Archive for the ‘Gospel of Luke’ Category

Entering the Mysteries

June 27, 2010


Mapping the Mysteries © Jan L. Richardson

Year C, Proper 9/Ordinary 14/ Pentecost + 6 (July 4): Luke 10.1-11, 16-20

Ah, how I have been traveling on the Road of Good Intentions these past weeks. I’ve been hopeful of blogging more regularly here at The Painted Prayerbook now that I am post-wedding, but amidst settling into our new home, entering into the blessed rhythms of marriage, taking care of details related to my new book’s publication this fall, and preparing for summer travels (not to mention doing lovely things like sleeping and taking walks and enjoying summer reading), I haven’t been able to get much further than looking longingly at the lectionary readings and thinking about what I would write and collage if I could just somehow manage it.

Know that I’ll show up here when I can, and even when I’m not adding new reflections and artwork, I’m contemplating the texts with you and praying for you as you ponder your way into and through the words that the lectionary offers to us from week to week. For this week, I invite you to stop by an earlier reflection, one that I wrote for Matthew’s version of the story that the lectionary gives us from Luke for next Sunday. You can visit it here: Mapping the Mysteries. (Does recycling blog material count as going green?)

Speaking of mapping and mysteries . . . this is going to be the theme of one of the events I’m greatly looking forward to leading this summer. During the week of August 8-13, I’ll be at Zephyr Point Conference Center in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, as the main speaker of the Companions on the Inner Way retreat. Our theme for the week will be Mapping the Mysteries of Faith. For more info on the retreat, please visit Upcoming Events.

On that page you can also find info about another event I’m anticipating with much delight: I’ll be returning to the wondrous Grünewald Guild in Washington State, where I teach each summer; this year I’ll serve as the keynote speaker during their first-ever Liturgical Arts Week during July 26-August 1. Each of these events will offer a welcoming space for contemplation, creative exploration, and conversation with an engaging community amidst a beautiful place. I hope you’ll think about joining us for either week . . . or both!

And, as always, I have lots of goodies available at janrichardson.com in the form of art prints, greeting cards, and books. I invite you to stop by and have a browse anytime . . . always open, 24/7! And, no matter where I may be, images are always available for your use in worship, education, and other settings at Jan Richardson Images.

Many blessings to you as you navigate the mysteries of your unfolding path.

Lent 1: Into the Wilderness

February 14, 2010


Into Earth © Jan L. Richardson

[For Ash Wednesday, please scroll down or click here.]

Reading from the Gospels, Lent 1, Year C (Feb. 14): Luke 4.1-13

From time to time I receive requests to create new artwork for a project. I love receiving these inquiries and am always grateful when they come my way. I sometimes find myself intrigued, however, by the assumptions within a request.

“We need it quite soon, but it’s pretty simple,” the lovely person might say.

So you can dive right in and it shouldn’t take you long, I hear between the lines.

I will tell you this: it’s often the pieces that look the simplest that take the longest to create. It seems counterintuitive, I know. It came as something of a surprise to me when I first began to learn it, and I sometimes wrestle with the truth of it still. How can an image that has only a few parts sometimes take so much time and space to make?

The answer lies on my drafting table, in the pile of discarded scraps that grows larger each time I work on a collage. The challenge of creating a piece of art lies not just in deciding what to include but also in discerning what to leave out. Every piece of art involves a process of choosing: not this, not this, not this. I can only find what belongs by clearing away everything that doesn’t.

This is no speedy endeavor.

On an intimate scale, it’s much like the kind of discernment that we see Jesus engaged in as we follow him into the wilderness on the first Sunday of Lent. Still dripping with the waters of the Jordan in which his cousin John has just baptized him, Jesus sets off on a sojourn that continues his initiation into his public ministry. For forty days, Luke tells us, the devil besets Jesus with temptations. Jesus’ adversary is cunning in the way he presents choices designed to appeal to someone with a desire for earthly power: Want to rule the world? the devil asks; this is what you need to do; this is what belongs to you.

The devil’s temptations show that he knows the words of scripture well. Jesus’ responses, however, reveal that he knows more: he understands the heart of the sacred texts. And here in the wilderness, the one who has steeped himself in those texts begins to understand how the ancient words of God are to take flesh in him as the living and incarnate Word of God. Once, twice, and yet a third time: with every temptation, Jesus responds to the devil: not this, not this, not this. With each response he names what does not belong to him; with each answer he gains clarity about what he needs to empty himself of in order to be who he has come here to be.

When he emerges from this wild space, when he has completed this liminal time of fasting and praying and wrestling and waiting, Jesus has a clarity that could not have come otherwise. It has taken a long time, this emptying, this clearing out, this letting go of what doesn’t belong in order to find what does. But in taking the time, in venturing into that place, Jesus has found what he needs. As he enters his public ministry, he possesses a picture that is more complete, more whole. From discerning not this, not this, not this, he can now say, this.

Since I’m telling creative secrets this week, I’ll tell you this one as well: as I worked on this week’s collage, I was thinking of Joan Sauro’s lovely book Whole Earth Meditation, in which she offers an evocative exploration of the connections between the landscape within us and the landscape around us. I wound up going in a different direction with my reflection than I had anticipated—and thus we come to another not-so-secret secret of the creative process (and life): things don’t always go as planned. We may have to empty ourselves even of our attachment to our hopes, our expectations, our desired outcomes; sometimes we have to say not this to what we have most treasured, in order to make way for what truly belongs.

