LAYERS OF PAINT
Fourth Sunday of Lent (C) - Joshua 5:9-12
The week before last, I had the opportunity to do some continuing education up at Camp Calumet in New Hampshire. The workshop was on Orthodox iconography, an ancient art form that traces its origins all the way back to the second century, and the beautiful images painted by Christians in the catacombs where they buried their dead. These paintings of saints and scenes from the Bible became stylized and codified over the centuries as they passed to Constantinople, and then north to Russia.
Today, Eastern Orthodox Christians see them as more than just devotional pictures. Instead, they are understood to be windows into Heaven, portals through which we can see a glimpse of the fullness of the Kingdom of God, and through which we can start to realize that Kingdom here on Earth. This was especially true in the middle ages, centuries when literacy was rather limited in the Christian world. Today, we have our Bibles, each of us, and can read and study the stories of Jesus for ourselves. But for those who cannot read, the icons ARE their Bible, as deep and multifaceted as the Biblical stories themselves. We affirm that the Word of God is a living Word. And so for the Orthodox Christian, then, the icon is not just a flat panel with paint on it. It is very much alive.
To be honest, that just sounds silly to me. It’s a painting, a flat wooden panel, and it might help to give insight into some scene or the life of some person long deceased, but that’s all it is. Right? This icon-painting adventure I went on was a chance to learn a little bit about these things and the process used to make them. My father was a Byzantine Christian, so I hoped this would be a nice glimpse into his spirituality, too. But I didn’t expect to be able to do it. I haven’t painted anything since kindergarten. I also was pretty sure how that week was going to work as a Lenten spiritual discipline. In the painting room, we were to keep silent, but for occasional instructional periods. So I’d get my silent prayer retreat in while I was doing something creative. Win-win.
That’s not where the spiritual insight wandered into my week. In fact, there were ten of us at this retreat, and one or two of the other people were, well, PERSONALITIES, if you know what I mean. The kind of people that put you on edge before they even open their mouth. The kind of people who needed to be reminded again and again that we were supposed to be SILENT this week. And then in our free time, I thought it would be nice to spend some time with a few of my colleagues—there were four pastors among us, and a diaconal minister—whom I quite liked. But I forgot that when pastors get together, we like to gossip. Gossip about our parishes and our colleagues and bishops and so on. It was not exactly and environment conducive of peace and tranquility.
Which isn’t to say it wasn’t a deeply, spiritually moving experience. It just happened in ways I didn’t expect. The first moment came really early on. We began with a little puddle of a paint color called sankir. It’s the bottom layer of the flesh color, which was extremely surprising, because it looked for all the world like olive green. If your skin were that color, no matter your ethnicity and heritage, you should be taken quickly to the hospital, because something is very, very wrong. And that’s the color we set to work with, painting Saint Francis’s face and hands.
And I have to tell you, I wasn’t particularly interested in painting Saint Francis in the first place. He was the icon everyone was doing this year, and I was stuck with the planned programming, but I really would have rather done something Biblical. Jesus, or Mary, or the Trinity. But no, Saint Francis it was. Boring.
Except, there I was sitting at a table in the Micah Room at Calumet, smoothing a paintbrush over the space allocated to his hands, and suddenly I was hit with depth of meaning, so much I almost began to cry. I was painting Saint Francis’s hands. These were his hands. The hands he used to clean the sores of lepers in twelfth-century Assisi. The hands he held out as he sat by the side of the street and begged for his own bread. The hands that helped him convey the Gospel to Sultan al-Kamil, and listen to his exposition of Islam, during the fifth crusade in the first real inter-religious dialogue the Western world had ever known. And somehow in that moment, they weren’t just paintings of those hands. They were his actual hands. These greenish-grey blobs on the flat wooden panel in front of me were Saint Francis’s hands.
I can’t really explain how that worked, or make any sense of it at all. All I can do is describe the experience. One moment I was brushing paint onto an artist’s surface, and the next moment, the paint had come alive. The same thing happened as I was working on his robe. The brown base coat was flat, plain, dead. And then, we mixed a little red with it, just a tiny bit, and painted another layer, and suddenly, his body started to come alive. The paint we used was very thin, and as layer after layer of paint was applied, it gained depth and texture, as the folds in the clothing stood out. In total, the robe took about twenty coats of paint. And then, it was alive, just as sure as I was. And I want to emphasize that this was not something I did. I am not an accomplished artist. I do not know how to paint. I was simply following a process and set of instructions for something that is basically paint-by-numbers for grown-ups. I am certain, as I worked, God breathed life into these pigments and made St. Francis come alive for me.
