Let Him In :: William Holman Hunt, “The Light of the World”

William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World; Oil on canvas; 1901-1904.

In the seven letters to early churches which begins the book of Revelation, there is one verse that stands out above others as well known. In the last letter, addressed to the infamous church of Laodicea, Jesus issues a stern rebuke and call to repentance, emphasized with this statement: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (Revelation 3:20). These words of the glorified Lord have effectively spoken to many people, leading them to open their lives to Jesus as Lord. What catches my attention is that these verses are written to a group of people and, not just any group of people, but a group of early disciples known as a church. What strikes me as deeply ironic is that Jesus stands outside the church community. He is standing at the door of the church fellowship’s gathering asking to be let in. Apparently, He is not in their midst.

William Holman Hunt was inspired by Jesus’ words, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12), to paint The Light of the World. Hunt painted the same scene three different times. The original was painted in the mid-19th century and today is in the side chapel of Keble College, Oxford. Shortly thereafter, Hunt painted a smaller version which today is in the Manchester City Art Gallery. The third and final version, Holman painted near the end of his life at the turn of the century. It was the largest of all three, bringing the figure of Jesus to life-size proportions. The painting was so revered it actually was sent on a world tour before eventually being purchase and donated to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where it continues to be held today. Jesus stands within an overgrown garden, knocking at a door with a handle only on the inside. The eye-catching frame, which surrounds the painting captures the words of Revelation 3:20, leaving us to reflect on the stunning situation: Jesus is on the outside of lives and even churches. Will the individual let Jesus in? Will the church let Jesus in?

The Tears of Jesus :: Enrique Simonet, “He Wept Over It”

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Enrique Simonet, Flevit super illam; oil on canvas; 1892.

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it” (Luke 19:41)

There are several places in the Scripture where we encounter Jesus weeping. Probably the most memorable is when Jesus approaches the tomb of His friend, Lazarus, where John the Gospel writer records a most simple, striking sentence: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). We may also call to mind Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane before His arrest and crucifixion. While engaged in deep, strained prayer, Luke tells us Jesus was “exhausted from sorrow” (Luke 23:45). But before the sorrow of His exhaustion before the Cross, we find Jesus weeping before He enters Jerusalem with great acclaim. Why did Jesus weep over Jerusalem at this point? Luke tells us Jesus’ tears are followed with His words about the impending destruction of Jerusalem and its people, a destruction that necessarily flows from people forsaking God and the peace He offers (19:42-44). In Matthew’s parallel account we hear Jesus’ words: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37). Jesus weeps over the annihilation of God’s city and destruction of people who could have experienced God’s peace and care. Instead, they turn away from God to pursue their own ends. Jesus weeps over people and places fleeing God’s presence and goodness.

In Flevit super illam (“He wept over it” or “Then He wept”), Enrique Simonet offers a strikingly large painting, 10 feet by 18 feet, that vividly invites us into this awesome moment. Simonet traveled to Palestine in order to study the place and culture before painting this scene. As we look at this painting, we may feel we are right there with Jesus and His followers gathered on the crest of the Mount of Olives before the triumphal entry. We join them in gazing at Jesus, whose tears fall while His hands are outstretched in care and love over Jerusalem and all its people. The sky is dark, and Jesus almost seems to be in shadows while the light of either a sinking moon or a rising sun (art critics still debate this) blazes through the darkness to light up the city. The followers fix their eyes on Jesus, while Jesus’ eyes are fixed on Jerusalem and a wayward humanity. His response flows in tears. Before this painting we join Jesus in weeping over the world and lost humanity.