Yet Sauro’s words infuse this collage, are embedded in its landscape, and go with me as I cross the season into Lent: words about entering our inner terrain and finding the presence of God amidst the layers. Go to the place called barren, she writes. Stand in the place called empty. And you will find God there.

The Spirit of God breathes everywhere within you, just as in the beginning, filling light place and dark…green earth and dry. Thus does God renew the face of the earth. God always breaks through at your weakest point, where you least resist. God’s love grows, fullness upon fullness, where you crumble enough to give what is most dear. Your earth.

As we enter into the landscape that the season of Lent offers us, what’s stirring in your own interior terrain? What part of your earth might God be inviting you to open up or allow to give way? Is there something you need to let go of, something(s) to which you need to say not this, not this, not this, in order to make way for this? Is there a wild space—inner or outer—that would help you choose what you need for a more whole life?

May your Lenten path draw you deep into the landscape that God desires for you. Blessings.

[For earlier reflections on this story in Matthew and Mark, please see Lent 1: Discernment and Dessert in the Desert and Lent 1: A River Runs through Him. To use the “Into Earth” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Resources for the season: Looking toward Lent

Transfiguration: Back to the Drawing Board

February 7, 2010


Transfigure © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Transfiguration Sunday, Year C (Feb. 14): Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)

I was nearly finished with the collage before it occurred to me that the design perhaps owes as much to the snow I was recently in as it does to next Sunday’s gospel text. Gary and I have returned from Minnesota, and although we (and they) joked about the wisdom of importing Floridians at this time of year, it was a great gift to be in a lovely winter’s landscape and to receive wondrous hospitality as we shared a morning at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church (including a worship service that takes place in their art gallery, what a concept) and in events at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

At the events, I had occasion to share images of some of my artwork from the past 15+ years. It was the first time I had brought these images together in quite this way, from early work such as Wise Women Also Came (made when I was still using construction paper!) to the more recent collages I’ve created for this blog and The Advent Door. Looking back over this body of work prompted me to do some reflecting on how my style has changed. Although paper collage remains my first love, my technique and my style have both shifted considerably, taking an increasingly abstract turn since I began creating artwork for my blogs more than two years ago.

When it comes to the creative process, I can’t say I have a lot of control. Trying to wield too much control, in fact, is one of the worst things an artist can do (which doesn’t always keep me from trying). I didn’t exactly set out to do abstract work. The technique, which involves painting tissue paper, emerged from creative necessity as I was working on The Welcome Table: the scale was so large (4.5 x 6.5 feet) that I couldn’t snip the characters’ clothes out of magazines; I had to fashion them myself. I can’t explain the ensuing turn toward abstraction, except in part: once the painted papers showed up, that’s the path they took me down. That, and these lectionary texts that take me to places that so often resist traditional depictions. I experience abstract art as being more like poetry in the space that it creates. “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson wrote. I’m not trying to explain these passages, but to evoke, to invite, to sidle up alongside the texts and offer a doorway into them amidst line and shape and color.

Along the way, what I keep working and hoping to do is to give myself to the mysteries involved in the process of making: to pay attention to what emerges among the papers and to follow where they lead; to keep clearing out a space within myself that leaves enough room for something new to show up; and to avoid growing so attached to a particular style or technique that it becomes overworked and ossified.

In my artful work and elsewhere, the challenges that the disciples encounter in this passage from Luke are my own challenges. Like Peter, John, and James at prayer with Jesus on the mountain, I sometimes struggle to stay awake when it’s easier to be lulled into sleep and to miss the thin places, the meetings of heaven and earth, that open up in the midst of daily life. And when those thin places come—when a burst of inspiration opens a new world, say, or, after hours or months or sometimes years of experimentation, something finally comes together at the drafting table, and both the work and I myself are transformed—it can be tempting to want to set up shop there, to preserve the moment, as Peter longed to do. I recognize his impulse in my own self, his desire to want to linger in the wonder. And why shouldn’t he? Yet the persistent invitation of Jesus is to take what we have seen, what we have found, down into the trenches of everyday life.

It’s not a new message; I’ll wager that the greater percentage of the sermons preached on this text will offer a variation on the theme of navigating the transition from the mountaintop to the flatlands. And yet we need to keep practicing that transition, to keep rehearsing the journey that moves us from being recipients of wonder to becoming people who, transformed and—shall we say it?—transfigured by what we have received, can then offer these wonders to a broken world.

When the disciples come down from the mountain, they still have plenty of struggles ahead. They’ve hardly gotten their feet back on flat land when, Luke tells us, they encounter, and fail to heal, a boy in the grip of what Luke describes as an unclean spirit. In juxtaposing the stories, Luke suggests that the disciples’ own spirits are still struggling between holding on and letting go, are still struggling to leave a space for the wonders that Christ seeks to do within and through them. It will take rehearsing, and practicing, and rehearsing some more. In my own life, cultivating this space is something that, quite literally, I keep going back to the drawing board to learn.

This is a great passage to lead us toward Lent, a season that is all about discerning what it is that we cling to, and what we need to practice letting go of in order for Christ to become more clear in us. But Lent will come around soon enough. In the meantime, where does the story of Peter and John and James connect with your own? How are you navigating the journey that their own feet trace between the mountaintop and the flatlands? What do you find yourself tempted to cling to, and how do you practice letting go of it? Do you have habits and spaces that invite you to cultivate an openness to the new ways that God desires to work in and through you? Where and how do you rehearse the transfiguration that God seeks to bring in your life?

As we move toward Transfiguration Sunday, may we keep awake to the wonders in our midst, let ourselves be transformed by them, and follow the path they open to us. Blessings.

