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Knowing Easter - April 2012

by Sarah Henrich

The sounds of trumpets and alleluias, the rich scents of massed flowers and candles, the gleam of white and gold everywhere. It’s the sweetness of chocolate, communion bread, and wine. It is the ground of our hope in God and a celebration for all our senses. God created our senses so that we might fully enjoy the great gift of life in creation and forever. In our busyness and our speeded-up lives, we may miss the revelation of God’s goodness that our senses can provide. Painters and musicians live and work among us to enliven our senses and draw our everyday imaginations to new understanding and renewed joy in all God’s gifts.

At Easter, our eyes and ears can lead us to a richer gratitude for God’s gift of abundant life never again to be hostage to death and its anxieties. Please join me as we look at three Easter paintings to see how richly artists offer their vision of resurrection for our consideration. Each painting is headlined by a phrase from one of our beloved Easter hymns, which offers yet another way to experience the joy of the season. There are many ways to deepen our “knowing” Easter, to imagine God’s gift of life now and to come. Here is just a taste of what three painters, poets, and hymn-writers offer us.

“Now the Green Blade Rises”
(Evangelical Lutheran Worship 379)

“Don’t sleep through it all,” I want to cry. “Wake up, wake up!” Guards sprawl in sleep before the tomb in Piero della Francesca’s fresco of the resurrected Christ. They are oblivious to the imposing figure of a living, triumphant Savior standing with one foot out of the tomb and one still in. As Jesus emerges from the rigidity of the stone sarcophagus, it seems as if light itself accompanies him. Jesus is at the exact center of this painting giving off a light that casts a glow over those sleeping guards at his feet.

We can almost feel the warmth of that light which seems also to envelop us viewers. We are caught in Jesus’ gaze and warmed by the light of his new life. We would never dream of sleeping as Jesus quietly raises his second leg from his tomb, and emerges facing us, and calling us to enter a world of new life.

The world in della Francesca’s painting is already being renewed. Look closely at the painting.

Would you prefer to walk into the gently woodsy background on Jesus’ right side or the world on his left? On the right side of the painting, as Jesus lifts one leg from the tomb, creation experiences its own re-birth. Trees are full of leaves: plants are green. We can almost hear birds singing, the rustling of brooks and leaves.On the other side, nature itself has not yet awakened to new life. Surely as Jesus emerges fully, all will be green and fresh, returning to the God-given fruitfulness of new creation. Life itself is waking up. Yet, the guards sleep through it, miss the invitation—miss the change that accompanies Jesus’ resurrection. How easy it is to miss it, even though the clues surround them—and us.

The painter has provided us with so many details to encourage us to engage this joyful event with all our senses on high alert.

Although at first glance this painting is majestic and very still, when we pay attention we are drawn into the landscape. New life in the glow of the Son fills the painting. Surely that is the new life we want, in which the world is more filled with the presence of God than we had ever imagined, ever really noticed.

Perhaps we have been a little asleep, our awareness dulled by our need to protect ourselves, to do our jobs. God’s Son returns from the tomb at Easter, yes, and God’s creation. So do we, God’s people. Jesus looks out: He invites us into a new landscape.

Della Francesca’s painting provides rich, gorgeous color and elegant composition, but the sounds it suggests are subtle: It is not a painting full of the music of angels or humankind. Surely music is something many of us associate with the celebrations of Easter. For a sense of a more audible jubilation, please look with me at another wonderful painting, this one by Stanley Spencer.

“Among Your Own You Appear…”
(ELW 363)

So strangely familiar and unfamiliar all at once! While della Francesca’s resurrection scene was strong, upright, and imposing, Stanley Spencer invites us into an undulating churchyard. Lines curve, perspective is distorted and the whole world feels a little topsy-turvy as new life emerges everywhere. Spencer sets his scene in the graveyard next to the church in Cookham, England. Amidst all the beautiful flowers of Easter (notice the lilies displayed under the right side of the flowered doorway), graves open and people emerge. This is a resurrection scene that goes beyond that of Christ himself but puts before us the promise of the raising up of all Christians. Jesus sits beneath the flower-bedecked doorway with God standing behind. Jesus is holding three babies: resurrection is for everyone.

Spencer uses colors that almost sparkle with clarity, the intensity of the greens, an occasional shot of red, and a full range of whites keep our eyes moving into and around the painting. Who are those people arrayed against the wall of the church on the right side of painting? Perhaps you recognize Moses as the person nearest the door in that row, holding the tablets of the law. With him? A group of prophets.

Spencer does what artists do so well and what we do, too, in our hearts and in our graveyards: He brings past time into present lives and thinks about the future. But Spencer’s is no glum vision of a graveyard. He does not invite us into the cemetery to ponder our own eventual death.

Spencer moves us from church inside a building to Christ’s own gathered people being raised and called into new life. He moves us into an Easter life, in the company of prophets and our beloved Lord of life.

It is true that “in the midst of life we are in death.”

“There Christ Is With Us in Bread and Wine”
(ELW 374)

James Janknegt also awakens us to a kind of beauty that is at the heart of Christian life in his painting of the resurrection. Without including even one human being, with no depiction of Jesus at the heart of the painting (but keep your eye on that vase!), he nonetheless shows us a world glowing with holy power that is manifest in the gifts of creation we so often overlook. Light simply emerges as morning begins to dawn, but the beautiful colors of the light are already present against the dark sky in the brilliant zinnias in the vase. So bright and big are the zinnias that they fill our eye and picture immediately. What are these flowers, so disproportionately large?

They are also fireworks exploding against the sky. This is a huge celebration and it’s about a lot more than flowers, although flowers are part of it. Our eye moves between the zinnias and the tablecloth and finds the focal point of the painting in a combination of bread and wine on the one hand and a picture of Job on the vase. Ah, now we know at what we are looking. Janknegt uses purple shades in zinnia, wine, and in the water coming from the whale’s mouth to connect new life--a prophet who returned after three days in the whale, and the blood that is Jesus’ presence with us.

The painting shows us a risen Lord, present in the cities of our own day, in a feast of bread and wine (ELW 362, v. 2), truly present in the scent of flowers and wine and bread, the taste of wine and bread, the joyful beauty of color, the cool of the early morning, and promise of warmth to come.

Jesus is present in the care we take to create the beauty of a vase, a tablecloth, an Easter basket, an airplane, a city with houses lit by electric light. Our human works are honored and transformed in this painting, brought into that enormously colorful, fragrant, delicious reality that poets and musicians, painters and preachers have long tried to bring to life in their creations.

The reality of God is just more so. God’s redeemed creation more beautiful, more inviting, more life-giving, more of everything good that God created it to be. When Jesus is raised, we receive God’s affirmation of life and love. This love can shape our seeing, hearing, tasting, and touching. This love awakens us to a new vision of the beauty of holiness...right here.

Beloved, it doesn’t get any better than this. Don’t sleep through it.

The Rev. Sarah Henrich is a professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.

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