Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ

Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ (after 1437), National Gallery, London. (Creative Commons license)

A few years ago, while visiting London, I wanted to connect with a friend who lives at the outskirts of the city. Neil, who is an artist as well as a priest[i], told me to meet him at Piero della Francesca’s painting of the Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery. I arrived first, and stood transfixed before that marvelous 15thcentury painting. John the Baptist pours water over Jesus as the Holy Dove hovers just overhead. They stand at the edge of the river, in the shade of a great tree. The formality of the figures and the almost eternal sense of stillness induced a responding quietude in me. When I felt a hand on my shoulder, I knew it was Neil, but I did not look away from the painting. “Remember your baptism,” he whispered, and with a small vial of water drawn from his parish font, he poured a few drops onto my head.

It was a whimsical yet powerful way of connecting my own baptism with the baptism of Christ, making them both present in a single moment, inviting me to receive their multiple meanings into my heart and soul. When the Church celebrates the Baptism of Our Lord this Sunday, I will be thinking of that moment, and that painting.

Piero’s baptismal scene is untroubled by modern oppositions between empirical and spiritual. Its visible world is charged with something more than the eye can see. Or rather, what the eye sees participates in a reality the senses cannot directly grasp.

The Renaissance embrace of the empirical is clear. The sky is blue, not the gold of eternity. The natural world is prominent in the trees and landscape. The human bodies, while in the stylized poses of dancers, are not abstractions. They have weight and substance.

Yet we also see a world governed by invisible meanings: the dove, while rhyming perfectly with the hovering clouds, is the Holy Spirit; the trio on the left is angelic; the principal gestures are sacramental signs of inward grace; and the strong heavenward reach of the picture’s verticals balances harmoniously with its earthly horizontals. Strangely, there are no shadows, as if light is not cast from a distant, separate source, but inheres equally in everything: a sure sign of divine presence.

The more you look, the more you see. The face of the Baptist, who must now “decrease” with the coming of Christ (John 3:30), is only seen in profile, while the full face of Jesus confronts us directly, like an icon. But his eyes do not look outward to fix us with an iconic gaze; their attention is wholly interior. The bent figure on the right could be a realistic touch, another candidate preparing for baptism, but his faceless anonymity suggests a more symbolic meaning. The garment that hides his individuality indicates an identity in transition: either he is shedding the old self which is left behind in the sacrament of new birth, or he is putting on New Being as in the Pauline image from Galations 3:26: “All you who have been baptized have been clothed with Christ.”

The great tree, apparently an Italian walnut, is clearly more than an object of botanical interest. Everything about it suggests the Tree of Life, a mythic image prominent in the first and last chapters of the Bible. Rooted deeply in the earth, it reaches into the heavens, beyond the frame of the painting, where human sight cannot follow. Like the Christ whose erect body it exactly parallels (even its bark shares the identical color and smoothness of Christ’s skin), the Tree unites the dualities of earth and heaven, integrating them into a harmonious whole.

Perhaps the most uncanny element in Piero’s painting is the Jordan River. As the biblical boundary between the wilderness wandering of the Exodus and the land of Promise on the other side, the Jordan became a traditional image of the passage not only between old and new, past and future, but between life and death. Many examples occur in the American spirituals and shape note songs I love to sing with my folkie friends.

I’ve almost gained my heavenly home of friends and kindred dear;
I’ve brushed the dew on Jordan’s banks, the crossing must be near.

These lines, from “Angel Band,” suggest a gentle crossing. But other songs, like “The Promised Land,” strike a note of anxiety and risk:

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wishful eye,
To Canaan’s fair and happy land where my possessions lie. . .
Though Jordan’s waves around me roll, fearless I’d launch away.

But in Piero’s depiction, the river is no formidable flood fraught with difficulty and danger, but a quiet, meandering channel, calm and smooth as a mirror. And it comes to an end at the place where Jesus stands. This could be a direct reference to Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan, which parted like the Red Sea to let God’s people cross over into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:14-17). Or it could be showing Christ to be the one who opens the way between the worlds of life and death, sin and salvation.

The sacrament of baptism employs the tension between water as an image of life (birth, growth, and the quenching of thirst) and an image of death (flood and drowning), expressing the inseparable connection between dying and rising in the Paschal Mystery. We die to self in order to live to God. But in the eternal stillness and calm of this painting, that tension is absent. The raging flood has been tamed into a tranquil pool. We have already crossed over into the peace of heaven.

