Art News Roundup: Christmas Carols Edition

For those of you in the DC area, this evening at 7:30 pm is the annual Christmas Concert at St. Stephen Martyr in Foggy Bottom, located on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 25th Street NW. Our musicians are quite exceptional, as anyone who has visited the parish inevitably comments, thanks both to great talent and the great acoustics of the building itself. The program will include seasonal sacred music composed across many centuries, and will conclude with an audience sing-a-long. A reception will follow in the parish rectory. For more details, please follow this link; hope to see many of you there!

In The Bleak Barcelona

I’ll be heading to Barcelona on vacation in two weeks, and I’m sad to say that the Twelve Days of Christmas there are going to be somewhat dim, thanks to the city’s very dim mayor, failed actress Ada Colau. Not only has Ms. Colau placed an ugly, disrespectful “Nativity” scene by a contemporary artist in front of city hall – which as it turns out cost twice as much as what citizens were originally told it would run – but she now has the unique distinction of having united most of the political parties in the highly fractious region, from left to right, in condemnation of the parsimonious lighting and decorations which the city has installed for the season. Christians are accusing Ms. Colau of deliberately downplaying Christmas, thanks to her hatred of Christianity; secularists are decrying the “gloomy” atmosphere of the city, which will have a chilling effect on the spending of holiday tourists, reduce wages for both union and non-union workers, and thereby cut into anticipated tax revenues. [Ben fet, idiota.]


Jingle All The Way (To The Bank)

You’ll recall that over the summer, I reported on an art dealer who bought an abandoned storage locker in New Jersey full of what at first glance appeared to be minor works of art, but upon closer inspection contained half a dozen late works by Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). Art Net is now reporting that his $15,000 investment has paid off rather handsomely, to the tune of $2.5 million. Meanwhile, an employee at a local auction house in Derby, England, realized that a ceramic pot he had purchased for around $5 several years ago, and was using as a toothbrush holder in his bathroom, was in fact a Bronze Age artifact dating back about 4,000 years; he recently sold it at auction for about $100. The moral of the story here, kids, is: learn your art history.


Five Golden Rings < One Copper Ring

While we associate the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (died circa 36-39 A.D.) with the events of Holy Week rather than Christmas, a remarkable find in Israel is nevertheless worth mentioning as we consider the age into which Jesus was born. Back in 1968, archaeologists excavating at the Herodium, a vast palace-tomb complex originally built by King Herod the Great just south of Bethlehem, recovered a number of items for analysis, including a copper ring whose inscription was too faded to be clearly read with the naked eye. Now however, thanks to modern imaging technology, the ring has revealed its original inscription bearing Pilate’s name. Scholars believe that it was probably a seal ring used by Pilate’s underlings to sign documents on his behalf, much as one might use a rubber stamp bearing a signature in a government office.



Law in the Balance

This is the last in my series of posts – though there will be a very simple post tomorrow – in which we have looked at the Passion Narrative in St. Mark’s Gospel in the context of broader social and cultural issues. I have tried to do my best to look at this text during Holy Week, the most sacred time of the year for Christians, and take some themes or ideas from it which I believe are worth the consideration of both my Christian and Non-Christian readers. On Monday we looked at the importance of studying symbolism in the creative spheres; on Tuesday we considered what it means to be naked; and yesterday we looked at the role of women in society.

Today we are going to look at something which is very much in the news these days, but then for that matter always seems to be in the news, and that is the rule of law. No, I am not going to discuss the constitutionality of Obamacare, or the HHS mandate.  I will leave that to those Constitutional law scholars who regularly argue before the Supreme Court, and thus actually know what they are talking about, rather than pay any attention to those who simply talk about it on television or in magazine articles.

Instead, my goal today is to make you a bit uncomfortable, if I can.

If we turn to what happened after Jesus’ Crucifixion in St. Mark’s account, which you can read here, we are told that after He had breathed His last on Friday afternoon, there was a very important question to be answered by His Jewish friends: was there time to take His body down and bury it before the Sabbath?

Joseph of Arimathea,
a distinguished member of the council,
who was himself awaiting the kingdom of God,
came and courageously went to Pilate
and asked for the body of Jesus.
Pilate was amazed that he was already dead.
He summoned the centurion
and asked him if Jesus had already died.
And when he learned of it from the centurion,
he gave the body to Joseph.
Having bought a linen cloth, he took him down,
wrapped him in the linen cloth,
and laid him in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.

Before we get into a consideration of what Joseph did here, we need to take a step back and look at the issue of the law, for the law is inextricably linked with what St. Mark is describing.

