Archive for January 14th, 2013

Baptism of Jesus, illumination by Donald Jackson. (c) The Saint John's Bible.

Baptism of Jesus, illumination by Donald Jackson. (c) The Saint John’s Bible.

Coping with Ordinary Time

Yesterday, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, was the last day of Christmas. That has to be a relief to everybody in the country, and especially to retailers, who had to be worn out by that tired old season. Now they, and we, can gear up for Valentine’s Day and this year’s early arrival of the Easter Bunny. But for those who specialize in being Christian, this is the moment in the liturgical calendar when we get down to the serious business of Ordinary Time.

To some Ordinary Time sounds a bit like time-out, or an interlude between far-more-important milestones. But I contend that Christmas is the real time-out. In a sense it is not real, because it serves as a bookend to something that is far more important in terms of daily life. It’s not Christmas that makes or breaks our character. No, it’s in Ordinary Time when we show who we really are and of what we are made. Now the party’s over and Santa’s no longer watching; and it’s time to get down to the business of life. And the baptism of Jesus says the very same thing for Jesus. It’s time to leave the nest and begin his ministry.

Christmas - Baptism of the Lord 014One of the first illuminations that Donald Jackson produced for The Saint John’s Bible was the Baptism of Jesus. In it John the Baptist, bathed in a purple wash, seems to be walking into the shadows and off the page. Jesus, by contrast, is a tiny gold figure in the center. He’s small, and yet the intensity of the gold-leaf suggests there is someone very important who is about to step out onto the stage. “He must increase, and I must decrease” are the words of John the Baptist, and the illumination conveys that pefectly.

But there’s something else going on. While somewhat stylized, John the Baptist looks every bit a human being. Jesus, by contrast, is abstract, devoid of facial features. If we believe that Jesus is like us in all things but sin, why does He look faintly reminiscent of a space alien? He certainly looks like no one I know.

Christmas - Baptism of the Lord 007One challenge that has faced every artist of the sacred is the problem of anthropomorphism. Most successful Christian artists — including Romanesque and Gothic ones — have chosen to distort the sacred figures in one way or another. In Byzantine art it is readily apparent, with the large vacant eyes and long narrow nose and small mouth. All convey one or another spiritual quality, suggesting that such a person has become the home of the Holy Spirit.

And if that was one aim of Donald Jackson, there is another that puts him at one with a long line of artists. He wanted to make Jesus look human, and the Gospel of Matthew tells us that he certainly was. But he did not want Jesus to look too much like any one of us. In short, as much as we in Minnesota might like to imagine Jesus and the Holy Family as Scandinavian, they probably didn’t have blue eyes and blond hair. The more abstract portrait of Jesus suggests that He comes to us in many guises and in many ways; and He will continue to do so, whether we like it or not.

Baptistry tree

Baptistry tree

As much as it is a disappointment to realize that those lovely portraits of Jesus with chestnut brown hair and fair complexion may not be accurate, we need to move beyond them. In fact, for those of us who are of European stock, there is a great corpus of Christian art in which our relatives show up in disproportionate numbers. That’s all nice, but it’s not enough. Jesus shows no ethnic favoritism, nor regional bias. In Him ther is no east or west, slave or free, male or female.

In his illumination of the creation of Adam and Eve, Jackson carries this to its logical conclusion. There Adam and Eve appear as east-African, looking every bit the creatures who have been fashioned in the image of God. I remember quite vividly the day I showed that image to some sixth-graders at Saint Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood, Los Angeles. One student in particular was absolutely mesmerized by what he saw. And I’ve always guessed that for the first time in his very young life he saw himself in the Bible.

Refectory window

Refectory window

The lesson here for us all is obvious. First, we must accept that there are people other than us and our relatives in the Bible — people other than Scandinavian, that is. But second, we too are in the Bible, along with everybody else. Whether Scandinavian or Peruvian or Egyptian or Thai, all of us are created in God’s image. All of us have a place in the biblical family. All of us are called by God, even if we think God ought to be just a little more discriminating about who He calls.

That, then, is part of the task of Ordinary Time. At the party which is Christmas, it’s pretty easy to let the bells and whistles distract us. Now, in Ordinary Time, it’s the long interlude in which we sleuth out the presence of Christ. And oddly enough, if we open our eyes, we’ll find Him all over the place, and especially in people whom we’ve scarcely considered.

Refectory: reader's stand

Refectory: reader’s stand

Various Notes

+On January 9th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at the Legatus of Phoenix chapter meeting. Happily, there were several members in attendance who had visited the Bible exhibit when it was at the Phoenix Art Museum. One had seen the exhibit seven times, which I found gratifying.

+For table reading in the monastic refectory we have begun a new book, this one by Dom Patrick Barry, OSB, the former abbot of Ampleforth Abbey in England. A Cloister in the World details the origins of the Manquehue apostolic movement — a lay Benedictine group in Chile. Since I’ve only heard the reading for one evening, I’m not in a position to comment on the text, other than to say that Benedictine life has an appeal far beyond the professed monks and nuns.

Christmas - Baptism of the Lord 016+Today all the Christmas decorations in the monastery come down. Ornaments go into storage, and the trees and greens go into the compost pile. Perhaps in a few years they will come back into the monastery in the form of a new generation of Christmas trees.

+On January 13th the students of Saint John’s University returned to campus to begin the winter term. “Let all guests be received as Christ” is the admonition of Saint Benedict in his Rule, and we strive to treat our students in the same way.

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