[For an earlier reflection on the Transfiguration, please see Transfiguration Sunday: Show and (Don’t) Tell. To use the “Transfigure” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Update: Speaking of the creative process, the very cool site patheos.com has recently reprinted an interview that Christine Valters Paintner did with me at her also-very-cool Abbey of the Arts, in which she invited me to reflect on my practice as an artist. Here’s the reprint at Patheos: Sacred Artist Interview: Jan Richardson.

Epiphany 5: The Wildest Bounty

January 31, 2010


The Willing Catch © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany 5, Year C (Feb. 7): Luke 5.1-11

As I write this, I’m winging my way toward Minnesota, where my sweetheart and I will be leading several events over the next few days. With a few generations of Florida blood running through my veins, I’m questioning the sanity of going to Minnesota at this time of year. (“Are you crazy?” one of my Minnesota friends asked upon hearing I was heading his way). The timing of the trip, however, was determined by the sanctoral calendar: one of the events that Gary and I will be leading is a celebration of St. Brigid, whose feast day is February 1. While the prospect of spending several days in below-freezing temperatures has me wishing that Brigid’s day fell in midsummer, I’m thrilled by the opportunity to celebrate her feast in the company of friends, both longtime ones and those yet to be made.

I have long been intrigued by and devoted to this Irish saint who has been beloved in her homeland and beyond for more than a millennia and a half. Born in the middle of the fifth century, Brigid became a formidable leader who helped to shape the landscape of Irish Christianity when it was still relatively new to the island. She traveled widely in her ministry and established a number of monasteries, the most famous one being the double monastery (comprised of women and men) at Cill Dara (“The Church of the Oak”), now known as Kildare.

Brigid was renowned for her hospitality and generosity. In her biography of the saint, Alice Curtayne describes how Brigid found the poor “irresistible” and ministered to them with “a habit of the wildest bounty.” Accounts of Brigid’s life are replete with stories of how, in places of lack, Brigid’s actions help to bring forth abundance, whether of food or drink or healing or justice. In these accounts, Brigid is a worker of wonders; her miracles echo the miracles of Christ and draw upon the same power by which he provided for those in need. She reminds us of the ways that God is so often profligate toward us: how God, out of sheer, inexplicable delight and love for us, provides for us in ways that have the power to stun us.

Though she was known for not turning anyone away (“Every guest is Christ,” Brigid said), Brigid nonetheless brought a spirit of discernment to her generosity: she knew that miracles don’t always look like we expect them to look, and they often require something of us beyond what we had anticipated. The Irish Life of St. Brigid relates that one day, a man with leprosy approaches St. Brigid and says, “For God’s sake, Brigit, give me a cow.” With the air of someone who has perhaps been approached by the man a number of times before, Brigid tells him to leave her alone. He persists. Brigid asks him how it would be if they prayed to God for the removal of the man’s leprosy. “No,” he replies, “I get more this way than if I were clean.” Brigid disagrees with his priorities and insists that he “take a blessing and be cleansed.” The man acquiesces, acknowledging that he is in much pain. Upon receiving his cure, the man vows his devotion to Brigid, pledging to be her servant and woodman.

I’m quite enjoying the fact that in the same week that we are celebrating Brigid’s feast, the lectionary gives us this passage from Luke. Put out into the deep water, Jesus says to Simon, and let down your nets for a catch. Simon tells him what Jesus already likely knows: Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets. And what comes up sends Simon to his knees: net-breaking, boat-sinking abundance. In the place where Simon and his fellow fishermen had already been laboring, in the landscape they thought they knew, in the place where they had come up empty: a stunning catch, lavish beyond measure.

Fish weren’t the only catch of the day; Simon and his companions were hooked. Captivated. Called. And that’s what miracles are meant to do: they meet us at our point of need, but they do not leave us there. They call us to move from being recipients to being participants, to share in the ways that God pours out Godself for the life of the community and the healing of the world.

In this week, Luke’s fish tale and the feast of St. Brigid have me wondering, what do I really believe about the ways that God works in this world? Have I grown fixed in my expectations about what God is up to? Do I have eyes to see the surprising ways in which God moves in the midst of situations whose outcome I think I already know? Is there deep water I need to put my net into—beyond what I can see, beyond what I know, beyond my familiar limits—to bring up an abundance that God has in store? What am I willing to leave behind in order to participate in such a miracle and to pass it along to others? What habits of wildest bounty might God be inviting me to practice?

In these coming days, may you participate and pass along the wildest bounty of God. Blessings!

P.S. As Brigid’s feast day approaches, I invite you to visit a reflection I wrote for her feast day last year:


Feast of St. Brigid: A Habit of the Wildest Bounty

This is a doubly festive week: the Feast of the Presentation, also called Candlemas, falls the day after Brigid’s feast. For an earlier reflection on this feast day, please click below:


Feast of the Presentation/Candlemas

[The image “The Willing Catch” is from the reflection Hooked. To use this image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Epiphany 4: Get Real

January 25, 2010


Get Real © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany 4, Year C: Luke 4.21-30

In an interview with Terry Gross on her radio program Fresh Air some years ago, author Stephen King talked about how the adulation he encounters among readers sometimes turns so quickly to animosity. Acknowledging that he has become a lightning rod that draws a certain kind of fan psychology, he described how it occasionally happens that, for instance, “they want your autograph, they want to tell you how much they enjoy your stuff, and if you say look, I’d love to sign your books, but I can’t right now, I’m taking my family out to dinner, or I really have to be over here…their reaction is, go to hell, you son of a…. Just like that, it changes.”