It is hard for me to look at what St. Mark reports without thinking like a lawyer. The legal mind, as my readers are no doubt well-aware, differs somewhat from the rational mind, although it has its own, at times cruel, logic to it. The lawyer works within a closed universe, wherein certain types of proofs which might make a difference in an argument between one friend and another may not even be considered within the context of a legal argument. It is important to understand this, because such an alternate universe has its own rules and ways of working, which do not always correspond to what we may and may not do in our private lives.

While St. Mark tells us what he himself witnessed, or was told later by others, remember that so far as we know, he was not a lawyer.  And as a lawyer, I sometimes find reading the Bible – not just St. Mark’s Gospel – to be frustrating to the part of my brain that has been trained to think as a lawyer.  I know from experience that when I am trying to put together an argument for court, for example, in that universe I need to ask certain questions and obtain certain answers to those questions which may be completely separate from real life in all of its messiness, if I am to convince the court to rule the way I believe it ought to rule.  So even though St. Mark is writing an account of a legal process, he is writing it as a layman would write it, not as a lawyer would write it: he is trying to persuade the reader’s immortal soul, not the mind of a temporal judge.

That being said, keep in mind that Jesus went through proceedings in two separate legal universes, in order for Him to be executed.  He was first condemned by religious authority, and he was subsequently condemned by civil authority. Had He been arrested in a modern, Western legal system He would have had certain protections and rights; if He had been, as someone who knows his way around the appellate system I could cite an almost infinite list of grounds for appeal from His death sentence. Be that as it may, and whatever one thinks of the actions of those such as the Sanhedrin or Pontius Pilate, He was not simply chased down by a mob and lynched, vigilante-style.

Turning then to a deeper reflection on how the law applies to the events described by St. Mark, one of the things we can all recognize is that Jesus taught His Disciples that people in need come before the law, but the law must still be upheld whenever possible. He was routinely criticized, for example, for healing sick people on the Sabbath, because in the mind of the more literal of the religious leaders of His day, this was working on the Sabbath, which was prohibited by the Mosaic law.  Jesus rejected this interpretation, and took the view that it was more important to act, when you found yourself in a situation where someone needed your help, even if it meant working on the Sabbath.

Similarly, in parables such as the very familiar one of “The Good Samaritan”, Jesus challenged His listeners to consider which was more important: proscribed ritual or another in urgent, life-or-death need? The wounded Jewish traveler on the side of the road is not touched by the observant Jewish leaders, who do not want to become ritually unclean, and thereby become unable to serve God in the Temple. Instead, the traveler is aided by someone whom the Jews considered at best a heretic, and at worst an enemy, a resident from what is today the West Bank.  [N.B. Now THERE is an interesting geographical tidbit to chew on.]

At the same time however, in the Gospels Jesus repeatedly reminds His followers that they must follow the law, whether as promulgated by the religious authorities or by the civil authorities, so long as in so doing they do not lose sight of the big picture. A mistake often made by those on the left is looking at Jesus as some sort of early anarchist, forgetting that He commanded His followers to obey the rulings of the Pharisees on religious matters, and of course rendering unto Caesar what is properly Caesar’s under the civil codes. This fact suggests that one needs to find a way to balance out what is intrinsically good and what is unquestionably legal, what is beneficial and what is permissible.

In the passage quoted above about the actions taken by Joseph of Arimathea, the point is that this member of the Sanhedrin does BOTH. He rushes to provide a last act of compassion toward his friend Jesus, but he does so recognizing that the Mosaic law which he follows gives him a limited amount of time in which to act.  He also recognizes that he cannot simply take the body down, because he is legally required to consult the appropriate civil authority, i.e. Pilate himself, before he can do anything, even if Joseph personally believed that Jesus had been wrongly condemned.

That in itself must have been very difficult to do, as St. Mark observes.  Joseph could conceivably have been arrested by the Romans for seeking to encourage sedition, for example.  Once Pilate’s legal permission was obtained, can imagine that there must have been a flurry of activity on the part of Joseph and those who assisted him, to try to get Jesus buried before nightfall.  Though as it turned out, the fact that they could not complete all of the rituals normally mandated before a Jewish burial is in fact why the women come to the tomb at sunup on Sunday morning, so that they could finish what they and Joseph did not have time to do on Friday evening.

Joseph gives us a good example of the personal courage that anyone, be they Jew, Christian, or nothing in particular, ought to do when it comes to acting out of compassion in balance with legal authority.  The mere existence of a law cannot be an excuse for exercising the so-called “Nuremberg defense”, when it comes to how we treat one another. Just because something is perfectly legal, does not mean that we are excused from helping other people, or that we are free to harm them, when we are put in a legal position to do so.

