Sermon Ideas For Luke 21:25-36 Part 3
Advent often begins with an apocalyptic passage, for the season is not only about preparing for Christ's coming in the baby Jesus born in a manger. It is also about anticipating Christ's coming again, "coming in a cloud with power and great glory," as Luke has it.
Here there is no mystery of the kind we saw in John 18 (last week's gospel passage): a king without a kingdom in this world. Here the king comes to make this world his kingdom. So, artists have made of this Christ in majesty, this Christ in judgment, this Christ, ruler of all, a figure both powerful and glorious.
Consider Michelangelo's famous and familiar rendition of The Last Judgment over the altar in the Sistine Chapel. Here is humankind, the saved and the damned alike, huddled in "tight clumps, pleading for mercy before a wrathful God."1 High above them the figure of Christ as judge is not only wrathful; it displays an immense power, and that power is defined almost entirely in physical terms. The judge's naked form is heavy, square and enormously muscular, with well-defined biceps, massively broad torso, and huge, solid legs. Seated, he still seems about to rise. Great arm upraised, he tosses down judgment with no second thought.
If Michelangelo depicts the power of Christ come again, the brothers van Eyck (Hubert and Jan, ca. 1390-1441) render his glory. The Lord in Majesty is one of twenty-one paintings that originally made up the sparkling Ghent Altarpiece. In it The Lord not only soars in Majesty above the other twenty-one paintings, it outshines them. The depiction of Christ enthroned is all gold and red. The throne itself is gold—and much fine gold, both solid and intricately carved. The Lord himself is clothed in the regalia of both pope and emperor. His papal crown is gold, as is his regal scepter, both set with precious jewels. His deep red robe is also trimmed in glittering gold. Richard Mühlberger explains, "In the hem of his garment are words which read in English `King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.' This sentiment is also expressed in symbols that appear in the brocade behind the figure, in writing at his feet, over his head, and embroidered in his stole."2 Still, the overwhelming effect of The Lord in Majesty is not the power of royal prerogative but the glory of immense royal wealth.
Mark's "little apocalypse" began with a picture of the razing of the temple. It is a picture the reformers must have relished, the earthly temple with all its earthly projections of heaven, utterly destroyed—"not one stone left upon another that will not be thrown down."
But if the temple passes away—even if "heaven and earth will pass away, . . . my words will not pass away." The power of Christ's words, of Christ as Word, of words themselves—these were not lost on a movement that grew up, as it were, with the printing press. Nor were they lost on, or in, its architecture. We continue to see this not only in the great churches of Europe, erased of their images. We see it even more especially in the churches of the New World, built without images but with great reverence for the word read and spoken.
Consider the example of First Congregational Church in Bennington, Vermont, perhaps one of the most beautiful houses of worship in the world. Designed and built in 1804-06 by Lavius Fillmore, its Federal style goes beyond the first Puritan churches, which were simple box-like structures, completely without ornament. Still, First Congregational remains plain with its Palladian windows and classical decoration. Outside, it is almost without decoration, resembling in its grand simplicity the church that dominates Grant Wood's patriotic Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, reaching from its steps to its steeple, from top to bottom of the canvas, the tallest, though plainest, object in town or surrounding country. Inside, the Bennington church's chief ornamentation is light from those grand windows, one of which overlooks the central pulpit, supported on four Doric columns a full ten steps—almost a full story!—above the level of the congregation. The light shines on the Bible, open on the simple but grand pulpit: Let the reading of the word and the preaching of the word begin.3
Of course, Protestant tradition is not the only one that has recognized the power of plainness, the word without visual images. Touro Synagogue, built in Newport, Rhode Island in 1763, is another building in the Federal style. It is also a house of worship in which the word, in this case the Torah, has central place, with the bimah set before the Ark, which in turn is set against the east wall facing Jerusalem.
The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem for all its gold and blue splendor contains no image—that is according to Muslim law. But it does contain many words in intricate calligraphic patterns, inviting the pilgrim into the Koran, the word of God for Muslims. Finally, if the remarkable Ryoanji Meditation Garden in Kyoto contains neither images nor words, it may be because, in Zen, words are word less. Nevertheless, meditation is possible precisely because in the garden of stones and rocks—no plants, no statues, no sundials, no plastic windmills or moneychangers—there are no distractions, simply simplicity ordered. In such an environment, to paraphrase the poet Sharon Olds, there is no accepting a false Messiah, no mistaking the priest for God.
Richard S. Dietrich
1. H. W. Janson and Joseph Kerman, A History of Art & Music. Prentice-Hall & Harry N. Abrams, n.d., pp. 112-113.
2. Richard Mühlberger, The Bible in Art: The New Testament. Portland House, 1990, p. 166. The painting is also beautifully reproduced in this recommended volume.
3. Pictures of First Congregational, Bennington can be found in The House of God by Marion Geisinger. A&W Publishers, 1979, pp. 112-113. Other places of worship discussed in this essay are also depicted in this worthwhile book: Touro Synagogue, pp. 63-64; Dome of the Rock, pp. 28-31; Ryoanji Temple, pp. 68-71.