Although it’s pretty easy to spot this adulation-animosity dynamic in its more dramatic forms (“We keep files on them,” King says of some of his readers who live at the farther, scarier reaches of this spectrum), I suspect we each carry this tendency within us. There’s something in our human psychology—more pronounced in some folks, to be sure, but present to a degree in us all—that tempts us to either idolize or demonize others. In particular, those who are in the public eye become, as Stephen King put it, lightning rods for this kind of phenomenon. Seeing bits and pieces of the life of another—a politician, a movie star, or even—as we observe in today’s gospel lesson—a preacher, we extrapolate from those pieces, put them together in a picture of who we think that person is, often magnifying certain traits (real or imagined) and ignoring others. In the process, we create a caricature that becomes easy to laud or to vilify.

Such responses are rooted in our illusions, in our projections, in our failure to see another for who they are. And because these perceptions are rooted in such shaky ground, it can become stunningly easy to flip from one pole of emotion to the other, usually in the direction of lambasting the one we once lauded.

We see this in today’s gospel lesson, which continues the story from last week of Jesus’ return to his hometown, where he reads from the scroll of Isaiah—those stunning words of good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed—and proclaims to the gathering that these words have been fulfilled in their hearing. As Luke tells the story, Jesus’ teaching initially inspires awe, and then incredulity at what this hometown boy—“Is not this Joseph’s son?”—is speaking.

Jesus challenges their reaction with two stories. Again, as with last week, we see the power of how Jesus the Word carries the scriptures of his people within himself. The stories that Jesus tells to the gathering in the synagogue are stories of two people—one a widow, one a military commander—to whom God sends aid. God sees these people as they are. God knows their need. God meets their need in a way they don’t anticipate and, in the case of Naaman the commander, initially resists.

The subjects of Jesus’ two stories are also foreigners, strangers, people who live outside the covenant that God has with Israel. In telling these stories, and in observing that “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown,” Jesus challenges his hearers to remember that God crosses all boundaries and borders, including those that exist only in our own minds and hearts. Jesus challenges the way in which we often construct our beliefs about others and how God works in them: not only do we carry assumptions about those who are foreign to us, we also grow fixed in our understandings of those in our midst whom we think we know well. In both cases, our illusions and presumptions can prevent us from seeing the person who is really there, and can hinder us from receiving the sometimes surprising ways by which God is working in the life of this person, and wanting to work in our own life.

The incarnation and work of Jesus, to which we give particular attention in this season of Epiphany, was God’s way of saying to us, I see you. I see you, I know your need, I so want to be with you in your need that I will come among you in your own flesh, a body meeting your body, to see you, to be seen by you. To know you and to be known.

Some of the most powerful moments in the gospels come on those occasions, fairly rare, when someone recognizes who Jesus is: really sees him, knows him, understands what he’s about, perceives him in a balanced way absent of the extremes of adulation or denigration. Think of Peter, proclaiming, “You are the Christ.” Or the women who anoint Jesus in his final days, perceiving who he is and ministering to him in anticipation of the suffering he will soon endure. Or Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, exclaiming “Rabboni!” after Jesus has called her by name. One gets the sense from such stories that these people recognize Jesus because he has recognized them, has truly seen who they are: without illusion, without projection, without judgment, and with the utter and complete love that calls them to move more deeply into the heart of God and into the person God has created and called them to be.

The other lectionary texts this week speak with such brilliance to the power of what it means to seek and be seen by this God who knows us fully. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” God says to Jeremiah, “and before you were born I consecrated you….” “Upon you I have leaned from my birth,” sings the psalmist; “it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.” “For now we see in a mirror, dimly,” Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

The spiritual practices we find in the Christian tradition are treasures that help us seek this kind of seeing, this kind of knowing, even if partial: they help us to wipe at least a few of the smudges from the mirror. Amid what is strange and what is familiar—both of which can blind us to what is really present—practices of prayer, silence, spiritual direction, fasting, and the like help us strip away the layers of illusion and false perception. What we find through these practices can be uncomfortable and sometimes painful: who wants to have this kind of mirror, even a dim one, held up to ourselves?

And it is, in part, this experience of seeing themselves in Jesus’ mirror that infuriates the crowd in Luke’s story, flips them from amazement to agony, and prompts them to drive Jesus to the nearest cliff, intending to fling him over the side. We do well here to check our own assumptions and to heed the caution that Sarah Dylan Breuer offers in her excellent reflection on this passage: “And whatever we say about this Sunday’s gospel, please let’s not say that it is in any way about the small-mindedness of Jews in Jesus’ day or any other.” (She also suggests that “It can be dangerous to choose a pulpit too close to a cliff.”) The impulse to switch from adulation to assault isn’t reserved to any particular group; instead, it’s frighteningly pervasive.

Yet when we allow ourselves to truly see and be seen—when the Christ in me meets and knows and is known by the Christ in you—there is nothing in the world that compares with that. When we can move past our assumptions, our projections, our impulse to build perceptions on paltry fragments and partial sight; when we can open ourselves to the ways that God comes to us both in the stranger and in the one we think we know so well; when we can recognize and respond to the presence of God in another and, in that reflection, recognize the presence of God in our own selves: well, that’s enough to change the world.

So where is God hiding out for you these days? How do you keep your eyes open to the holy that goes in the guise not only of strangers but also of those who are so familiar to you? Upon what do you build your impressions of others? Are there practices that help you see others and yourself more clearly, that help you move beyond assumptions and illusions and imaginings and to see what and who is really there?

In this Epiphany season, in the strange and in the familiar, may we see and know the presence of the Christ who seeks us. Blessings.

