Sunday, October 9, 2011

From Darkness to Glory via the Cross

There is something wonderful about colour.

Colours capture the imagination; colours touch us deep down; colours stir the emotions. They can move us in strange and wonderful ways.

I found myself on Tuesday evening in a church full of colour. The Greek Orthodox Community in Gloucestershire met for worship at St Luke’s church until a few years ago when they purchased a redundant Anglican parish church in the village of Bentham. They have transformed it. Sitting on new, wooden bench like seats with arms, that were not the most comfortable, we were surrounded by a rich explosion of colour - chandeliers from the ceiling, beautiful icons rich with their golds and many colours surrounding us on all walls. We come from a tradition that heeds the word of God and has plain walls in our place of worship. I like the quiet, and the stillness of our place of worship – but gone are the days when I would disparage those of another Christian tradition for their love of colour.

I delight in that colour too.

In the last couple of months the Russian Orthodox community of Gloucestershire have joined the Greek Orthodox in that Bentham church – their reich liturgy adorned by wonderful colour. The colours that draw us through the icon into the presence of God. It is a glimpse of the communion of saints singing their praises in the glory of heaven.

One hundred and more years ago, one of the great artists of the early twentieth century worshpped in just such a setting. In his studio he had icons that were dear to him. He gloried in colour.

Colours filled his life … so much so that he could hear colours.

Exactly 100 years ago he published his treatise ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’ in which he developed his thinking about art, colour and the emotions.

He had, many suppose a condition, or is it a capacity that Richard Sharpe introduced me to, called Synasthesia.

For Wassily Kandinsky there was something profoundly spiritual in the colours he delighted in. Art is not just about depicting a form, in fact it is much more than that. It is something that touches the emotions very deep down … and it is the colours themselves that have that capacity.

At first I was very disparaging about his art. It was one of our own young people then a regular at Hy-Tec, Janet and Steve Brown’s daughter, Jacqui who changed my way of thinking entirely. She was at the time doing an art foundation course and studying Kankinsky. Jacqui prompted me to think again, and to see with new eyes.

I began to appreciate Kandinsky’s art, but had no inkling how much of it was related to the Bible until I went to a remarkable exhibition of his work at Tate Modern.

I want to invite you to stand with me in one particular place in the art gallery.

To my left I could see the what Kandinsky called ‘Composition Number 6’.

It is an enormous canvas, no reproduction can do the original justice.

It is a mass of lines and shapes and above all colours.

But the colours are dark. Menacing. Filled with foreboding. He calls the piece ‘Composition’ because it echoes the composition of a piece of music. The colours can be heard, look at the canvas and they resonate deep within you. And the way they sound is disturbing, unsettling.

He links Composition number 6 with the deluge, the flood.

It prompts me to turn again to the Biblical narrative. And what I find is very different from the remembered story of Noah and the animals who went in two by two.

It opens in a world torn apart by violence.

Wickedness had taken over humanity. every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually

These stories are not seeking to explain the beginning of things. This is a story on a massive scale that has something to say to every generation. It has something to say to our generation. Because that’s what the world is like. Tragically, there are moments when it seems that’s what humanity is like. It’s dark. It’s menacing. It’s filled with foreboding. Ten years into an unwinnable war in Afghanistan with deaths of young men and women from this country being reported each week, injuries going un-noticed, and 10,,000 Afghanistan casualties in the last four years alone. There is a violence that is deeply disturbing.

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.

And what happens? There is a flood.

19The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; 20the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.

What’s happened is that the beautiful colours of the wonderful creation of God have completely gone – all that can be seen is the darkness and the gloom of the raging waters.

Tragically, this is a world we can recognise. It was the world Kandinsky could see around him. And it is a profoundly disturbing world. Art can bring home to you just how disturbing it is.

That struck me on Friday morning as I was taking a group of Year 6 families around Pittville. We had arrived in the Art room. And on the wall some powerful, disturbing art work. One in particular quite small – a collage depicting the map of Africa and by its side a famine-stricken child of Africa. Powerful enough, I would not have thought again about it. But one of the parents had stopped, and found it hard to go on. The picture moved her almost to tears. And she said so.