Of course, it’s only a freeze frame. Soon history will resume and pick up speed. The river will start to rise and become once again tricky to cross. Jesus will begin to make his way through many dangers, toils and snares. So will we. But I am grateful to Piero for this moment of calm, a promising glimpse of something behind and beyond the raucous flow of time.

 

[i]The Rev. Neil Lambert is the vicar of St. Mary’s, Ash Vale, a 40-minute train ride from Waterloo Station. You can read more about him in my post, “Dreaming the Church that wants to be.”

“Save us from the time of trial” –– Climate Change as Apocalypse

The angel dictates a word of hope and promise to St. John: “Blessed are those who are invited to the feast of the Lamb.” (Rev 19)

 The humanist/scholar became quite emotional in conceiving of the world devoid of human beings, which was a possibility brought on by one disaster or another, due, it must be said, to our own actions. This would be the worst thing he could imagine––worlds devoid of human beings, even if these worlds were populated by other intelligent and enterprising life forms.

–– Joy Williams, Ninety-Nine Stories of God

 What have you got to worry about? We’re only adrift in an open sea with a drunken captain and an engine that’s liable to explode at any moment.

–– Humphrey Bogart in Beat the Devil

 

The end is near! The world as we know it is on the verge of extinction, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.[i]But where is the sense of collective alarm? Where is the will to act? Our house is burning down, but instead of shouting “Fire!” and grabbing some hoses, we carry on as usual, unable to muster a sense of emergency. Perhaps we are just too exhausted by the endless stream of horrors under Republican rule, from children’s prison camps to the spread of American fascism, to have any bandwidth left to address the environmental apocalypse.

As columnist Leonard Pitts suggests,

“So then you read where the planet is melting, dire results expected soon, and you just shrug and file it away with all the other terrible things you’ll worry about when you get a chance. That’s understandable. But it presumes a luxury we don’t have — time. Again, this report says the world has 10 years in which to save itself — and we’ll spend at least two of those under Trump.” [ii]

Don’t ask me to explain why the party in power and its corporate handlers are doing everything they can to make things worse, as if the fate of the planet––and the well-being of their own children’s children––is nothing compared to the allure of short-term power and profit for themselves. Such suicidal selfishness is utterly incomprehensible to me. But we don’t have to approve of it to be caught up in it. We are all participants in an unsustainable culture.

Death rides a pale horse. (Rev 6)

Of course, there are many people, governments and institutions who recognize the climate crisis and are working to address it. Even in the heart of Trumpian coal country, West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette-Mailis sounding the alarm:

“When today’s kindergartners are in their 20s, they may find a devastated world wracked by horrible hurricanes, droughts, floods, wildfires, tornadoes and other tragedies made worse by global warming. Coastal cities may be abandoned, sunken wrecks. Poverty and misery may result.”

The editorial goes on to note that hurricanes Florence and Michael have “inflicted more loss than the entire worth of West Virginia’s coal industry — but conservative politicians still won’t act to reduce the damage.” [iii]

The Second Trumpet: The sea is polluted by fire, blood and death. (Rev 8)

Only ten years left to avert catastrophe! The message is clear: change or die. But given the dysfunctional paralysis of the American government, the iron grip of vulture capitalism, and the enormity of scale required for worldwide transformation, the prospects for success are bleak. The Titanic can’t turn on a dime. And when the captain doesn’t even believe in icebergs, it’s time to strike up “Nearer, my God, to Thee.”

On a recent trip to France, I beheld, for the first time, the extraordinary Tapestry of the Apocalypse in Angers, whose 84 large panels depict scenes from the Revelation of St. John the Divine. This riveting medieval visual sequence­­––the largest wall-hanging ever woven in Europe–– extends in parallel rows for 104 meters down the length of a vast, dimly-lit hall. It’s like a gigantic textile comic strip. Although the 700-year-old dyes have faded over time, these visionary scenes remain compellingly vivid, dense with iconography and narrative.

The Tapestry of the Apocalypse, Angers, France.

Theologian Austin Farrer described their source, the book of Revelation, as a great work of religious imagination.  “It is the one great poem which the first Christian age produced, it is a single and living unity from end to end, and it contains a whole world of spiritual imagery to be entered into and possessed.” [iv] Gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson added his own appreciation. “I still read the Book of Revelation,” he said, “when I need to get cranked up about language.” [v]

The meaning and value of the Bible’s last book have long been debated. Was it a mystical vision, a theo-political critique of the Roman Empire, or a quasi-liturgical dramatization of eschatological themes? The violent imagery of Revelation has been misused by religious cranks and maniacs in notoriously unhealthy ways, but the text has also––more than any other biblical book––given us many sublime prayer and hymn texts. Often neglected in times of contentment or complacency, it speaks loudly in times of crisis. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the book never made much sense to him until the rise of the Nazis.

