Iconography

On the Edge of Enlightenment: The Epiphany

Even on this day, as when we were waiting for God’s transformation of the world, we can miss the illumination. As often as not the illumination we seek is obvious and at the center while the epiphany we get is on the periphery just out of sight.

The Epiphany comes to us as odd foreigners speaking of an obscure star they saw. These same foreigners visiting an infant with rare gifts.

Enlightenment comes as an ordinary man, by appearance, who comes to the river baptized by a man in camel hair along with everyone else. Then the heavens are opened, Spirit descends, a voice speaks, or was it?

Epiphany is tasting excellent wine suddenly discovered after the momentary crisis of having no wine as the head steward of a wedding feast. But only the servants know what happened, they poured water into jugs and when the drew out the water there was wine. A parlor trick? For a very exclusive audience of servants.

This manifestation is not a sudden clear insight. What is manifest isn’t blindingly and unambiguously clear. It’s not entirely convincing.  It’s queer. Boundaries have been crossed and it takes place out of the way on the borders. It’s in our peripheral vision, and never quite comes into focus.

The Epiphany is odd. It is disconcerting, because such an illumination tells us the truly important doesn’t happen at the center: center of power, center of ourselves, center of meaning.

The Epiphany doesn’t give us a place of residence.  The manifestation sends us again on our way.  Our illumination on this day sends us to live unsettled at the boundaries.

What is revealed on Epiphany is a god who embraces the “neither nor” and the “both and”. We are invited to meet one who is neither human nor divine, who is both human and divine.  At this moment, we are invited into this transgression of the order of things. The mixing of creator and created for the sake of love.

If we affirm the doctrines of “incarnation”, “Virgin Birth”, “Trinity”, “Fully God and fully human” and “begotten not made” we should not do so because of their intellectual or philosophical power to convince. Rather we should affirm these dogmas because they give voice to our epiphany, our enlightenment and encounter with God. The Epiphany shows us that these doctrines describe something queer, transgressive. This all though is seen just out of the corner of our eyes.  They point to what we can’t quite grasp but can intuit.  A flash of light, a voice an appearance of a dove.

I invite us to speak of incarnation and virgin birth, and say Jesus of Nazareth is fully divine and fully human.  I invite us to do so not to grasp an insight, but to be embraced by the transgressor of our creaturely limits.  Allow this speech, and this contemplation to take us to the borders. So, we may live with God on the edges, in that place between human and divine. This borderland is the place of the one who was honored by Magi and who enraged the powerful. In this place, we are with the Beloved in whom God is well pleased.  I invite us to come to the Jordan, take up residence on the edge of the empire. It is in the borderland where love was revealed, and God affirmed God’s love and union with human kind and all creation. In this transgression of flesh and divinity we are illumined.


The Veil Over the Holy Nativity

The icon of the Holy Nativity has something that eludes us.  I return, again and again, to its contemplation because it is a rich image but also because it challenges me. I don’t see it completely. The meaning eludes us, there is a veil over the icon.

One layer of this veil is the familiar imagery of Christmas, which smooth’s out the edges, softens the light, ignores the presence of death that lurks in Holy Nativity.  Most images seek to honor this moment through abstraction of the material and fleshly reality the holy nativity inhabits. There is a veil (The “veil” is an allusion to Saint Paul’s usage in 2 Corinthians 3:12-14 ) over this icon and the reality the icon invites us to enter. Because of this veil we are unable to enter Christmas, we turn away from the crack in the world it created.

We look at this icon and we see only a dogmatic claim. VIRGIN BIRTH, screams out at us. Isolated, without context, we hear “Just accept and believe that Mary conceived without intercourse with Joseph.” What is at root of this dogmatism disconnected from a lived and material existence? Why might we only see in this image a dogmatic assertion? Why the fascination with and the rejection of the miraculous? More importantly why do we think the miracle is the point? (side note, it’s not!)

Asking the question of whether a Christian need to believe in the Virgin Birth as Nicholas Kristof does in his interview with Timothy Keller, misses the point. Timothy Keller’s answer that the virgin birth is integral to the Christian thought system, reinforces the veil over the icon of the Holy Nativity (though I agree with his point that the doctrine has meaning). What is this veil? Why the retreat into abstraction and systematic theology and the integrity of belief systems and organizations?  This is so far from the material and physical reality of a virgin birth. Why do we retreat from the holy nativity’s visceral moment? Keller, later in the interview, when talking about the Resurrection, will tell Kristof that these beliefs about Jesus were an offense to the Greek philosophers who couldn’t abide a God bound up in the messiness of the material and fleshly, and yet Keller answers with that same attitude of distance from the messy material world. What Keller presents is a tidy precise sterile world with discrete doctrines that ensure the precise relationships, and the protocol for dealing with God. If doctrine and belief is all you see in the Holy Nativity, then you aren’t seeing.

