Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A light shone

(From James Grote)

On Sunday at my church, from a dark place, a bright light shone and the waiting was over. This may seem like the end of the story of Advent with the dawning of Christmas, but this is what happened. It was expected and planned. It was a baptism.
John Bunyan Baptist Church, Oxford, where I am the minister, is also the home to a creative arts project called the Ark T Centre. Each week around 900 people use the building for dance, music, drama or visual arts. There’s a cafĂ© where people gather for coffee or lunch and four artists have studios where they produce their own work as well as working in the community. This weekend was a busy one which started with two of the artists leading a Christmas Light procession in the city centre on Friday night with hundreds of children carrying lanterns through streets rammed with thousands watching. On Saturday we had a craft fair where local artists sold their work – a warm cosy affair where we were surprised by one of the Ark T Centre’s volunteers who came with his guitar and sang throughout the afternoon. He has been a volunteer with us for about 3 years, I knew that he played drums, he had mentioned a guitar but I didn’t know that he sang. He had waited that long. He said he was nervous.
Then on Sunday Louise was baptised. Louise is in her late 20’s and came to the Ark T Centre as a volunteer 3 ½ years ago. Like many of the volunteers in the Centre, Louise came to us to be helped as well as to help (though I could say the same about my work in the church and the Centre). Louise was going through a particularly difficult and dark time. She settled in well and became very much a part of the place. Just over a year ago she started coming to church and six months ago she asked to be baptised. The service on Sunday brought together people from the church who now know her well and love her dearly, her family, friends and many people from the Ark T Centre, none of whom regularly attend the church. Louise gave her testimony in which she told her hard and painful journey to faith, the time she sat in the church one day when she was volunteering and how, at a very scary moment, she clutched the little cross which was given to her when she first came to a Sunday service (we always give a little cross to anyone on their first visit to the church, they are hand-made by people in the church). She spoke about how important the Ark T Centre had been to her as a home and a safe place and somewhere that she felt she belonged. She spoke about friends and family who had loved and supported her through dark times. Today though, the light shone and Louise was baptised.
Two weeks ago we celebrated the 13th anniversary of the Ark T Centre in an exhibition and dance performance. Louise is the first person to have come into the Ark T Centre and, through it, to have found her way to the church and to baptism and to faith in Christ. The purpose of the Ark T Centre is not to bring people into the church or even to bring them to faith in Christ, its mission is broader than that and belongs, for me, in the more complex web of the Kingdom which even Jesus struggled to explain with parables . However, as the minister of the church (as well as being director of the Ark T Centre), I cannot hide from the fact that Sunday was very special. There are many many wonderful stories of people finding (advent) hope through the Ark T Centre, some of whom were also there on Sunday. Louise is one of those but, as a Christian minister, for me her story has a particular significance. A light shone and the waiting was over.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Comic and Cosmic Significance of the Annunciation

Life-of-the-Virgin--Annunciation-(Storie-della-Vergine--Annunciazione) In spirituality as in much else I guess we all have our conceptual and devotional comfort zones. As in most other areas of life, a comfort zone is a good place to be, for a wee while. But living there long term does little to set free our imagination, stimulate intellectual curiosity, develop emotional stamina, sustain mental and physical health, or change much else about us so that we might want to be more than we presently are content with being.

Being a man, may be a biological accident, but it's also an inevitable part of my human identity, a partial and incomplete way of looking at the world, and therefore a limitation of horizon and persepctive that I need to allow for - being a man, I can only guess at what it was like to be a young woman, visited by an angel, who announces my future, and links it to the future of the whole creation. The Annunciation is one of the most stunning moments in the history of human religious experience, an event with comic and cosmic significance; comic, because it begins a drama that will resolve in an unimaginable triumph of love, life and goodness; and cosmic because the drama is the drama of the world's salvation and the redemption of all Creation. The great artists of the Renaissance saw this with instant clarity and portrayed it with magnificent anachronism, extravagant symbol, and theological sensitivity.