[To use this image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of the Jan Richardson Images site helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Epiphany 3: Fulfilled in Your Hearing

January 19, 2010


Fulfilled in Your Hearing © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany 3, Year C (January 24): Luke 4.14-21

In doing research for my new book, two of the most intriguing women I encountered were Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson. Twin sisters born in Scotland in the 19th century, Agnes and Margaret were a formidable pair who became pioneering scholars and explorers in a time when this was a rare feat for women. Semitic languages and biblical studies became their particular passions, and in 1892 they traveled to Egypt to make their first visit to St. Catherine’s Monastery. Established in the sixth century at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the Greek Orthodox community is famed for the many treasures it holds from the early centuries of Christianity. Margaret and Agnes hoped to study some of the ancient manuscripts in the monastery’s library.

Agnes writes that among the ancient books placed into their hands by the librarian of St. Catherine’s was “a thick volume, whose leaves had evidently been unturned for centuries, as they could be separated only by manipulation with the fingers…” In some cases, they had to separate the leaves with a steam kettle.

Agnes recognized the book as a palimpsest, a manuscript whose text had been effaced and overlaid by a later text. Such a practice was common in times when vellum was scarce. Looking closer, she saw that the more recent text was, as she described, “a very entertaining account of the lives of women saints.” Thecla, Eugenia, Euphrosyne, Drusis, Barbara, Euphemia, Sophia, Justa, and others: women revered in Eastern Christianity, these were among the desert mothers, women of the early centuries of the church who gave up safety, security, convention, and finally their lives in order to follow Christ.

Looking closer still, beneath the stories of these women saints, Lewis recognized that the more ancient writing belonged to the gospels. The manuscript proved to be what was then the oldest Syriac version of the four gospels, dating to the fourth century. It was a stunning discovery.

Reading about the palimpsest, I found myself fascinated by the imagery present within its story. The pages of the manuscript, with their layers of text, make visible what happened in the lives of these women of the early church. By their devotion, by their dedication to preserving and proclaiming the gospel message, the desert mothers became living palimpsests, the story of Christ shimmering through the sacred text of their own lives, the Word of God fulfilled in them.

I have thought of these women and this story in pondering the gospel reading for this Sunday. Luke tells us that, fresh from his forty-day sojourn into the wilderness and filled with the power of the Spirit, Jesus begins to teach in the synagogues. Coming to Nazareth, the hometown boy stands and reads from the scroll of Isaiah. From his lips flow some of the most powerful words in all of scripture:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4.18-19)

Finishing his reading, Jesus rolls up the scroll, returns it to the attendant, and sits down. One can imagine him pausing for dramatic effect before he then says to his listeners, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

It is perhaps the shortest teaching the crowd has ever heard. Not to mention the most startling, and, as we will see in next week’s gospel lection, one that will turn deeply disturbing.

The text doesn’t say whether his mother, Mary, was there, but I can imagine her listening to Jesus, a small smile on her face as she takes in the words of his reading and teaching. She is the woman, after all, who had sung words much like these when she carried this child-now-man inside her: had sung of a God who scattered the proud and brought down the powerful, a God who lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things. From the womb Jesus had been marked by radical words about this God who showed mercy from generation to generation and was about the business of turning the world right side up. Like his mother, whose song was an echo of one sung by her foremother Hannah, Jesus offered words with a history, lines that were rooted in an ancient hope.

Amongst the crowd, his mother is perhaps the only one unsurprised by the stunning message from the lips of this One who was so deeply imprinted with the liberating words of God. And not just imprinted with those words, not just a vessel of those words, but the Word itself, the Word made flesh, the One who incarnates the Word in his own being. On that day in the synagogue, Jesus comes among them as the sacred story of God embodied in fullness for all to read; the ancient, sacred texts cohering and taking form and coming to life in him, for the life of the world.

And we who are the body of Christ and followers of the Word: what will we do with these words about good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of God’s favor? How do we, like those long-ago desert mothers, let these ancient words show through the lines of our own lives? How do we, like the Christ whom we follow, give flesh to these words? Amid the brokenness of the world—of which we have been reminded so vividly by the devastation in Haiti—how do we become bearers of these words that are so radical and so challenging in the hope to which they call us?

These are a few of the questions that I—a woman in love with the Word and with words and who cannot rightly extricate the latter from the former—am chewing on in these days. May these words—the words of Isaiah, the Word of Christ—challenge us, call us, enliven us and take flesh in us, for the life of the world. Blessings to you.

Note: Agnes Smith Lewis’s account of the finding of the palimpsest is from her book, available online, A Translation of the Four Gospels from the Syriac of the Sinaitic Palimpsest. Janet Soskice has recently published a lively and absorbing book about Agnes and her sister Margaret; I highly recommend The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels.

[To use the “Fulfilled in Your Hearing” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of the Jan Richardson Images site helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

A Couple More Things…

Coming Attractions: Now that the book is (mostly) finished, I’m moving back into a rhythm of offering periodic retreats and workshops. I’m looking forward to traveling to Minnesota, Virginia, and Washington State in the next few months and invite you to stop by my just-added Upcoming Events page to check out what’s ahead.

Prints & More Prints: All the images here at The Painted Prayerbook and also at The Advent Door are now available as art prints! Visit Jan Richardson Images, go to any image that you’d like, and scroll down to the section that says, “Order as an Art Print.”