I think I’ve identified the veil and turning away from this sight. The eyes are veiled for both the one who professes to believe and the one who is skeptical or has abandoned belief. (for my purposes here, I make the distinction between faith and belief. Belief is assent to propositions, faith is about trust and relationship that can be expressed in propositions but whose referent isn’t those propositions.) From what are we shielding our eyes, as we rush to take these  postures.? From what do we veil ourselves, what can’t we bear to look upon in the icon?

Our turning away has been happening for a very long time. All I give at this moment is a quick sketch of this retreat and veiling. I will make some rapid connections of disconnect and retreat. Trump and his Christian supporters have more in common with those who don’t appear in this icon; the client King Herod (see, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s
use of this trope in his Open Letter to King Herod at Red Letter Christians
) and the other religious leaders who know the Torah (the Bible, if you will) and who in differing ways collaborate with the occupation of Judea and Galilee. White Christianity isn’t found in this icon. The “we” if you find this icon unintelligible, is a Christianity of Empire, in service to Babylon the Great (Revelation 17 and 18). The most recent iteration of Babylon is that which inherited the White supremacist system of European colonialism. This sketch of course isn’t convincing (for the case and argument for this sketch one must read Willie James Jennings, James Cone, Harry H. Singleton III, and others).

I will add to this historical sketch a tableau, a “pastoral image”*, if you will: Christmas on the plantations in the “new world”, slaves and their masters at Christmas. In the celebration of Christmas, the White Christian slave holders would allow slaves a moment of reprieve from their harsh conditions. Some of the conditions of their enslavement were lifted, surveillance was lessened, work load lightened. Some slaves, tasting of this Christmas liberty, grabbed hold of it and fled to freedom. Some managed to gain their liberty at Christmas. There were also slave rebellions at Christmas. (see Christmas and the Resistance to Slavery in the Americas in AAIHS)

This is the veil, the reason of our retreat: White Christians instinctively loosening their grip of oppression, but not understanding that the Holy Nativity stood in opposition to them. The White Christian is nowhere to be found in the icon of the holy nativity. The religious collaborators do not make an appearance in this film. We’ve attempted to make the holy nativity a pastoral image of innocence that White Christianity can’t claim for itself, but must insist upon.

We are some distance from the above tableaux of Christmas on the plantations. Yet, it still reverberates. Babylon and its religious (often devoutly so) collaborators, who can answer the questions when those seeking truth come, and ask “Where is the messiah to be born,” and knowing the scriptures can give the correct answer. Even so, white Christians never come into the Holy Nativity.

Where are we, (by “we” I mean both those who seek to come out of Whiteness (Babylon) and those upon whom Babylon has fed and who cry out “how long” (Revelation 6:9-11)- people of color, who currently cry out “Black lives matter”).

In this icon. At this moment, I think most of us are at the bottom of the icon with Saint Joseph and the midwives. We are either caught in a moment of indecision, uncertain what to make of it all, without answers, full of doubts. We ask with Saint Joseph, has any of this been true, the apparition of angels, the message they delivered. Or we are with the midwives handling the holy as they’ve done year in year out, perhaps not fully aware of who they are handling, and washing, swaddling, protecting through their resistance, (recall the midwives, Shiphorah and Puah in Exodus 1)

The veil hasn’t been lifted, we can’t yet see the center of this icon. Even so, we are drawn into this holy nativity, we are here. We who sit with Saint Joseph this is a very melancholy Christmas. There is much to ponder, and the lies of Satan, and the lure of Babylon must be resisted. We who sit with saint Joseph need to pay attention to the resistance and the strength of the midwives. Yes, we must ponder and reflect, but we must also be drawn into the activity of the midwives who know Christ in the flesh ( 1 John 4:2), who handle and wash and protect and guard God in this vulnerable moment of newness and liberation. But many of us are frozen in Saint Joseph’s melancholy, the veil still hangs over our eyes and we have yet to remove the veil and gaze upon  the light emitting from this icon..

*by using “pastoral image” I’m intentionally referencing Billie Holliday’s reported explanation of the term as used in “Strange Fruit.”


Icons of Enlightenment and Wisdom

I recently completed to miniature icons one of Jesus Christ as  Sophia/Wisdom known as the Holy Silence or blessed silence. and the icon of Saint Mary Magdalene Apostle to the Apostles both icons are related to enlightenment and wisdom.

The icon of the Holy Silence represents Jesus Christ as Wisdom, or as Paul says the Wisdom of God.