Now as a 21st Century man, I encounter such art and realise I'm out of my depth, summoned by a beauty beyond me, addressed by strangeness, compelled to read but uncertain of the language, and therefore needing a grammar of aesthetics and a dictionary of medieval religious concepts and affections, to help me unlock the syntax of images that say more than words. So a painting of the Annunciation like that of Vittore Carpaccio above, invites me to be perplexed, impatient, and conceptually disempowered - that is, it beckons me across the thresholds of my comfort zone. And only if I have the courage to go, will I discover through contemplative patience, and through intellectual welcome of new and different ways of knowing, yet one other way of theological encounter, spiritual openness and personal surrender - which is prayer and a deepening love of God.

And let's face it. Devotion to the Triune God whose life of eternal self-giving is ever interwoven in mutual love, and is inexhaustibly expressed in infinite goodness, and overflows in endlessly creative purposes, reaching out to embrace the Creation called into being by that same self-expending love, requires of us more than the complacency, contentment and constraints of our personal devotional comfort zones.

And so to Carpaccio's painting, and Advent. Because whatever else Advent does, it forces upon us a reconceptualising of what God is about, and what our lives are about. The Annunciation is an event that changes forever and a day, the life of a young woman. Theologically, it reasserts the limitless paramaters of grace, it redefines the nature of redeeming love, it reconfigures the hopes of a nation, a world and all humanity, all of which hangs on the yes of a young woman. That is what the painting is about. Look at it in that light - that crisis moment that awaits the words, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word".

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The cost and consequence of love on a divine scale.

The Master of the Embroidered Foliage is not a person, more probably a school of painters working around the 1480's. There are several paintings of the Madonna and Child, each with the background foliage painted to resemble textile embroidery.

More than five centuries on, the painting remains a masterpiece, but one much less accessible to a digital age more used to image, movement and sound, controlled by sophisticated technology. Less compelling too, for a culture in which entertainment ranges from fantasy to soap opera, from horror to stylised violence, and from reality TV ( which bears little relation to real reality) to 24 Hour News with saturation coverage of the daily narrative of our troubled world.

Which brings me to Advent, and the power of this time of promised change and imaginative hope to call us in question. Good liturgy always does that, calls us in question. The importance of paintings such as this, if we are ready to pay attention to them, is the capacity of unfamiliar beauty to subvert the contentment that constrains our imagination and to interrogate the unexamined assumptions that shore up our contemporary complacency about our own importance. We've become accustomed to the self-description, "21st Century People", and the subtle way such discourse relegates previous centuries to "then", which is always inferior to "now".

The subject of the painting is a mother and child...."for unto us a child is born, to us a son is given." The open Bible, central to the image, is the Word interpreted by the Word made flesh, the child not content with a single text is turning the pages of Scripture, the mother looking down with puzzled adoration, the child looking into the distance. The red robe is redolent of redemptive love, the green foliage a richly woven texture of a living world, behind the Madonna's shoulder the church and the town buildings, the holy and the secular together. And of course the peacock, ancient symbol of resurrection and new beginning, stands at the gate looking down the unseen road.

This is an Advent painting. But its message isn't cleverly communicated with digitally mastered precision. The precision is not technological but theological, and the message is neither for entertainment nor information, but is transformative of human hopefulness and draws us back towards God, our hearts once again bright with future possibility. Of course you can dismiss such a painting as 15th Century late medieval devotional piety that dissolves under the scrutiny of 21st century media savvy minds like our own. But that would be a mistake.

I mentioned the puzzled adoration on the Madonna's face. Again and again she is portrayed by the great artists as one who smiles, but whose smile is quizzical, or hesitant, or even sad. Mary Oliver has a three line poem that explains what might lie behind such a smile.

We shake with joy
We shake with joy we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

Advent shares that same oscillation of joy and grief, the cost and consequence of love on a divine scale.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Advent Blog 2010 Sign Up

28 Jim Gordon
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