Sermon Ideas For John 1:1-14 Part 3
Throughout the scriptural text of John 1:1-14, there are constant "plays" on the elements of word vs. image, darkness vs. light, and the void or empty space vs. occupied or filled space. All of these elements relate directly to the world and the role of the arts. In early Christian art, Jesus as the Christ was imaged as the "illuminator"--the one who brought the light--he healed those both sick in body and in belief , for the blind came to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk, and most importantly, all those in the darkness of ignorance came into the light of faith. In an analogous fashion, the arts and thereby artists help us to see in the largest sense of the term--clarifying what is taught or heard by visual or tactile images that awaken the fullness of human sensibilities. The arts, then, should not be perceived or interpreted as simply "illustrations" of scriptural texts or theological tenets, but as "illuminations" of faith. Although initially this distinction may appear to be a hair-splitting linguistic game, the distinction between an "illustration" which clarifies a story by use of the figure and in medieval art was characterized by the use of minimal color and no gold leaf; and the "illumination" which clarifies and enhances by multiple interpretation the story was characterized in medieval art by rich color and the employment of gold leaf. The gold leaf, of course, more than simply signified wealth, it symbolized the "light" cast upon and through the illumination. There were no shadows, no darkness...there was no void.
Throughout the history of Christianity, there has been an ambiguous attitude toward the arts, an attitude premised on what some art historians and historians of religions identify as the conflict between the image and the word. In most cases, a religious tradition makes an initially unconscious choice between the image and the word; but eventually, this choice becomes codified in creeds and theological texts. One of the distinctions between Christianity and many of the other major religions of the world is this continuing conflict between the image and the word. During certain moments of Christian history, this conflict has resulted in iconoclasm--that strongest of all reactions against images which results in their total destruction and the persecution of those who either make or revere images, as evidenced in the 8th/9th centuries Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversies. At other times, the image and the word "worked" in unison in supporting and spreading the Christian faith, and establishing a Christian culture as attested to in the Middle Ages.
In some ways, the conflict between the image and the word can be interpreted as a symbolic expression of the Incarnation. Artistically, the event of the Incarnation was depicted as "happening" in that empty space or void between the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary in representations of the Annunciation. In this "void" rays of light passed through a closed clear glass window and shone upon the Virgin's womb. Sometimes the dove signifying the Holy Spirit floated in these rays implying not simply God's presence at this momentous moment but also a manifestation of the Trinity. A further visual symbol for the Incarnation was the depiction of Jesus Christ. Initially represented symbolically, Jesus Christ eventually became an anthropomorphic figure separated from the remainder of humanity by his physical size, halo, or unique physiognomy. Just as it is impossible to create or live without words or images, so it was impossible to depict the body without the spirit, or the human without the divine.
In northern medieval art, it was a common practice to include the words of an appropriate scriptural phrase within the context of a work of art such as Jan van Eyck's Annunciation. In a unique "twist," the artist not only incorporated the scriptural passages into the painting, he emphasized their meaning, as the angel's greeting to Mary is legible to the viewer of this panel painting, but Mary's response is written upside down and backwards--thereby legible not to the human viewer but the divine viewer.
In the more contemporary art of cinema, the interplay of words and images is highlighted in a film such as Jane Campion's The Piano in which the story revolves around a woman's self imposed world of silence. Ironically, this young woman's world of silence is highlighted by a daily environment of shadows. Once she enters into a new world of sound--ultimately signified by her "dying and rising" to new life in a dramatic almost drowning scene--she simultaneously entered into an environment of light. A similar analogy between environments of light and darkness can be found in The Lion King as signs of good and evil, of wisdom and ignorance, and of belief and doubt. In the beginning, perhaps, there was no conflict between the image and the word; rather this conflict is a result of human finitude.