Art brings home how profoundly disturbing our world is. And that’s what this narrative from the Bible does in Genesis 6. And that’s what the cacophony of colours in Kandinsky’s Composition number 6 brings home.

Hold on to that picture for a moment. See the picture, hear the disturbing troubled, discordant music.

And now stand on that spot and cast your eye round to the right – and on the wall in the right is Composition 7. The lines, the shapes, the scale of the canvas are all much the same.

But the colours are different. No reproduction can do them justice. There is a glow to the picture, a golden glow of many, many rich colours. It has the feel almost of an icon drawing you into the divine, drawing you into the very presence of God in all his glory. And it is the glory of God that Kandinsky is inviting us not just to glory in but to feel deep down as the most joyful of emotions well up in side us.

Kandinsky invites us to link this picture with the last book of the Bible, with Revelation. For me it is a connection that brings us to glory. There is something wonderfully rich about the narrative of the Bible – from the start it holds u[ a mirror to the reality of a world of violence, a world we know all too well. But it holds out something beyond that world that we can look to. A hope that is firm and real.

And so we turn to the Book of Revelation and what do we see in Revelation 21. A new heaven and a new earth come down from heaven like a bride adorned for her husband, where there will be no more crying, no more pain. And what is this new heaven and this new earth like?

Then one of the seven angels carried me away in the spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall with twelve gates,

The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls.

The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth cornelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.

The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations.

These are the colours of Kandinsky’s Composition number 7.

What a wonderful glory.

Come back with me to that spot in Tate Modern.

To the left we see on the far wall the deluge and the awfulness of a world of violence where all colour is gone.

To the right we see on the far wall the glory and sheer brilliance of a new creation filled with unimaginable colours.

How do we get from Composition number 6 and the awfulness of this world to Composition number 7 and the glory of the new heaven and the new earth.

In front of us in the middle is a cathedral like window, for Tate Modern is in the Bank Power Station designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of Liverpools’ Anglican cathedral. We are looking through a cathedral window down on to the millennium bridge, straight across the Thames, between the houses opposite and over to St Paul’s. And high above its central dome, one metre higher than the chimney astride Tate Modern, is the cross. And it feels as if people are walking from where we stand to the foot of the cross.

It is as God, the God of creation, comes alongside suffering humanity and takes on humanity in all its frailty in Christ, and goes to the cross that we can sense that we are not alone in this world of violence that so often can overwhelm. For as God took upon himself our humanity, so he invites us to take upon ourselves his divinity. For on the cross we see that that violence, that suffering, the sheer awfulness of a world that overwhelms does not have the last word. There is a resurrection victory that as we turn to Christ and put our faith in him we too can share.

How do we move from that world of violence to that vision of glory – only as we come to the cross. And as we do that so we find a path mapped out for us that will lead us through the world as it is to the glory that is nothing less than a new creation.

Remind me, Lord, says a prayer Pat shared with me later that Friday as she anticipated going into Frenchay for major surgery on Wednesday, Remind me, Lord, that real hope is when I can’t see the end of the road, but still trust you to lead me there.

Pause for Reflection

For a few moments I want to pause for us to share in a reflection accompanied by Richard Sharpe on the organ. Look first at the bleakness of Kandinsky’s art, bring to mind the violence of humanity at its worst as in the biblical flood all colour goes from God’s creation. In his organ playing Richard will capture the discordant darkness that we see in the art and sense in the world around us.

Look then to the cross and find in Jesus Christ the One who comes alongside us in our suffering, and draws us deep within God in his glory.

We then move from the darkness towards the glory as Richard takes us to the last part of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in this centenary year of the death of Mahler. The gentleness of what is described by Mahler as Urlicht, Primeval Light, takes us to the three days leading up to Resurrection.

Our eyes turn to the central view of St Paul’s, and we are taken to the foot of the cross and towards the Resurrection.

With a great triumphant chord on the organ we lead then into the climax to Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony as the words of resurrection would be sung by the choir appear in translation on the screen.

Die I shall, so as to live!
Rise again,
yes rise again you shall, my heart, in an instant!
What you have struck out for, to God, to God,
to God it will carry you!

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