Epiphany 1: Baptized and Beloved

January 3, 2010


Baptized and Beloved © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany 1/Baptism of Jesus, Year C: Luke 3.15-17, 21-22

A few nights ago, I had a dream. In the dream, I was sitting by a lake. A woman came and sat down beside me. She looked like a woman on whom life had been especially hard. Turning to her, offering my hand, I told her my name and asked hers. “My name,” she said as she took my hand, “is Fayette.”

Fayette. It’s the name of a woman who has haunted me for years and whom I have never met in waking life. I first learned of her in a story told by Janet Wolf, who used to serve as the pastor of Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Hobson UMC is a wildly diverse congregation that includes, as Janet has described it, “…people with power and PhDs and folks who have never gone past the third grade; folks with two houses and folks living on the streets; and, as one person who struggles with mental health declared, ‘those of us who are crazy and those who think they’re not.’”

Years ago, a woman named Fayette found her way to Hobson. Fayette lived with mental illness and lupus and without a home. She joined the new member class. The conversation about baptism—“this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone,” as Janet puts it—especially grabbed Fayette’s imagination. Janet tells of how, during the class, Fayette would ask again and again, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” “The class,” Janet writes, “learned to respond, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she’d say, and then we could go back to our discussion.”

The day of Fayette’s baptism came. This is how Janet describes it:

Fayette went under, came up spluttering, and cried, ‘And now I am…?’ And we all sang, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she shouted as she danced all around the fellowship hall.

Two months later, Janet received a phone call.

Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the county hospital. So I went. I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, ‘I am beloved….’ She turned, saw me, and said, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and….’ Catching sight of herself in the mirror—hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and rebuttoned askew, she started again, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and…’ She looked in the mirror again and declared, ‘…and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!’

Beloved, the voice from heaven had proclaimed as the baptismal waters of the Jordan rolled off Jesus’ body. Beloved, the voice named him as he prepared to begin his public ministry. Beloved, spoken with such power that it would permeate Jesus’ entire life and teaching. Beloved, he would name those he met who were desperate for healing, for inclusion, for hope. Beloved, echoing through the ages, continuing to name those drenched in the waters of baptism. Beloved.  Child of God.

Fayette—beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold—haunts me, blesses me, goes with me into this season. She challenges me to ask what it means that—like her, with her—I have been named by God’s grace with such power that it won’t come undone. As I remember the Baptism of Jesus, how will I reckon with the fact that I, that we, have shared in those waters—that in the sacrament of baptism and as members of the body of Christ, we, too, are named as beloved children of God? How will we live in such a way that others will know themselves as named by God, beloved by God—especially those who have been given cause to think they are less than loved, less than children of the One who created them?

In the coming days, may the waters of our baptism so cling to us that in their depths we see who we are, and from our depths reflect to others their true name: beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.

Blessings to you.

[Janet Wolf’s story is from The Upper Room Disciplines 1999 (Nashville: The Upper Room).]

[To use the “Baptized and Beloved” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. For all my artwork for the Baptism of Jesus, please see this page. Annual subscriptions for unlimited downloads from janrichardsonimages.com are available at a special holiday discount through Epiphany (January 6). Visit subscribe for more info. Your support of JRI helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

For previous reflections on the Baptism of Jesus, please see these posts:

Epiphany 1: Take Me to the River
Epiphany 1: Ceremony (with a Side of Cake)

Merry (Continued) Christmas!

December 26, 2008

presentationinthetemple
Presentation the Temple © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Christmas 1: Luke 2.22-40

A blessed Feast of St. Stephen and a Happy Boxing Day to you! Advent tends to be such an intense season for me that this year I find myself particularly grateful that Christmas is not just one day, concluding at midnight last night (at which point the radio station I was listening to abruptly ceased its Christmas music) but rather a period of twelve days. There’s some variation as to when the Twelve Days of Christmas begin; some say Christmas night, others begin counting on December 26; regardless, it’s finished by Epiphany on January 6. The point, however, is that Christmas invites us to not wrap up our celebration of the Incarnation too quickly.

This period offers us several feast days that add texture to the season. Two of them commemorate folks who were important in the life of the early church; today is the Feast of St. Stephen (the first Christian martyr), and tomorrow is the Feast of St. John the Evangelist (to whom the fourth gospel is attributed). December 28 offers us the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which bids us remember Matthew’s story of the slaughter of the male children in Bethlehem. This feast in particular calls us to acknowledge the shadow side of Christmas and to be mindful of our call to relieve the suffering that persists even amid the joy of the Incarnation.

This year, as I recover from the blessed intensities of the Advent season, I’m giving particular thought to how I might linger in my celebration of Christmas, how I might find some festive rest in these days. In this period between Christmas Day and Epiphany, are there any practices I might take on that would help me savor this season? Might those practices become new traditions in my own observance of the fullness of Christmas?

In the spirit of seeking some rest in this time, my reflection on the lectionary this week will be abbreviated. This Sunday the Revised Common Lectionary gives us Luke 2.22-40 for our gospel reading. Luke tells us of how Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple, which, according to the law, would have occurred forty days after Jesus’ birth. They went not only to present Jesus but also for Mary to go through the prescribed rituals of purification following a birth. In the Temple they meet the prophets Simeon and Anna, who have long waited for this moment.