“Babylon” is Revelation’s code name for the Roman empire, the oppressive and sinful social consensus whose claims of absolute totality were grounded in seduction, deceit and the enforcing threat of violence. And while that particular empire is long gone, Babylon is still around. “Bellicose, selfish, self-deluded, icy, absurdly resolute––behold the Rome of the book of Revelation,” said the Jesuit prophet-poet Daniel Berrigan. And, he added, “Behold also America.” [vi] Forty years after he wrote that, it seems truer than ever.

The Babylons of every age want us to believe that resistance is futile, because “this is the way things are.” We’re all implicated in the system. Even if we don’t like it, we can’t imagine living without it. Try preaching an exit from global capitalism next Sunday and see what happens! We may dream of the “New Jerusalem” of justice, peace and universal blessedness, but it seems impossibly distant. “If the Babylon of our time is already, from God’s perspective, a smoking ruin, how and where do we find the New Jerusalem? Is it really possible to ‘come out’ of empire when it surrounds us so completely?” [vii]

“Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” The people worship the beast of worldly power as the Dragon (Satan) approves. (Rev 13)

Like all apocalyptic literature, Revelation is pessimistic about the present age and where it is headed. But it is also full of hope about the age to come––the unexpectedly redemptive future emerging from a time of emergency. “The apocalypticist sees meaning where the uninitiated sees only chaos or catastrophe.” [viii]

Revelation insists that Babylon’s “reality” is a lie: there is an alternative to its culture of seduction and death. This alternative, the New Jerusalem, is not to be sought in some unreachable elsewhere. It is here among us, though only visible to the eyes of faith. And in every moment, every time we choose life over death, we begin to make our exodus, however small and tentative, out of Babylon’s prison into the space of divine blessedness.

The fall of Babylon. Only its demons are left to haunt the rubble. (Rev 18)

The Tapestry of the Apocalypse was created by inhabitants of their own medieval Babylon, an exitless world fraught with anxiety and doom. As half of Europe was being struck down by the Black Plague, Revelation’s harrowing images of a death-haunted, perishing world struck home. The obsessive immensity of the tapestry project testifies to a depth of existential engagement with ultimate concerns, as if the artists and weavers were driven to create a comprehensive record of their longing––and their dread––before they themselves ran out of time.

As I processed slowly, contemplatively, through the crepuscular vastness of Angers’ tapestry hall, the strange images flickered before me like an old silent movie, as though their colors and forms were signaling across the centuries with the light of a long-vanished past. Whatever these visions first said to John the Divine in his Patmos cave, whatever they meant to the fourteenth-century French weavers, they were now pleading for my attention.

See! God is making all things new.
Death will be no more,
mourning and sadness and pain will be no more.
The world of the past is gone. [ix]

 

The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven, bringing divine glory into earthly presence. (Rev 21)

Babylon is fallen. The gates to God’s eternal city are open wide. And the urgent question for believers today, in the face of a climate apocalypse, is this:

How do we hold fast to the redemptive vision
of the New Jerusalem
through the long dark night of catastrophe?

 

The Dragon pursues the expectant mother, “robed in the sun,” into the wilderness, trying to prevent the birth of hope. (Rev 12)

In the short term, we can practice both personal and collective environmental ethics, foster alliances with environmental changemakers, and incorporate a deep love and respect for the planet––and all who dwell therein––into our worship and our spiritual formation. And, setting aside for now our differences on a multitude of political and economic questions, we absolutely need to unite in casting our votes for defenders of the earth and against every climate change denier and pollution enabler. When the Beast is on the ballot, vote no!

In the long term, people of faith may face an even more daunting challenge––to cling to hope amid almost unimaginable destruction and loss: the disappearance of coastal cities and large land masses; countless millions of climate refugees; a horrific number of human deaths; mass extinction of species and habitats; economic havoc from fires, storms and floods; an endangered food supply; global conflicts over migration and dwindling resources; and the strain on political systems as they try to cope. How shall we declare God’s blessings then?

If we fail to change and the worst does come, our greatest enemy may be despair. I don’t need to contemplate the whole catalog of loss to feel the weight of immense sadness. Just picturing a single High Sierra meadow choked in smoke, or withered into a lifeless desert, is enough to make me weep.

