Speaker: Michelle Burkholder
For those who may not know, I studied visual art in college. My interest in art is two-fold. I enjoy creating art – I love [and get stressed out by] making stuff. There is just something magical about seeing something come into being that didn’t exist in that form before. The outcome isn’t always pretty and the process isn’t always easy, or even friendly, but there is something spiritually moving about the process for me.
As I said my interest in art is two-fold, so I am not only interested in the process of creation, I am also deeply invested in the act of observation. I love to look. I especially love to look at art created by others. To explore their use of line, color, shape, and texture. I enjoy guessing at their techniques and acknowledging the awe and inspiration that come from seeing someone else’s visual exploration of a subject matter. Observing the work of others challenges and energizes me to keep practicing making things.
So it was, with this joy of observation of art in my heart that, after graduation from college, I got a job at as the deli manager [aka – chicken fryer extraordinaire] at the gas station across the street from where I lived at the time. I worked for a grueling six months frying every kind of chicken part you could imagine. I also saved every penny I could so that, come the fall, I could set off with some friends on an adventure to backpack around Europe and visit as many of the notable art museums as possible.
We traveled for two months and saw many amazing sights. About halfway through our travels we found ourselves in Florence, Italy. Florence is perhaps one of the cities most overloaded with art treasures from the Renaissance. Among these treasures are many pieces by Michelangelo Buonarroti [or as we say in American English: Michelangelo]. Florence is home to what may be Michelangelo’s best known work [other than the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the Vatican in Rome]: The David.
You may already know the piece I am talking about – the 14 foot tall marble statue depicting a nude representation of the young Biblical hero David – with his shepherd’s slingshot draped over his shoulder, a rock loosely palmed in his right hand and a determined look on his face as he gazes into the distance. Unlike any sculptural depiction of David that had been created before, this sculpture shows David right before his battle with Goliath. This is not the moment of celebration and victory that so many artists had focused on as the most important part of the story. Instead, Michelangelo’s sculpture captures David in a moment of preparation and determination.
It is a celebrated and highly recognizable work of art. And I fully admit that I have never really been a huge fan of it…at least prior to seeing it in person.
When you go to the Galleria dell’ Accademia in Florence to visit the David you first progress through a hall called The Hall of Prisoners. This hallway is filled with additional sculptures carved by Michelangelo [after the creation of David], but with a totally different feel. The sculptures in this hallway are figures shown only partially emerging from the stones in which they are carved. Many of the pieces are from a series of sculptures that presumably explore the human struggle of tension between our bodies and our spirits. The series is entitled The Prisoners or Slaves – [hence the name of the hallway – The Hall of Prisoners] and one of the other pieces in the hallway is a half-finished sculpture of St Matthew.
On most of these pieces you can still see grooves from a mallet or the chisel marks used to begin to free the sculptures from the rock in which they are imbedded. At least that is what Michelangelo is said to have believed – that every block of marble already contains a sculpture and that it is the artist’s job to chip away the excess rock so that the sculpture can reveal itself. We’ll take a look at four of these sculptures now up here on the wall.
It is still a bit of a debate about whether these pieces are finished works or in process pieces simply left unfinished by Michelangelo – over the course of his career he became known for a practice called ‘non-finito’ [incomplete]. Whether they were considered finished or not according to the artist, they are an amazing sight and each in its own state conveys a strong sense of struggle. The human experience of tension between the flesh and the spirit can be felt in these pieces. To walk through this hallway surrounded by these works makes it a jarring and overwhelming experience when you come to the end of the hallway, step into a rotunda called the Tribune and find yourself dwarfed by the pristinely carved and finished, larger than life David.
This is not a sculpture of struggle between body and spirit – this is a celebration of the human body. Take a look at the detail of the veins in the hand.
Look at the focus and intensity of the eyes.
This is a celebration of the body and it captures a moment in time where the spirit is fully engaged with the body in focus and intense preparation. And, for me, this is where the scripture of the transfiguration in Luke begins to relate to these sculptures we have been exploring.
In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus takes three disciples with him [Luke names them as Peter, James and John] and heads up the mountainside to pray. As Jesus is praying several things happen in what feels like quick succession. Jesus’ face changes in appearance, his clothes become dazzlingly white, two people [quickly identified as Moses & Elijah] come and speak with him about the coming activities in Jerusalem and somewhere in the midst of this, the disciples have managed to fall asleep – and not just asleep, but as the Luke text puts it – a deep sleep. Somehow the disciples awaken in time to witness Jesus in his transfigured state and see Moses and Elijah talking with him.
To awaken to a sight like that must have felt like one was still dreaming – Moses and Elijah are two of the most important figures in the Jewish tradition – an empty plate is, to this day, set at the Passover Seder table for Elijah in anticipation of his return – and there was Jesus – the disciples’ personal teacher not only in conversation with both of these figures but also filled with a glory of his own.
This moment of Transfiguration is Jesus’ [Michelangelo’s] David moment. This is Jesus’ moment of pause and empowerment before the coming journey. His will not be a battle with Goliath [capital G] himself, but is a battle with the goliath of establishment. Jesus, unlike David, won’t even carry a simple slingshot into Jerusalem but instead carries a revolutionary message of good news and hope in the midst of oppression. Jesus is dazzlingly beautiful and glowing with glory, for in this moment of transfiguration is the unfettered coming together of the human and the Holy.
Clearly the disciples do not fully grasp the extent of what is happening in this moment for Jesus. What they do understand though, is that this is a [H]oly moment. Peter, overcome with awe suggests that they set up tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah so that they can all linger together in the goodness of the moment.