In the Icon Saint Mary Magdalene is holding a red egg and jar of Myrrh she brought to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body according to Jewish custom. The egg symbolizes resurrection, new life, and enlightenment. The red egg also is connected to two stories associated with St Marry Magdalene’s hagiography. According to one tradition Mary Magdalene had brought eggs with her to the tomb in a basket. After finding the tomb empty and encountering the resurrected Christ, she ran with the basket of eggs to Jesus’ Apostles to announce the Resurrection. When explaining the resurrection she went to use the egg as an illustration, and found all the eggs had been turned blood red. The other tradition is of her preaching before the Emperor Tiberius, using the egg to illustrate the meaning of the Resurrection. Tiberius remarked sarcastically that the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was as likely to have happened as Mary Magdalene turning the egg she held in her hand red. After Tiberius said this the egg turned red. This is why it is traditional among the Orthodox to give out eggs died red at Easter.

The icons are available on my Etsy shop

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Currently At Priestly Goth Icons

Lent is just about a week away, which means we are in that period of transition from the seasons of the incarnation, celebrating the birth and various epiphany’s of who Jesus of Nazareth was during his life.  This means we are in the time of Carnival and Mardi Gras.  Priestly Goth Icon Carnival /Mardi Gras sale 15% off any purchase through February 18th, 2015. Use coupon code MARDIGRAS2015 .

I have listed the first two Wall crucifix icons made from reclaimed wood.   In this series of wall icon crucifixes I’ve taken wood recovered from construction sites leave the wood rough showing it was used and discarded. The crucifix and cross are themselves strange objects of beauty and devotion showing an implement of torture and death, and Christ’s suffering.Crucifix icon1  The beauty of the crucifix is what God was doing and has done from the crucifixion of Christ, that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, have shown God’s love to us in the cross and in that love is victory over the powers of sin, death and oppression.

I now have a number of listings that are made to order of icons I have done in the past: Available made to order at this time are Saint Monica; St Michael the Archangel; Mary the Mother of God Who Shows the Way: Jesus Christ the Light of Life.

Lastly, a reminder that I take commissions – to commission an icon use the “Custom Order Button” in the Priestly Goth Icons shop.

Icon of the Epiphany

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Yesterday was the feast of the  Epiphany.  In the west this feast is the celebration of the arrival  of the Magi and their adoration of the infant Jesus of Nazareth presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  In the east the Epiphany is the feast of the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan, the above icon is the icon of the Epiphany or Theophany.

The icon is rich.  In the lower portions of the icon in the water are the depictions of spirit manifestations of water, the figure with the wings and wild hair and a beard represents the Jordan river.  on the other side is Leviathan, these are the spirits the personifications of water.  Christ’s hand of blessing is not raised as in of the icons but is in the water, blessing the water.

Jesus stands in a way reminiscent of the crucifixion

Processional cross, Egg Tempera and gold leaf
Processional cross, Egg Tempera and gold leaf

feet and legs together, dressed only in a loin  cloth.

John the Forerunner’s preaching is represented by an ax laying against a bush, “…the ax is at the root…”

It is also, not surprisingly, a Trinitarian icon.  At the top God the Father, un-circumscribed of whom we can’t make any image, unknown but by the Son and the Spirit, is represented by the semi circle of blues and black.  The Spirit represented as the Gospels describe descending on Jesus of Nazareth as it is revealed (epiphany) that this human is God the Son.

And Angels Attend, (indicating Jesus Christ’s temptation in the desert, after which the Gospels say he was attended by angels.).

I painted this icon as a medallion, in part to strengthen the sense that God in Jesus Christ comes for the whole earth and all of creation, represented by the river and its spirit manifestations in the painting.  The extent of the realty hear represented is particular and universal, cosmic.  Salvation, Reconciliation, Liberation, is in this material world, in (re)connecting matter the created world with its source, the very Life of the world.  A great estrangement took place and God the Son, as Jesus of Nazareth comes, and we can see God, and find our true life, the life of the whole cosmos.  God is now forever part of the matter in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

This radical act of God, is the very thing that makes possible the painting of icons.  If God had not become flesh and a human in the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, God would have remained beyond us.

The above icon of the Epiphany/Baptism of Our Lord is available in my Etsy shop, Prietly Goth Icons

Celebrating the Holy Nativity, #StayWoke

A friend of mine in a Facebook post comment thread mentioned that the Christmas story is often told as a children’s story.  I think there are several layers to this characterization.  One the Holy Nativity is often seen as a cute and comforting story, a G movie  safe for the viewing pleasure of the entire family.  Secondly, as a cute, safe and comforting story it takes on the character traits of the Disney fairy tale (in contrast to the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales).  Lastly the Christmas story is often simply kitsch, as most nativity sets for sale in Christmas isles clearly demonstrates. The above is all part of the celebration of Christmas that knows nothing of the season of Advent.