When I created a mixed media series called The Advent Hours a few years ago, I included a depiction of this moment in the Temple; it’s the image above (somewhat cropped for my purposes here). In creating it, I borrowed from medieval artists who rendered this scene, particularly the artists whose illuminated prayerbooks inspired this series. This is what I wrote to accompany my version of the Presentation in the Temple:

A light for revelation, Simeon says of Jesus when Mary and Joseph go to the temple to engage in the rituals required after the birth of a child. Medieval artists sometimes conflated the Presentation in the Temple with the Circumcision of Jesus, which would have happened several weeks previously. Although Simeon wouldn’t have actually held the knife, as these medieval artists sometimes depict, he has cutting words nonetheless: And a sword will pierce your own soul, too, he says to Mary. Then the prophet Anna arrives, and she sings of redemption, and perhaps Mary remembers: A light, he said; a light for revelation. A luminous Word.

So how might these Christmas days invite you to linger with the luminous Word whose birth we are not done celebrating? Where do you find yourself in the wake of December 25th? What were the gifts of Advent? What were the challenges? What do you need now? How will you get it?

December 26 finds me feeling both sentimental and expectant. Not to mention tired. But recovering. In the wee hours of yesterday morning, I posted my final reflection for this year’s journey toward Christmas at The Advent Door. As with last year, publishing my Christmas reflection, and ending the Advent pilgrimage, offered a poignant mix of relief and regret. Intense as they are—and in part because of their very intensity—I love the days of Advent, love diving into their richness and finding what new words and images they have yet to offer me. I’m always a little sorry to see those days go. But—they’ll come around again next year, inviting us once again to find new gifts in the ancient story of the Word that came, and comes still, as light and life.

If you didn’t make it all the way through The Advent Door, I invite you to pay a visit there as we move through these lingering days of Christmas. Until Advent rolls around again next year, I look forward to finding what the coming months have to offer and exploring that here at The Painted Prayerbook. I am grateful beyond measure for your presence on the path.

Merry (Twelve Days of) Christmas to you, and a wondrous new year ahead!

Ascension/Easter 7: A Blessing at Bethany

April 30, 2008


Ascension © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Ascension Day: Luke 24.44-53

These days I’m at work on a new book that’s something of a sequel to the first book I wrote (if you don’t count the book about animals that I wrote and illustrated when I was about eight, in which my drawing of a horse looks very much like my drawing of a dog). Working on this sequel has set me to thinking about who I was when I was writing the first book. I began that book, Sacred Journeys, during my final year in seminary, stayed in Atlanta an extra year to work on it, and finally completed it a year and a half after moving back to Florida to take my first pastoral appointment.

The span of time I spent on that first book included one of the happiest years of my life—my final year in Atlanta—and one of the most difficult years of my life—my first year in Orlando. In Atlanta I had an amazing community. Based largely within the seminary I attended, these friends nourished and stretched and sustained me. They were part of my daily rhythm of life. They mediated the presence of Christ to me.

Leaving the community I had found in Atlanta was a source of deep grief. I knew no one when I moved to Orlando. Though I was clear this was where I needed to be, this clarity provided an incomplete comfort. I remember trying to figure out how to appear competent as a pastor and carry grief at the same time. During that first year, I received an anonymous letter (and if you’re a pastor, you know how much we love getting those letters from people who feel strongly enough to write but not strongly enough to put their name to it) from someone who suggested both that I share more about myself in my sermons and also that I use more humor. “Honey,” I thought at that point in my journey, “it’s one or the other.”

The sorrow ran its course. Time and focused work did their usual healing, and I found a new community in Orlando. Different from the one I had in Atlanta, but nourishing, creative, and amazing in its own ways: a community that reminds me of the infinite forms that the body of Christ can take in this world.

In the midst of remembering the loss of community, and the finding of one, I’ve been pondering the gospel lection for Ascension Day. Having lingered for forty days (a good biblical number) following his resurrection, during which he engaged in such acts as eating and wound-showing to demonstrate that he wasn’t a ghost, Jesus prepares to take his final leave of those who have been his companions on his earthly path. He shares his final words with them—crucial words, words of call and of promise. And then, Luke tells us, Jesus leads them “as far as Bethany,” where he will depart from them.

I am struck by Luke’s mention of Bethany as the site of Jesus’ ascension. The gospels mention Bethany a number of times. It is a place to which Jesus withdraws on more than one occasion, and we know the town most memorably as the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, who are particular friends of Jesus. As the site of the raising of Lazarus and two accounts of Jesus’ receiving the gift of a woman’s anointing, Bethany stands as a place of healing, restoration of life, hospitality, and friendship. Likewise, at Bethany the fullness of Jesus’ divinity and his humanity come into sharp focus: in his raising of Lazarus, Jesus had displayed his power over death, and in his friendship with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, he revealed himself as someone who took solace and delight in their human company.

For Jesus’ companions who witness his ascension, Bethany conjures memories that Jesus means for them to draw upon as they begin to live without him. Bethany was a place where hospitality, friendship, and the miraculous intertwined in the community around Jesus. The fact that he chooses it as his place of departure suggests that he intends for them to remember that these gifts will remain with them—and not only these gifts, but also his own spirit.

In depicting Jesus’ ascension, medieval artists often painted Jesus with only his feet showing (one can almost see his toes wiggling), just barely visible as he departs, as in the St Albans Psalter or this thirteenth-century German Psalter. They wanted to emphasize his bodily departure from the earth. Yet, as Gail Ramshaw points out in Treasures Old and New, such a depiction does not suggest that “Christ has gone away from the church. The church fathers,” she goes on to write, “taught just the opposite: that as Christ went to God, his body became available to all the church.” And not only available to the church, but also enfleshed within it and by it, a point these same medieval artists emphasize by their attention to those who remain as Jesus leaves. Though Jesus’ departure poses the risk of profound disruption among his followers, his ascension becomes an opportunity for the community not merely to reorganize and refashion itself but to become the very body of Christ in the world.

