("The Temptations in the Desert," by Michael O'Brian)
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
I've been a little surprised that Sunday's Gospel reading keeps sticking to me. It's historically not a text that gets my attention. But several things this week have tied my attention back to it. I got a phone call from one of my friends recently about a job change. It's a change that I am not totally sure this person's spouse is going to like it; it's a change that is all about prestige and money and the amount of money was obviously tempting. I thought about how this person had left to pursue this last "dream job" and now the discussion was how awful this job was and criticized the people that were once the greatest thing since sliced bread. I thought about how I had a really rough day at work yesterday and I sometimes wish I didn't have to put the names on some diseases I have to diagnose, and I sometimes wish that other physicians didn't react to their own frustrations by criticizing me or my department. I was sorely tempted yesterday to rip into some people, but I knew it would not do any good.
The picture above was one of the pictures we used in my online EfM class this week. We ended up using the Lectionary reading for this past Sunday (above) for our Theological Reflection. Some of this artist's works were a portion of an exhibit entitled "From Darkness of Heart to the Heart of Forgiveness--Beyond Sexual Victimhood," where he and two other Canadian artists reflect on the journey of healing beyond sexual abuse.
From O'Brien's web site:
In all my work I seek to contribute to the restoration of Christian culture. I try to express the holiness of existence and the dignity of the human person situated in an incarnational universe. Each visual image and each work of prose is an incarnation of a word, a statement of faith. At the same time, it asks the questions: what is most noble and eternal in man? Who is he? Why does he exist? And what is his eternal destiny?
I have to admit, I was simultaneously intensely drawn to this painting, as well as being viscerally uncomfortable with it, mostly because of the blend of color. Jesus appears trapped in this red "womb-like structure"--red being the color of pain, separated from a beautiful dawn full of healing blues and reconciling purples--purple being the mixture of red and blue.
I found the horizon and its color scheme comforting, but the image of Christ being trapped in pain, surrounded by similarly-trapped icons of his reign--his crown, the temple, etc.--very discomforting. Also adding to the discomfort was the pair of blue dots at about the 3 o'clock position in the painting--which seemed like eyes of evil, peering from the darkness, invading the beautiful dawn. It's also interesting to me that Jesus' back is to the beauty in the picture.
As I looked at it, many "birth" images came to mind, given the womb-shaped vessel of Jesus' confinement.
I thought for some time about that "womb made of pain" in the painting. There's actually a sense of "safety" with familiar pain--it's what we are referring to when we use the old saw, "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know."
The womb is a nurturing, safe place--until the fetus grows to the point where it's too crowded. That's when the trouble starts. In the ideal setting, there is a place where birth must occur or else both the fetus and the mother will be harmed. Infection can set in. Worse yet, the fetus' head may become too large for the birth canal, and at that point, a Cesarean section will have to be performed, or mother and/or baby will die.
Our old, familiar sins are like that. There's an odd comfort with them. In fact, they might have helped us survive. But as we grow, we don't "fit" in that space. We are waiting to be reborn from them. In some ways, temptation and seduction also creates the boundaries of a "womb." I thought about those times I did not succumb to my own temptations. I stayed in the safe place I was in, and grew. So perhaps without them, we would not grow and change. But yet, until I could be strong enough to leave them behind, and I struggled, my relationship as a child of God feels "trapped" for a spell, too. We are destined to leave this place, this place that is simultaneously a womb when we are still "too small", but a trap when we have grown enough and are ready to be reborn--a place bounded by sin and seduction--to be delivered into new, healing places--perhaps many times over in our life.
This birth is not a sure thing. A lot can happen along the way to mess this up. We might "die in utero" early in the process and experience a stillbirth. We could be born prematurely and not get full benefit of this calm and peace the way we would had we been born at term--it could take longer to acclimate us to this place of light and wellness. We might be born because others ripped us out of that womb of pain like a C-section--born into this realm of healing, but with a new scar with which to contend. We might have a hard, difficult labor and require experienced helpers along the way.
Another striking thing in this painting for me is there is obviously calm water in the background of this painting. It reminds me that this form of spiritual rebirth places us once again in the waters of our baptism. It connects us to everyone.
Finally, the way purple is used in the painting speaks to me--not so much that it is the color of royalty, but in another way. The red of our pain and the blue of God's healing are not just mixed together, the two substances are no longer two separate substances, but one--one where a new color emerges from it.
Utlimately, despite the mixed messages, I find my overall impression of the painting to be one of hopefulness. I like the notion that our sins are not simply erased but transformed into new colors and new horizons. It's a comforting thought that Jesus is an integral piece of this rebirth. I can stand the pain and contractions if I know something about him is reborn along with me. We can be reborn, as in the words of Eucharistic Prayer B, "Out of error into truth; out of sin into righteousness."
I have come to realize that without those sins I've committed over the years, and without those temptations I face on a regular basis, I could not be where I am, every time I feel growth and transformation. It's not a matter of "how good we can be," it's "how we are shaped within the crucible of the tension of the good and evil in the world."