Here, and at the Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconicler, I took up reflecting on the season of Advent as a time to stay woke.  But what now in this twelve day season of Christmas (yes Christmas day is simply the first day of Christmas, we have Christmas all the way until January 5th.)?  The seasons of Advent and Christmas are seasons of the Holy Nativity, God’s revelation in and through a the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  As such can we see the Holy Nativity not as some comfortable story but something that stirs something in us, even something that disturbs us from slumber?

I think so and I think the Icon of the Holy Nativity is more helpful in this than the typical nativity set one can buy on the Christmas shelves in stores.

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Take some time to reflect on this icon and it’s meaning: at its center is Mary and the baby Jesus in the manger.  If you are familiar with iconography, the cave and the manger should remind one of icons of the empty tomb, the manger is a sarcophagus the cave a tomb.  Also, Mary is lying down, she has after all just given birth.  In one corner two midwives are washing the baby Jesus.  These midwives not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, are part of a type of realism, there surely were midwives, but also hearken back to the story of Moses. Midwives are an important part of the story of liberation and salvation.  And Jesus is not only  a second Adam but also a second Moses, come to deliver God’s people.  In the other corner sits Saint Joseph, in conversation with an old shepherd, or is it the shepherd who is attempting to draw Joseph out.  This is a great deal to take in.  Joseph, perhaps has his doubts about what all this means.  How is it that the messiah is born in such rough conditions and greeted by such rough persons.  Does God reveal God’s self in such common rough and uncouth ways? But then Above Joseph are the Magi traveling following the sign in the heavens.  These are men with power and wealth, but they aren’t Isrealites and Children of Abraham.  One may look at this icon and simply see confusion.  The whole story here depicted in form and color may not make much sense.  How is this a holy image.  How in such common place things, midwives at work, a feeding trough and Mary and Joseph silent puzzled without answers, a depiction of a holy and revelatory event.

Can it truly be that this even changes everything.  That God is found not only in this crazy story, but in that little infant born so long ago, Jesus of Nazareth.  Is this how liberation comes?  Does this shock and disturb?  Perhaps it should.  In this infant God dwelt in our midst and is now united with the entire cosmos.

But the story of Christmas and it’s celebration doesn’t end here: the next three days we in Celebrating God’s revelation in coming as a little child, we mark the first martyr, Saint Stephen, remember the Evangelist Saint John the Apostle, and Herod’s massacre of the infants in Bethlehem, the Holy Innocents.  If you haven’t guessed this isn’t a children’s story, nor Disney Fairy tale.  This is a celebration and a story that isn’t afraid to face the worst humanity can offer.  It certainly is a match for facing our countries continuing struggle with the Racism that has been woven into the very fabric of its history and policies. It’s also a story and an icon that can encompass our questions, doubts, confusion and despair, and say at the same time God has come, liberation, justice and revelation have come in the midst of all this horror and confusion.

Theophany – Baptism of Christ Icon

Stages of the Nearly completed Theophany icon.  If interested in this icon it will be available in my  Priestly Goth Icons Etsy shop in September.

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Progress on Jesus Christ, Pantocrator (Reconciler)

This is one of the icons I was working at the Glenwood Ave. Arts Fest.  If you are looking for an icon or would like to commission an icon, Use the contact form here, or visit my Etsy shop, and click on the Request Custom Order button.

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Painting Icons at the Glenwood Ave Arts Fest (Leaving our Marks)

This past weekend, August 16th and 17th, I was showing icons and doing some painting at the Glenwood Ave Arts Fest.  This is the second time I’ve done “live art” at a festival and been painting icons in public.  I’ve shown my icons at the Glenwood Ave. Fest for several years now.   Not surprisingly the public display of  art that is of a particular spiritual and religious tradition leads to conversation, allowing people to see the process also elicits conversation.

Not sure why, but this year I noticed a change in tenor and tone of those who approached me to talk to me about icons and why I paint them.  In the past the conversations tended to revolve around the juxtaposition of religious art (or the act of painting religious art) in a public and “secular” art space.   Most of these conversations centered on people’s troubled or antagonistic relationship with Christianity.  This year the conversations settled mostly around how each persons own spiritual journey connected up with an icon, or icons, or my presence at the festival painting icons. While I did speak with a number of Christians, the majority of those with whom I spoke weren’t identifying as Christian or identified as post-Christian in someway, as in past years. However, this year no one I talked with had stories of their struggle with Christianity or how Christians or the church had hurt them.  Also, no one seemed terribly taken back by “Priestly Goth”, well except that to some I had to explain what Goth was, which was new.  Not a single person asked how I could be a pastor and a goth.  Though, most did comment with surprise when it came out that I was a pastor.

Here’s a few pictures from the weekend:

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