At the same time, if we do not obey law and order when it acts to provide structure and avoid chaos, then we need to question ourselves as to whether we acting out of compassion for others, or whether we are really acting out of selfishness. A healthy and vibrant civilization is only possible when human beings voluntarily impose certain limits on how we interact with one another.  Yet it only survives if its members recognize that a balancing act, or indeed an outright change if the law proves to be unjust, is sometimes necessary.

“Joseph of Arimathea Seeking Out Pontius Pilate”
by James Tissot (c. 1886-1894)
Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York

Lenten Friday Reflection: Cleaning House

This past Sunday we heard the very familiar story from the Gospel of St. John, which is in fact recounted in all four of the Gospels, of Jesus chasing the merchants from the Temple in Jerusalem. One little detail of that story caught my attention: specifically, in verse 15, where St. John tells us that Jesus “made a whip out of cords.” This seemingly insignificant detail leads to several points of reflection.

In the original Greek text, the word we translate as “cords” is actually “scoiniwn”, meaning “a rope made out of rushes or small sticks”. In other words, this was a serious, painful weapon. If you have ever been whipped by a towel during gym class, you know that it can smart, and leave a mark, so you can imagine that being struck by a whip consisting of a bunch of branches tied together would be particularly unpleasant.

Later on in St. John’s Gospel, we are presented with a different incident involving a whip, when Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate. St. John tells us in Chapter 19:1-3:

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him scourged. And the soldiers wove a crown out of thorns and placed it on his head, and clothed him in a purple cloak, and they came to him and said, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they struck him repeatedly.

A scourge, of course, is an even more painful whip than the sort Jesus would have used in the Temple, as we are all aware from artistic and cinematic depictions of this event. Moreover, the intent of its use is completely different. Whereas Jesus uses the whip He fashions to restore the sanctity of the Temple, Pilate uses the whip to humiliate, and to destroy the Temple of Christ’s Body.

Keep in mind that the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate comes about because only the latter has the power to carry out the sentence of death demanded by the Sanhedrin, who have already judged Jesus and found Him guilty under religious law. Christ condemns Himself, in the eyes of the Chief Priests and the Elders, by declaring the truth: that He is the Son of God. The Sanhedrin simply refuse to accept it. Pilate, on the other hand, once it is his turn to judge Jesus, is not interpreting and applying the Mosaic law, but rather the secular, Roman law, in order to determine whether Jesus has committed a capital offense.

As a result, Jesus is condemned not once, but twice. He is first judged to be deserving of death by His own people, the Jews, under religious law, and then secondly by the Gentiles, i.e. the pagans, under secular law. The interpretation of religious law by the priests, and the interpretation of secular law by Pilate, leads both groups to the same conclusion. Thus, His death is brought about by all mankind, not just one group: all are culpable in their sinfulness.

Yet the condemnation of Jesus by both secular and religious authorities is not the end. After Jesus’ Passion and Death, of course, comes the Resurrection, which is the ultimate proof of His Divine Authority over matters both temporal and eternal. He is not bound by the judgments of men, with respect to either religious or civil law, nor is He bound by Death itself. And in the fullness of time, He has promised that He will return and exercise His right of judgment, with both joy and sorrow to accompany that event.

The cleansing of the Temple is a preview, if you will, of what Jesus can and will do if He chooses, to those who seek to challenge or ignore God’s authority over all things. He takes action to demonstrate His authority over His Father’s house, yes, but also to demonstrate His authority over the affairs of man. He both judges, and carries out the resulting sentence, for those defiling the Temple and scoffing at the Divine Presence. If the peace-loving Jesus of contemporary, milquetoast Christianity is what you seek, I would suggest that you take a closer look at the Christ who drove out sinners from God’s Presence, using a whip which He Himself made for the specific purpose of doing so.

This does not mean that we are to tremble and stay away from Him out of fear. Rather, He wants us to repent and amend our lives, to voluntarily cleanse the temples of our own bodies and our own hearts.  He does not us to suddenly find ourselves on the receiving end of deserved punishment for our sins.  Yet punishment there will be, for those who do not do some serious house-cleaning in their lives.

We are now at the midway point of Lent, with Palm Sunday only a little over two weeks away. Therefore gentle reader, let us make the remaining time in this season of prayer, penance, fasting, and almsgiving count.  When we arrive at Holy Week, let us strive to be among those accompanying Jesus in sorrow on the Way of the Cross, and thereafter rejoicing in His Resurrection, rather than finding ourselves cast out from His Presence.

The Cleansing of The Temple by El Greco (c. 1600)
National Gallery of Art, London