Save us from the time of trial. That’s what the Lord’s Prayer really means by the more familiar “lead us not into temptation.” But the prayer is not asking to be spared from difficult challenges. That would make it irrelevant in the face of planetary apocalypse. We are all going to be tested by an uncertain future. But if we can beseech God with all our hearts to bring us through the experience of loss, despair and doubt with our faith and hope still intact, then “save us from the time of trial” may prove, in the climate crisis, our most earnest and necessary plea.

Meanwhile, get out of Babylon while you still can.

The Third Trumpet: A burning star falls to earth and pollutes the water supply. (Rev 8)

All photos by Jim Friedrich

 

[i] Summary and links to complete report: http://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/climate-change/

[ii] Leonard Pitts, Jr., “We only have 10 years to save ourselves from climage change,” Miami Herald, Oct. 12, 2018: https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article219870680.html

[iii] Editorial, “Like a weather report, with time, climate change projections closer, more ominous,” Charleston Gazette-Mail, October 16, 2018: https://www.wvgazettemail.com/opinion/gazette_opinion/editorial/gazette-editorial-like-a-weather-report-with-time-climate-change/article_26d13b8a-47e3-517a-9882-037b9bff6d70.html

[iv] Austin Farrer, A Rebirth of Images: The Making of St. John’s Apocalypse(1949), q. in Richard K. Emmerson, “The Apocalypse in Medieval Culture,” in The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, ed. Richard K. Emmerson & Bernard McGinn (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 293.

[v] Hunter Thompson interview in Atlantic Unbound, August 26, 1997, q. in Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now, Wes Howard-Brook & Anthony Gwyther (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 2 n. 3.

[vi] Daniel Berrigan, S.J., The Nightmare of God (1983), q. in Unveiling Empire, 44.

[vii]Unveiling Empire, 260.

[viii] Bernard McGinn, “John’s Apocalypse and the Apocalyptic Mentality,” in The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, 9.

[ix] Revelation 21:4-5.

Who Is the Real Jesus?

One of the earliest images of a bearded Jesus (Roman catacomb of Comodilla, late 4th century)

I looked for him and did not find him.
I will get up and walk round the city.
and will look for him whom I love with all my soul.

–– Song of Songs 3:1-2

 

When I teach my seminar on “Jesus and the movies,” I show 20 different actors who have played the gospels’ leading man on screen during cinema’s first century. Every actor has his moments, and some of the cinematic Jesuses are very compelling. But something about the role itself invites the critical knives.

Jeffrey Hunter was 33 when he played Jesus in Nicholas Ray’s “King of Kings” (1961).

The casting of teen heartthrob Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings (1961) caused some to call the film “I Was a Teenage Jesus”. But “to his credit,”one reviewer said, Hunter “plays the Son of God with embarrassment.” In The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), the Swedish Max von Sydow, whose art-film resume set him apart from the “Hollywood Jesus” stereotype, was nevertheless slammed for “an aphorism-spouting, Confucius-say edge to his speech, an overtone of pomposity.” Another critic added that von Sydow “hardly varies his expression, which is mild suffering, as if he had a pebble in his sandal.”

Ted Neely’s hippie Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstarwas dismissed as “a droopy little fellow with sad eyes and long hair,” while Godspell’s playful Jesus was savaged by Time Magazine as “a teeny-bopper stoned on himself.” Robert Powell’s eyes in Jesus of Nazareth (1977) were just too blue to suit the historical realists. And Willem Dafoe’s uncertain and anxious Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) caused the NPR critic to complain that “this Jesus wonders, wonders, wonders who––who wrote the book of love?”

Even positive reviews were tinged with doubt about the viability of portraying the Son of God. Writing about Robert Wilson, who played Jesus in my father’s 1954 film, Day of TriumphNewsweek said that while he doesn’t make Jesus seem “pale or namby-pamby … neither does he make him the red-blooded he-man.”

Interpretive representations of Jesus­—–in theology, painting, and film–– have been the subject of debate from the beginning. Even when he was present in the flesh, people gave very different answers to the question he posed: “Who do you say that I am?” That’s only natural. We humans are a mystery, even to ourselves. Add divinity to the mix, and the interpretive task becomes an endless play of perspectives.

The original “screen version” of Jesus (Hans Memling, St. Veronica, 1475)

I once did a video interview with a young Palestinian woman whose idiomatic phrasing expressed this perfectly. “Jesus is a very big word,” she told me. “You can never get to the end of it.”

When a critic, or one of my students, looks at the screen and thinks, “That’s not Jesus,” it implies that they themselves would recognize Jesus if they saw him. And that guy on the screen just isn’t him!