Welcomed to the Table :: Andrei Rublev, “The Trinity”

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Andrei Rublev, “The Trinity,” tempera; 1411 or 1425-27

One of the most mysteriously interesting passages of Scripture is Abraham and Sarah’s hosting of three unknown visitors in Genesis 18. These three guests show up from nowhere to affirm God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah, but also end up mercifully bargaining with Abraham about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Are these figures human visitors, angels, or a divine visitation? We are left with many questions about the episode, but it is clear that God is somehow present with Abraham and Sarah at their table through this episode. We are reminded through this story that God draws near to humanity to meet with us and share hospitality with us. This is profoundly revealed in the incarnation of Jesus our Messiah, who “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). In his well-known and beloved icon, Andre Rublev simultaneously depicts the story of Genesis 18 and the wonder of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three apparently angelic figures gather around a table, with a chalice and host on the middle. All of them have their hands extended in some way toward the center of the table. While various interpretations abound, the prevailing interpretations read the icon with the Father on the left, Jesus the Son in the middle (with hands most clearly extended toward the host and chalice and two finger representing the two natures of Christ as fully God and fully man), and Holy Spirit on the right. Details surround the three figures and there is much to take in. A subtlety of style and color beckons the viewer to slow down and enter into reflection and prayer, but also to enter into the beautiful mystery of God’s Triune presence. Through the redeeming work of Christ we, too, can enter into the wonderful eternal relationship and dance of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

To Be Set on Fire :: Makoto Fujimura, “Pentecost”

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Makoto Fujimura, Pentecost, Mineral Pigments and Gold on Kumohada over Board; 2008.

What must the early disciples have been holding in their hearts and minds in those days after Jesus’ ascended? His final words to them were drenched with weighty anticipation: “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). They knew it would be some gift of His Spirit coming on them with power for witness (Acts 1:8), but when or how it would happen or what exactly would happen were undefined. And so, they waited in worship and prayer until the festival of Pentecost arrived. The celebration of Pentecost in the Jewish calendar focused on thanking God for the firstfruits of the harvest, and later for the giving of the Law through Moses on Mount Sinai. But now there was something new happening, as the fires of Sinai touched earth, and the ingathering of God’s kingdom came. “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:1-4). The early gathering of ordinary people was transformed by God’s indwelling presence. Contemporary artist Makoto Fujimura developed a series of liturgical paintings for a local congregation in Princeton, NJ, through paired diptychs: Advent/PentecostEpiphany/EasterLent/Good Friday and two Ordinary Time paintings. Fujimura’s unique Nihonga-influenced style brings together rich colors and radiant gold within this painting. Amidst ordinary worship, this congregation, and all who view it, are reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

Stand in Awe :: John Singleton Copley, “Jesus Ascending to Heaven”

John Singleton Copley, Jesus Ascending to Heaven; oil on canvas; 1775.

What would it have been like to gather with Jesus after His resurrection and watch Him ascend to glory? We’re told by Luke that forty days after His resurrection, during which He appeared many times to the disciples, Jesus ascended into the Father’s presence. “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51). As the awestruck disciples watched this, suddenly two angelic figures appear with a message: “Men of Galilee…why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:10-11). What wondrous mystery and awesome power is revealed as Jesus ascends. It is no wonder, then, that the next thing the disciples did was gather with other believers in Jerusalem for an extended period of time to pray and worship.

John Singleton Copley, a painter in the American colonies, was inspired to paint this biblical event after spending six months in Rome, where he was astonished by the skill and artistry of the Renaissance painter Raphael. Specifically, Copley studied Raphael’s rendering of Christ’s transfiguration, which served as an inspiration for Copley’s painting of Christ’s ascension. Copley saw the important connection between the transfiguration, where Christ’s heavenly glory is briefly revealed, and the ascension, where Christ returns to the full glory of the Father’s presence. The disciples are overwhelmed with awe at Jesus’ glorious, post-resurrection presence now withdrawing corporeally in this ascension into eternal glory at the Father’s right hand. Here, the glory of Jesus’ earthly and heavenly identity is revealed and it leaves both the disciples and us amazed. We, too, can stand in awe, alone or with others, lifting our prayer and worship to Jesus “who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:34).