Raphael on Christ

“The Washington Post” had a rather remarkable feature, in a special Museums insert, on this painting, the Alba Madonna by Raphael. Painted around 1508 and currently in D.C.’s National Gallery, it’s considered the high point of Renaissance art and one of the greatest paintings ever made. But why? The Post asked some art historians, and two of them zeroed in on Raphael’s portrayal of Christ.

From Leo Steinberg:

This is the action: The little Saint John is presenting the cross to the Christ child, as if to remind him of what the purpose of his life is. The child does not need to be reminded: He seizes the cross, almost triumphantly. It’s done as if in play, and that’s the genius of Raphael: to disguise the theology under the aspect of infant play. And the Virgin interrupts her reading, in which all of this is foretold — she’s not reading the latest bestseller, she’s reading the Book of Isaiah. And then, gently extending her right hand toward Saint John, she thinks, “Not yet.”

Heaven has come down to earth. This is very clearly spelled out in the Alba Madonna: You have the blue sky, the landscape washed by that same blue, and no other blue in that picture but in the Virgin’s dress.

From Alexander Nagel (Gopnik is the interviewer):

On the one hand, there seems to be an emphasis on a single moment, and on the other hand an emphasis on things enduring through time.

There is the sense that John’s head has just looked up, that Christ’s head has just turned, that the Virgin has come to attention, and that all of them are magnetized for a second by the cross that Christ has grasped. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine it as a moment in any obvious sequential drama: the whole thing seems poised and static.

And that contrast seems to me to be reflected in the composition of the picture. In how the figures represent a highly dynamic group distributed in space and involving quite a bit of twisting and turning, and yet they also create a kind of flat, orderly hexagon on the surface. . . .

So in both the treatment of the narrative moment and the structure of the composition, a great deal of motion and complexity is reconciled with something very stable and unchanging.

This duality in the painting also produces a particular kind of theological emphasis. It advances the notion that the contingent, the earthly, the episodic, is also part of a larger, timeless plan. All the separate little episodes of history — a child dandled by his mother in a meadow, for instance, as she puts down her book — look to us like they’ve happened in an almost accidental way, but this painting reveals that they’re all part of God’s supratemporal plan.

GOPNIK: After all, why is there a cross in this scene, so many years before Christ’s Crucifixion? The object is almost a toy, two flimsy reeds lashed together by a little shepherd boy named John. Yet even as Jesus reaches for that toy, the part above his fingers assumes the proportions of the crossed beams he will be nailed to — at that moment, the reeds become the cross of the crucifixion.

NAGEL: Yes, The cross here can exist as a symbol of the Crucifixion before the actual event of the Crucifixion because the divine plan cuts through mere chronology.

This relationship between history and the divine scheme is a persistent, profound issue in Christian theology. And in this painting a new set of artistic problems — which have to do with balancing a detailed description of nature and human bodies with a larger sense of compositional and structural order — have created new insights into it.

Satirist’s confession of faith

The satirist P. J. O’Rourke, usually a wild man, learned that he has cancer. He has written a remarkable column in the L. A. Times, reflecting in a humorous yet thoughtful way on death, morphing into a confession of faith in Christ. Read it all, while realizing he is a satirist and no theologian. Here is a sample:

I looked death in the face. All right, I didn’t. I glimpsed him in a crowd. I’ve been diagnosed with cancer, of a very treatable kind. I’m told I have a 95% chance of survival. Come to think of it — as a drinking, smoking, saturated-fat hound — my chance of survival has been improved by cancer.

I still cursed God, as we all do when we get bad news and pain. Not even the most faith-impaired among us shouts: “Damn quantum mechanics!” “Damn organic chemistry!” “Damn chaos and coincidence!”

I believe in God. God created the world. Obviously pain had to be included in God’s plan. Otherwise we’d never learn that our actions have consequences. Our cave-person ancestors, finding fire warm, would conclude that curling up to sleep in the middle of the flames would be even warmer. Cave bears would dine on roast ancestor, and we’d never get any bad news and pain because we wouldn’t be here. . . .

No doubt death is one of those mysterious ways in which God famously works. Except, on consideration, death isn’t mysterious. Do we really want everyone to be around forever? I’m thinking about my own family, specifically a certain stepfather I had as a kid. Sayonara, you s.o.b.

Napoleon was doubtless a great man in his time — at least the French think so. But do we want even Napoleon extant in perpetuity? Do we want him always escaping from island exiles, raising fanatically loyal troops of soldiers, invading Russia and burning Moscow? . . .

