to ponder a much uglier image of torture and gore, and, allowing Scripture itself to explain, we should contemplate the greatest horror and glory of all in the reality of the sinless Christ crucified for our most intimate and grotesque sins.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Skeletons in the Sanctuary

"Le Squelette." Ligier Richier.
1545. (Saint-Étienne Church,
Bar-le-Duc, France)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return”

It seems but once a year, on Ash Wednesday, that we are told this. Our foreheads – and our noses – get rubbed in this fact. The rest of the year we are more apt to think of ourselves as being made of  “Snaps and snails and puppy-dog tails” or “Sugar and spice and everything nice.”

Facing reality is not man’s forte, and the Church must sometimes oblige, if only once a year. There are, however, places in Christendom where the reminders come more often. Funerals are always a wake up call, but I am referring to yet other reminders. “Momento mori,” or reminders of death, sometimes show up as permanent fixtures in the sanctuary.

The Baroque era used depictions of death with strange relish. In Saint-Étienne church in Bar-le-Duc, France, the 1545 sculpture, “Le Squelette,” is a funerary monument to the heart of René Chalon. The figure holds a depiction of a once-beating heart, and commands a place of prominence normally reserved for canonized saints.
"Death Cutting the Thread of Time."
designed by Egid Quirin Asam and
Cosmas Damian Asam. Mid-18th Century.
(Asamkirche, Munich)

Not to be outdone by the French, a small but grandiose chapel, familiarly known as Asamkirche in Munich, contains a gold-plated sculpture of death cutting the thread of time. In this indulgent facade, it is a sober reminder that life is short – even for the Asam brothers, who designed the chapel and had it built for personal use.

If a marble or alabaster sculpture didn’t quite do it for the parishioner, there were the occasional grotesque relics put on public display. The relic of St. Pancratius was given a suit of gilded armor and set on a lofty perch in the Church of St. Nikolaus in St. Gallen, Switzerland. The peekaboo armor had cutouts to allow a view of the underlying reality. It’s hard to top this sort of macabre reminder of death. It’s also hard, I imagine, to focus on the sermon when old Pancrie is staring you in the face.
Reliquary for St. Pancratius.
(Originally in the Prince Abbey
of St. Gall, Switzerland)

While not exclusively a Roman Catholic thing, the Roman brethren certainly championed the notion of memento mori. This culminated in the Requiem Mass, which is an extension of the funeral. Being a mass, there were vestments to go with the “celebration.” Some, as the black and gold example shows, got a tad carried away. It’s unfortunate that its imagery obsessed over death as a final destination instead of focusing on the Resurrection of our Lord.

Death, however was not dark enough for some; a simple reminder of mortality wasn’t sufficient. Leave it to Rome to erect a church dedicated to this twisted theology. The Church of the Purgatory [you read that correctly] in Matera, Italy, is quite capable of sucking all the Hope and joy out of its hapless visitors. Some of the doors alone will give pause upon entering, being adorned with rows of skulls topped with hats of all professions. There are skulls above the doors, as well. One must assume that doorknobs and light switches and organ pipes are also fair game.
Requiem Mass chasuble.
17th or 18th Century.

Perhaps, upon greater consideration, once a year is indeed sufficient to be reminded that we are dust. Otherwise, we might dwell on death too keenly. The penalty for our sin and the solution to our mortality was answered in the Person of Christ Jesus. Unless Christ’s return beats us to the punch, we will certainly die, and yet we shall live. Thanks be to God, who defeated sin, death, and Satan, and who has defeated our own death, as well.

Friday, March 8, 2019

A Little Lenten Levity

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It is the Lenten season and it’s a good time to remind ourselves to be sober-minded. Let’s face it, though, the winter has been excessively long, it’s tax season, and I’m thin on blog ideas. We can be sober-minded and STILL laugh at ourselves. Hence, today’s look at church signs.

I’m not even going to address the annoying signs that are dressed up with corny words intended to make us go inside a strange church. You know, the ones that cause you to face-palm and nearly drive into a power pole. Let’s not go there. Besides, there are plenty of others desirous of our attention...

...Apparently, I'm not the only one who can be snarky. The person entrusted with changing this sign is past-due for a Bahamas vacation.

Just to keep things clear, mixing metaphors on a church sign isn't brain science, either.

I know your wool underwear may seem like purgatory, but cotton won't get you into heaven, either.

Determined to expand their mission field, this church wants to build an inner-city zoo.

I am so sorry, Larry, but your church doesn't deliver both Law AND Gospel.

I wonder if anyone here has a hunch about church growth issues.

Can he really be that bad?

Either the church barbecue is coming up on the calendar, or spell check is on vacation.

Um. Few of us are convinced.

Hence, the little burg of Friendsville.

Yikes! We're not in Friendsville, anymore!

Well, I'm pretty sure that's true, given your lack of meteorological expertise.


Friday, March 1, 2019

The Second Day

"Avignon Pietà." Enguerrand Quarton. c. 1450.
(The Louvre, Paris)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

In spite of those who think we “should just get over the Crucifixion,” I’m offering today a few visions of the Passion from the masters. More specifically, these paintings take a look at the aftermath of our Lord's crucifixion. They aren’t pretty, and they challenge the whole concept of “Beauty” in artwork. Because death is ugly, we must put aside for the moment pieces such as Michelangelo’s theatrically-tender “Pietà.”

There are oodles of similar pietàs in which Mary, the mother of our Lord, weeps over the dead Christ in her lap. The “Avignon Pietà,” by Enguerrand Quarton, is one of the most striking examples. Christ’s body is bent beyond reclining comfort, and we know that He is dead. Mourners, and their lamentations, become key ingredients in this tableau.

"Lamentation of Christ." Andrea Mantegna. c. 1480.
(Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy.)

When Christ is taken from the lap of His mother and placed on a slab, however, things change. What is tenderly personal in a pietà becomes almost impersonal. The viewer is forced to look on separation caused by death. Andrea Mantegna’s “Lamentation of Christ,” places the mourners nearly off the canvas, and a foreshortened view of Christ’s body creates an odd sense of a sanitized postmortem.

The one piece, however, that has always forcefully struck me is “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb,” by Hans Holbein the Younger. No mourners are represented in the painting, and an unsentimental and unsettling body of Christ is laid out. The artist cleverly set up the painting so that the viewer becomes the mourner, and without animated mourners in the painting, the stillness of the painting echoes the stillness of death.

Holbein pulls no punches. The hands, feet, and face of Christ Jesus are beginning to blacken. The eyes beg to be shut. The mouth is agape. It is hard to look on this visage and see any beauty. The ugliness of death, and the hideousness of the sins that put our Lord in that tomb confront us with an honesty that is nearly unbearable.

Those of us who have had to look at loved ones in a similar pose know intimately the harsh and inescapable reality shown here. In looking on the dead Lord, we also face our own death. Thanks be to God, we also recognize this body as the single Kernel, and know that it must first die before springing to new life. And as Christ is the first fruits from the dead, we recognize that we, too, shall rise on the third day, and slough off the corruption of our bodies and the sorrow in this vale of tears.

"The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb." Hans Holbein the Younger. c. 1521. (Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland.)