Peter, is not having a David moment. He is instead embodying the struggle of Michelangelo’s Prisoners;
that persistent condition that comes with seeking the Holy with the limited capacity of being human. In this moment Peter is fully living up to his nickname – The Rock – not so much because of his strength and foundational stability, but more because of his dense-ness. And poor Peter apparently doesn’t even realize what he is saying – perhaps it is because he is in a just waking stupor that is making him say things without thinking them through, or perhaps he really is speaking with the best intention he has in the midst of a holy moment that is way beyond his total grasp of understanding. Whatever it is we don’t know because before Peter is even finished speaking this suggestion aloud a cloud descends over the gathered party enveloping Jesus, Moses and Elijah and striking fear into the disciples.
The cloud isn’t just present – a voice comes from it saying:
“This is my Own, my Chosen One. Listen to him.”
And in case there was any question as to whom the voice was speaking about, when the voice is finished the only one of the original three left standing on the mountain in front of the disciples is Jesus. It is Jesus that has been empowered to bring together the Law [represented by Moses] and the cries of the Prophets [represented by Elijah] to present them to his disciples as a unified living word – as an example of what it means for humans to embody the Holy in our lives.
Peter, beyond his fear, is still probably caught up in how to preserve this moment – especially with the confirmation that Jesus is God’s Chosen One – who wouldn’t want to grab hold of and revel in that glorious moment for as long as possible and dream that perhaps Jesus’ divine glory will simply pass on to you just by being close to his presence. When you have found a moment of peace and goodness in the presence of God, who wouldn’t want to believe that you have reached the summit of faith and the end of the any future pain and struggle. But Jesus knows better, he knows that a life lived in pursuit of God’s love and justice is not one that comes without trials and pain.
Pain is part of the journey of faith and it is not a part of the journey that we relish. Theologian Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities which provide support for people with developmental disabilities around the world, talks about pain as an integral part of the faith journey like this:
God’s invitation through Ezekial (36:26) is that “I will change your heart of stone to a heart of flesh. That sounds beautiful. But if instead of saying heart of flesh you say a vulnerable heart, it sounds less exciting. And if you wanted to define vulnerability as capacity of being hurt. So, I’ll change your heart of stone which is protective to a heart where you’ll be capable of being hurt – that sounds even less exciting. But that’s the reality – is that if really we start being concerned about people and loving people – there will be hurt. Growth then means how to grow through being hurt.”
No doubt Jesus is headed for pain as he makes his way towards the Jerusalem prophecy Moses and Elijah have just confirmed for him. But even before that horror – just the day after this mountain top experience – Jesus will suffer the hurt and frustration of his own disciples not having enough understanding of what he has been trying to share with them about God’s love to put their faith into action on behalf of a suffering child. Not to mention the pain of seeing a child and his parent suffer. Yet, even in the midst of all of the disappointment and hurt, Jesus knows that taking the ongoing path is the faithful response to the call of God. It is not the time to stay up on the mountain basking in the ease of a glorious moment – it is the time to embrace the pain that accompanies acts of love.
Look at Michelangelo’s David once again.
There is amazing beauty in this piece, but the journey to that place of beauty was in no way pain free for the rock, nor the artist. It was a journey. A journey that started with a flawed block of marble rejected by two previous artists because of precarious cracks running through it. That flawed block, with help, found its way through the painful process of becoming to end up being a treasured piece of art and inspiration. And that ‘with help’ is key – the stone didn’t transform itself into David, and Jesus wasn’t transfigured in isolation – he was choosing connection with God through an act of prayer, surrounded by some of his beloved community. In that blend of openness, support and connection with God, beauty was given space to burst forth.
Now, lest we get caught up thinking that the pristine perfection of the David is the ultimate expression of beauty let’s take one more look at one of the unfinished pieces –
this piece in process is, in its own way just as, if not more beautiful than the David. Yes, it is rough and still on the journey to complete transfiguration, but within it we can already see the presence of the sculpture hidden within the rock that is finding its way to the surface. We see the painful marks of the chisel still raw on the surface and we can almost feel trapped within the perpetual struggle of the piece – and yet somehow it is all the more beautiful and engaging in its messiness.
This Lenten season we are exploring what it means to be the Living Ink of God’s story. As living ink, we, like the stone of these sculptures, are bound up in the process of becoming – a process that can be creative and inspiring as well as messy and raw. In the moments when we may feel the pain of a chisel in our lives chipping away at pieces of our story, may we remember that it is through the often painful process of becoming, that we are of being transfigured and revealed in new ways in connection with God and as part of God’s on-going story.
Last weekend we were in Harrisonburg visiting my parents and Simon and I went exploring outside in the yard. As we came around the corner of the house I looked up the hill towards my parents shed and saw this.
Yes, that is a replica bust of David’s head sitting on the step of the shed – here’s a close up for you.
I just had to laugh. Just look at what happens when you try to preserve a moment of beauty and put it into a space not made for it – it is jarring and kind of odd – and yet, in its own way it was a Holy sight for me in that moment and served as a reminder of the Holy’s potential to pop up in every space in surprising ways.
In this season, and in every season, may we, like Peter, James, and John, awaken and open our eyes in time to see moments of the Holy in our surroundings. May we follow the example of Jesus and be willing to choose the ongoing journey – by letting our hearts of stone be transformed into flesh, capable of hurt yes, and also capable of awakening to the world around us that we may revel in and help reveal the love of God that is always at work transfiguring the world as the story continues on.