Death is so important that God visited death upon his own son, thereby helping us learn right from wrong well enough that we may escape death forever and live eternally in God’s grace. (Although this option is not usually open to reporters.)

HT: First Things

Enemy of the Baptized

I hope you had a happy St. Michael and All Angels day yesterday, a day to reflect on angels, including the fallen angels whom Michael battles. On this topic, our pastor preached an illuminating sermon. As he said, ” the war in heaven has now come down to earth.”

We also had a baptism. In the bulletin was printed Luther’s admonition to the baptismal party, which included this startling sentence: “Remember, therefore, that it is no joke to take sides against the devil and not only to drive him away from the little child, but to burden the child with such a mighty and lifelong enemy.”

Think of that. The Baptized have been delivered from the devil, but that makes them the devil’s special enemy, with Satan always trying to thwart God’s grace and win them back.

You have got to read the sermon linked above, which dives deeply into this. A sample (Logan is the name of the baby we baptized):

So given the danger that surrounds us everyday, how could we put little Logan into such a difficult and precarious situation? How could we give him such a mighty and lifelong enemy, and rejoice in doing so? Well, we do, and we can, because although the battle rages on, the war has been won. Because the gifts of God are greater than the schemes of the enemy. Because the great dragon that was thrown down to the earth, was defeated by a baby boy who at one time was the same age as Logan and nursed at His mother’s breast. A baby boy wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. A baby boy the news of whose birth the angels announced and celebrated. A baby boy who was not only a baby boy, like Logan, born in the natural way, but the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born without sin. A baby boy who is the King of angels, come to do what no angel could do. For while Michael and his angels tossed the old, evil foe down from heaven, it was a baby boy named Jesus who defeated him once and for all.

When Christians visit

Rev. William Weedon offers a great quote from C. F. W. Walther, the father of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (the reference being to an excellent devotional book drawn from Walther’s writings translated by Gerhard Grabenhofer, one of my former students!)

Each rejoices when another rejoices, and each regards himself as a greater sinner than another. He is therefore honored to receive a visit from even the humblest Christian, for he knows this individual carries within himself the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, just as Mary carried Jesus bodily in her womb. He also knows that, in his fellow Christian, Christ is making a visit. – *God Grant It!* p. 907

Notice the theology of Christ’s presence in ordinary people, which is basic to the doctrine of vocation.

Happy Ascension Day

Today is Ascension Day, the 40th day after Easter, commemorating the day on which our Risen Lord ascended into Heaven and sits on the right hand of the Father Almighty.

It’s odd that the significance of Christ’s ascension is taken in two opposite ways: The Reformed say that it means Christ is ABSENT, no longer on earth, so that His real presence in the sacrament is impossible. Lutherans say that it means Christ, at the right hand of Power, His human nature assumed into the Holy Trinity, can now be omnipresent, so that He CAN be on every altar.

Ascension Day used to be a hugely important day in the church year. How can we bring it back?

Why Islam denies Christ’s crucifixion

Appended to that Jonah article we blogged about yesterday was another tidbit from Ronald F. Marshall explaining why Islam denies that Jesus was crucified:

According to the Koran, Jesus was not crucified on the cross. Some have it that he never was nailed to the cross but a look-alike was nailed there in his place, perhaps Thomas or Judas; others that he was nailed to the cross but was taken down and later resuscitated in the tomb.

On this view, the sign of Jonah (Matt. 12:39; Luke 11:29) says that Jesus will not die because Jonah did not die in the belly of the whale, and that alone is the true but forgotten point of comparison between Jesus and Jonah. This argument is made by Ahmed Deedat in Was Jesus Crucified?, published by the Library of Islam.

Islam denies the Atonement for two reasons. First, “the Christian concept of salvation presupposes the existence of an a-priori state of sinfulness, which is justified in Christianity by the doctrine of ‘original sin,’ but is not justified in Islam, which does not subscribe to this doctrine,” as one highly esteemed Koranic scholar, Muhammad Asad, put it.
Second, Islam denies vicarious suffering. The Koran teaches that we have to bear the burden for our sins all by ourselves. So the teaching that Jesus bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24) is a corruption of the original revelation, the original coming in the Koran, where we are told that God gave to Jesus the way of good works. By following them we have peace with God.

The Koran describes salvation as repenting of sin and obeying God just as Jonah did. Jesus’ life reinforces this way. This is all that is left for Jesus to do if original sin and vicarious suffering are denied, as they are in Islam (and much of liberal Christianity). The sign of Jonah is the way of good works.

Sounds like the beliefs of some people who think they are Christians! No wonder so many of them think Islam and Christianity are basically the same. Rather than OPPOSITES.