Our Old Testament reading today is from the beginning of the book of Joshua—not one we read from terribly often in worship, and perhaps for good reason. Joshua makes us uncomfortable in our modern-day faith. It’s the story of how the Israelites left the wilderness behind and made their way into the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, land promised to their ancestors and which, by birthright, was theirs. But also, a land that happened to already be inhabited by Canaanites and Hittites, Hivites and Perizzites, Girgashites and Amorites and Jebusites. No less than seven societies of people were there when the Israelites arrived, and the Book of Joshua is the story of their destruction, the way the Israelites came in and took the land away from the inhabitants, killing or enslaving those who were already there. Ancient Israel saw in this the handiwork of God, and that point of view is recorded in our scriptures. I hope we are, at the very least, uncomfortable with this.
The reading we have today is from just after the crossing of the Jordan River, when the Israelites first came into this new land. Whatever we think of the things that they are ABOUT to do, though, we need to first take notice of what they did. Today’s reading describes the first celebration of the Passover in the Promised Land. The Israelites have come into their new land, the fulfillment of God’s promises to them and the culmination of forty years of desert wandering, and the first thing they do is to ritually re-enact and tell the story of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. They look back to their history, the promises God has already made with them. It makes sense that they’d do this. The exodus defines them as a people. And it’s defined them for the last forty years, for a whole generation. None of the people setting foot now in the land across the River Jordan actually lived as slaves in Egypt. They have to remember who they are as a people and the way that God worked through their ancestors to bring them to where they are now. As they are about to step forward into this new land, their first glance is backward.
And as they look backward, they can see the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to them and their ancestors. God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would have descendants as numerous as the stars. More than 600,000 Israelites crossed over the Jordan, by the census taken in the book of Numbers. God promised the land would belong to Abraham’s descendants forever. And here there are, back in the Promised Land. God promised to deliver the Israelites out of Egypt. This is decidedly not Egypt. God has fulfilled his promises to them. God’s done His job. And so the all-important question is: Now what?
And then, the manna stops coming. The food that God provided for them in the wilderness is gone. Instead, they are able to eat the produce of the land they are now in. Which could not have been quite as simple as it sounds. Where, exactly, are they going to get food for 600,000 people? There will have to be farmers, who will sow the land and cultivate a crop. But they’re going to have to learn to be farmers first, a rather different vocation from the last forty years of being wandering nomads in the desert. And then there’s the matter of actually having the land. Someone else already has it. They’re going to have to take over some farmland and start using its produce to feed themselves. And maybe a city or two so they have some place to live. Jericho is nearby, seems a convenient place to start.
God’s fulfilled all of His promises to Israel, and it seems his providence in the manna has now dried up. Israel knows what it has to do to make this God-given land theirs. And they do. And importantly, they do so in God’s presence. Whatever we may think of the godliness (or not) of the conquest of Canaan, for Israel, it’s just the next step in their walk with God, trying to be God’s people, trying to live as best they can in God’s world. And from their perspective, the one they record in Joshua, it seems like God starts to fulfill some new promises for them too.
God is shaping Israel into His own people, and on top of the important base coat of the exodus, it looks like He’s now layering a thin coat of paint on top, doing something new, highlighting the folds in the fabric of their life. God is slowly, beautifully, breathing life into His people. And He’ll continue to do so, layering on the judges, and the time of King David, and the decline of the monarchy, and the exile in Babylon, and the triumph of the Maccabees, and finally that layer on top which breathes life into the whole painting, which reveals itself as a window into the Kingdom of Heaven with Jesus Christ as its Lord. A Christ crucified and risen, like a lamb led to the slaughter, and still triumphant and alive, and really alive.
Take a moment now, and consider where you’ve come from. The way that your faith has been shaped up through today. What promises has God already fulfilled for you? // And what lies ahead? How is God painting a new layer of life onto your canvas? How is God breathing you alive?