But if there is no definitive way to play a role so inherently mysterious, then no actor has to be the Jesus. He only has to make us see some things that we may have missed in previous tellings. Painters and preachers will tell you the same thing.

A youthful Christ evoked Resurrection (St. Costanza, Rome, c. 5th century)

Over the centuries, we’ve had Jesus meek and mild, and Jesus the Pantocrator––emperor of the universe. We’ve had the loving Jesus and the angry Jesus. We’ve had the Prince of Peace and the troublemaker, the Man for others and the social revolutionary. We’ve had the Good Shepherd, the Cosmic Victor, the healer, the teacher, the prophet, the mystic, the ascetic, the party animal, the Suffering Servant, the Savior, and the Man of Sorrows.

In 14th-century England, Julian of Norwich pictured Jesus as our nurturing mother. Other cultures have added their own distinct perspectives, seeing Jesus as shaman, medicine man, and exorcist. And what we know these days about Jesus is that he was a feminist, radical, egalitarian, postmodern critic of consumer society.

Revolutionary Jesus (Russia, 20th century)

Martin Scorcese, who directed The Last Temptation of Christ, was savagely criticized for taking liberties with the gospel story. His response?

“You have the choice between my wrong version
and your wrong version
and somebody else’s wrong version.”

Every narrative is fictional, a version from a particular perspective, with some things emphasized and some things left out. There is no such thing as an uninterpreted story, or an uninterpreted Jesus. And that’s okay. The Incarnation means that God is fond of particularity, choosing to dwell in a particular human body in a particular way. And to say that “Jesus lives” means that the particularity of incarnation continues to go on. Jesus keeps turning up in many guises, seen through many eyes.

Jesus is a very big Word. So every version will be “wrong” in the sense of being incomplete. That is why diversity of interpretation is a blessing. The reception of revelation is a collective act performed over time. The four lives of Jesus given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John establish this principle of interpretive diversity at the very beginning of Christianity. Each gospel offers a distinctive perspective, a different Jesus.

Mark’s Jesus is a rebel who challenges the oppressive powers: the clergy, the demons, and the empire. His revolution is a mystery that most fail to see or understand, except a few followers to whom “the secret of the Kingdom has been given.” The revolution seems to fail in the end, but then there is the empty tomb and those strange angelic words:

“He is not here.
He goes before you into Galilee.
You will see him there.”

And where is Galilee? It’s where the story began, so there is in Mark this circular motion which takes you back to the beginning to look again at the story in the light of the Resurrection, and this time maybe you start to see what’s really happening, you start to see who––and where–– Jesus really is.

Matthew’s Jesus is the rabbi, the divine teacher who conveys to us the mind of God in the Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom parables, and the representative suffering that seems to fulfill and redeem Israel’s destiny. His gospel starts with Emmanuel, the newborn child who is God-with-us, and it ends on a mountain top meant to recall the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, with Christ’s promise that “I am with you always.” As in Mark, Jesus is a story that never ends.

Luke gives us the compassionate companion who embraces the poor and the outcast. Only Luke’s Jesus speaks of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Unlike Mark’s gospel, which keeps circling us back to the original story of the historical Jesus, Luke’s version propels us forward into the future of the risen Jesus, who continues among us as the Spirit-filled church, manifesting divine presence in the breaking of the bread and the healing of the world.

Supper, George Tooker (1963)

John’s Jesus is the most variant of them all. The divinity of his Jesus is clearly visible from the start: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Fourth Gospel resounds with the divine name first revealed to Moses: “I am.”

I am the light of the world.
I am the bread of life.
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
I am the true vine.
I am the resurrection and the life.
I am the door.
Before Abraham was, I am.

Some people worry about whether Jesus actually said any of these things during his earthly life, as if they could only be true if spoken by the first century Galilean Jesus. But if Jesus is risen and living and with us always, then to have these words spoken through the voice of the inspired community, the Body of Christ on earth, expands rather than violates the norm of authenticity. Read the Farewell Discourses (John 14-17) as if they are spoken by the risen Christ, and John’s Jesus feels more like revelation than invention.

Whatever the historicity of John’s Jesus, he is the one many of us have met––as the bread of life, the deep well of living water, and the door between the worlds by whom we make our own safe passage through death into life.

The foundational narratives of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were only the beginning of the process. Now it’s our turn to add to the story of Jesus, from the particularity of our own experience. How, exactly, do we tell the gospel according to us?

 

Hans Memling, Christ Blessing (1478)

 

Related posts:

The Ten Best Jesus Movies

Ten Questions to Ask About Your Own Picture of Jesus