Engaging the Mystery via the Arts
On this special Sunday of Epiphany we are just ahead of January 7th and Christmas day in the Eastern Church. Some years ago I was in Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity on this eve of Epiphany. It was a wonderful and holy evening standing in that church anticipating their Christmas. Only then did I more fully wrap my mind around the 12 days of Christmas. Ever since, that special Christmas Eve day in Bethlehem I resist taking down the lights and decorations of Christmas. Especially the lights as they have a special place in these Epiphany passages.
Listen again to the opening verses of Isaiah 60:
NRS Isaiah 60:1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Of course the other point of light is the star that led the magi to the new born king in Bethlehem. The magi coming from the East, clearly Gentiles, and most likely inspired and lead by their own arts of astrology, fortune telling, dream interpreters, and magic. It appears that through their own means they came to know that someone, that something of divine and cosmic origins was taking place. I think we can say that these magicians and shamans through their arts detected the Kairos of God coming to be. That alone is a mystery.
We did not take the time to read the epistle this morning of Ephesians 3. Apostle Paul there talks about the mystery of Christ. That it was hidden for ages to humankind, but it is now revealed by the Spirit. What was once particular and focused in a minority people of Abraham is now universal and opened to all peoples of the earth.
This morning we are trying to do two things…first celebrate this Epiphany and the story of the magi who come seeking a new born King, and secondly focus on the arts. The Mennonite Arts Weekend Committee needed time to get us all up to speed and thus their report this morning. When Hal mentioned this to me a couple of weeks ago, I thought why don’t we focus the entire morning around the arts…not really knowing what I was talking about or how these two events go together. I think this congregation celebrated the arts among you early last year in the off year of the Mennonite Arts Weekend. Maybe we are doing that again in a small way this morning.
Well, I found a small piece of justification for trying to do two things as I was reading a commentary on the Matthew passage of the Magi and it mentioned that this text on the wise men was picked up in art very early in the life of the early church. It is not hard to imagine as this story of these Persian astrologers lend themselves to artistic expression. Even the listing of their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, beg for some visual expression. And of course the song of We Three Kings of Orient Are sought to express this story in verse and song.
When I was talking to Hal about this Sunday and said I would seek to bring a meditation on the arts, he replied something like, tell us how the arts have affected you. I think I said OK.
I grew up in a small urban congregation in the middle of Allentown, PA. It was General Conference Mennonites and thus we had a pipe organ and stain glass windows. This was different from what was called the Old Mennonites that tended to call their houses of worship meeting places that typically had translucent windows letting in light, but no color or images. Some would have a piano.
There is beauty in both: a simplicity in the meetinghouse and the color and images in the sanctuaries of the General Conference. I am sure as a young boy that the colors of the stained glass and images of the Good Shepherd leading the flock and carrying a lamb got me through many hours of hard bench time and sermons that seemed as endless as God’s mercy.
I believe that we as Mennonites today are in the midst of recovering the arts and their place in our lives and in our worship. I am so proud of this congregation and the strong message you send to the wider Mennonite church and beyond. This congregation knows it is time to recover the arts and make give them a rightful place in our lives and churches.
I do say recover in that we were once part of the one holy catholic church back in the reformation era and worshipped in those magnificent cathedrals in Europe surrounded by the great arts of that time. Only then when our forbears began to suggest that some changes were needed was the welcome mat pulled out from under them and they needed to leave behind the artistic expression of the cathedrals. The steeples and stained glass, the canvasses and the carvings were traded in for secret night meetings in basements and boats, in forests and caves.
Some years ago I came to associate the term beauty with the nature world, the arts, and God herself or himself. I find sunrises, sunsets, and dark clear night skies mesmerizing that are hard to leave and go inside. A meadow of purple lupine, emerald lakes, waterfalls, and jagged snow capped mountains in Patagonia leave one in awe of this creation. I am sure that beauty is a character of God. Certainly not just the beauty of what we see in Hollywood, but the beauty of a wrinkly short little old lady like Mother Teresa or a person of the character of Nelson Mandela.
If you think I am an art connoisseur you might want to reconsider that. Sometimes my rational, practical, pragmatic nature gets in the way. My daughter Rebecca, an art major, and high school art teacher for 10 years, now in visual marketing with Ten Thousand Villages is my consultant and art confidant. I remember one year during her college days she gave me a lovely sculpted piece she created of wood about 20 inches tall that sat upright. Shortly after receiving this gift, I responded that I could make it into a lovely lamp base…totaling missing the focus of her artistic expression. My pragmatic mechanical background prevented me from seeing the beauty alone in the piece. I suppose I could of sought my redemption is that I wanted it to radiate light to all nearby, but it probably only would of dug the hole I was in deeper.
Another time years ago on a camping trip in Canada with my sister and her husband who is physician and a very observant person. We had just pulled into a beautiful camp site in Canada on the shore and Lake Superior. Everyone was ooing and aweing the beauty of the evening and the place. However, I had gotten out my tool box and was repairing the leaking water spigot near our site. My brother-in-law came up and said to me, “When are you going to write your memoirs, “Confessions of a chronic fixer”. Once again I was reminded how our rational and pragmatic minds can be a barrier in our journey of engaging the mystery. There are so many distractions that can cause us to miss the beauty and grandeur that is all around us and fail to engage the mystery of God. The arts can help us.
Gordon Kaufman was a widely respected Mennonite theologian, professor emeritus of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School where he taught since 1963. He was born in Newton Kansas and died in 2011. He focused on progressive Christianity and modern Theology. He lectured widely and taught at universities across the US and also in India, Japan, South Africa, England and Hong Kong. Kaufman thinks of God as “Ultimate Mystery”. When mystery is thought of as God, it evokes not only bafflement but trust and confidence. I heard him speak one time at Bluffton some years ago and his presentation was on a focus he wrote on in numerous places…that led him to a definition of God as CREATIVITY. I am not a well read student of Kaufman’s theology have been left to ponder his conclusion…God is CREATIVITY. We know that God is LOVE and if you want to expand on that you can you can also consider Kaufman’s definition of God. I believe he is pushing us to use all the creative power that we have been given to both care for each other and this planet earth and do it joy and celebration with all of our gifts of music, writing, acting, drawing, speaking, working with fabric, wood, metal, or stone…and maybe even fixing leaky spigots and other broken things.