Luke writes that it is as Jesus is blessing the disciples that he begins to leave them. He does not raise his voice in a lamentation over his departure, he does not offer any further words of wisdom and instruction, he does not fling last-minute advice their way. He blesses them. Where the disciples might have been justly distraught, Luke tells us that instead they worshiped Jesus “and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” Jesus’ disciples recognize that his leaving is part of his blessing. Having called them into relationship with him and one another, having lived and journeyed with them, he frees them to live into their ongoing call. They, in turn, respond to Jesus’ blessing by offering blessings of their own, in the temple and beyond. They respond to his blessing by becoming his body.

We may grieve—and rightly so—the changes and leave-takings that come with being in community. This relationship stuff is risky business. Yet Jesus’ ascension reminds us there is something deeper at work in such times, something that not only carries us through the changes but also uses them to transform us and to bless the body of Christ. In the midst of every loss and change, the presence of Christ persists, shaping his community anew and calling us to blessing and joy.

Where have you found a blessing in the midst of loss? How have you experienced—and offered—the body of Christ among the changes in your life? Having received the blessing of Christ, how do you offer a blessing in return?

May you journey, along with those first disciples, with great joy and blessing.

[To use this artwork, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Easter 3: Comfort Food

April 3, 2008


The Welcome Table (detail) © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Easter 3: Luke 24.13-35

Last week I wrote my lectionary reflection as I was preparing to leave for North Carolina to be with my sweetheart and his family as their mother was dying. I arrived on Saturday evening, and we went from the airport straight to the hospital, where we joined Gary’s brothers and a sister-in-law as they waited with their mother. Shirley had slipped into unconsciousness the day before, shortly after a time of prayer with her four sons. After their prayer, Shirley had pulled aside her oxygen mask and said, “There are plenty of sheets and towels at the house.”

Shirley died later Saturday night, a few hours after Gary and I left the hospital. We had her funeral on Tuesday, and Gary, his son, and I drove back to Florida yesterday. I had just enough time to unpack, do laundry, repack, and grab a few hours of sleep before heading to the airport this morning to fly to Connecticut, where I’m leading a retreat this weekend.

In the midst of the events of the week, there hasn’t been time to do a collage. There has, however, been plenty of time to eat. Maybe it’s a cliché, but it’s one that holds true: Southerners do the food-after-death thing really well. The day after Shirley died, some church folks showed up at her house, where all of her family was camped out. With her sons and their families, there were nearly thirty of us, and there was plenty of sustenance on hand. We sat at Shirley’s tables and ate. We stood around her kitchen counter and ate. We went to one of her favorite lakeside restaurants and ate. I often found myself thinking of Kate Campbell’s song “Funeral Food.” (“Pass the chicken, pass the pie/We sure eat good when someone dies.”)

Amidst the shared meals, replete with the comforts they offered, I also spent some time pondering this week’s timely Gospel lection. Luke 24.13-35 offers the story that’s typically called The Walk to Emmaus, though the part that especially grabs my attention involves what happens after Jesus and his traveling companions come to the end of their walk. Luke tells us that Jesus, unrecognized by Cleopas and his companion (there’s cause to think it might have been Cleopas’ wife) as they walked together, accepts their invitation to stay the night with them. They gather at the table, the ultimate place of hospitality. In that gesture that was so familiar in his life, Jesus took bread, blessed it, and broke it. Luke tells us that it was in this moment that “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him”; in Jesus’ actions of breaking and blessing, they knew him. (“now the ears of my ears awake and/now the eyes of my eyes are opened,” e.e. cummings once wrote.)

Given the confusion around Jesus’ death and rumored resurrection, this is some serious comfort food. Yet this is more than a solacing dinner. The meal at Emmaus reveals the resurrected presence of Christ, who, as before his death, still loves to sit down with folks at a table. In a brilliant moment of illumination, his dining companions see, and understand. The knowledge he had tried to impart to them as they walked along the road now becomes flesh: what they had tried to grasp with their intellect as Jesus broke open the scriptures, they now experience in and with their bodies as Jesus breaks the bread.

Jesus had been so fond of feasting when he was alive that he earned a reputation of being “drunkard and a glutton, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Even after his death and resurrection, he does not seem interested in refuting his depiction as a guy who likes his groceries; in fact, he seems to relish it. The table at Emmaus is not his only post-resurrection meal. John tells a marvelous story of the risen Jesus feeding several of the disciples a seaside breakfast of fish and bread. (John 21.1-14)

It’s important to Jesus that his followers engage the mystery that happens in a meal, that they know the table as a place where we recognize that we cannot rely solely on ourselves to summon the sustenance that we need. A shared table is a sacred space where we acknowledge, in the presence of others, that we are hungry: not only for the feeding of our bodies but also of our souls.

The table at Emmaus reminds us that there is a profound connection between eating and knowing. This knowing that we experience at the table comes both as a deep comfort and also a keen challenge. As Cleopas and his companion discovered on that evening in Emmaus, the presence of Christ persists when his followers gather to eat. Particularly in times of confusion and grief, his presence at the table comes as comfort and solace indeed. The knowing that happens in the breaking of bread, however, requires something of us. This kind of knowing calls us to move beyond relying solely on our intellect and to open our eyes and our entire being to the ways in which Christ reveals himself in those with whom we eat.

In these days of resurrection, what are you hungry for? What kind of table hospitality are you giving or receiving? How is the table a place of comfort? Of challenge? Of knowing?

In this season and beyond, may we receive—and be—God’s daily bread.

[To use the “Welcome Table” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]