by Susan Schneider

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“But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, ‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people’. . . . The gifts he gave were. . . to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God…” (Ephesians 4:7-8,11-13a)

Although the letter to the Ephesians does not specifically list art as a gift Christ has given to us, there is no doubt that it can be one way of equipping the saints and/or building up the body of Christ. It can peel away layers of guilt or denial or shame and leave us raw and ready to be made new. Art can open closed doors inside our hearts and minds without a word.

It is said that Italian artist Michelangelo saw his sculptures fully formed within the marble before he put even the tiniest chisel mark on the stone. He described his work as liberating the statue from the rock that surrounded it and held it bound. Nowhere is this more evident than in his series of sculptures called “Prisoners,” that depict partial human forms, evidently struggling to release themselves from the rocks in which they still reside.

Maybe that is how God sees us: beautiful, graceful works of art, trapped both internally and externally, unable to break free. Perhaps one of the gifts Christ gives to his people is to release us from the bondage of whatever holds us back from being our authentic selves. And maybe creative endeavors can help us do that. I wonder if our work as people made in the Creator’s image is to assist one another chip by chip, in emerging from whatever keeps us from being splendid beings we are meant to be.

In John 11, we see an example of Jesus literally calling forth a man from a rock. Lazarus had been dead for four days when Jesus arrived in Bethany. Lazarus’s tomb is a cave with a huge rock pushed up against the opening to keep the stench in and the animals out. Jesus wept there.

And yet, apparently, Jesus saw potential in the rock the way Michelangelo is reputed to have seen the Prisoners. Where others saw only decay and finality, Jesus saw opportunity for creation. Where everyone else saw only decomposition, Jesus saw raw materials waiting for an artist’s touch. In the face of everyone else’s disbelief, Jesus loudly called forth life: “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43) And Lazarus did. As Lazarus comes out of the tomb, Jesus commands all those present to peel off the grave cloths that cover him: “Unbind him and let him go” (John 11:44).

Vincent_Van_Gogh.350This story is told and retold often in Christian communities, not only because it shows Jesus’ power over death and destruction, but also because it reminds us that with Jesus, the end is never really the end. Jesus empowers us to arise and begin again, over and over. It is astonishing that God can bring something out of nothing, life out of death and hope out of despair. It is unlikely, and therefore, precious. The liberating, divine act of creation is what motivates artists and art appreciators to look and look again for submerged beauty in a world that can be hard, even suffocating.

My favorite visual representation of the raising of Lazarus is one painted by Vincent van Gogh (“The Raising of Lazarus, after Rembrandt,” 1890). I love it, in part, because I know that the artist painted this in a dark period in his life. I appreciate knowing that this image of new life emerged from deep pain. Van Gogh was institutionalized as his mental health deteriorated, and during that time, he spent much time copying art by the great masters, adding his own personal twists to their works.

Van Gogh’s painting of the raising of Lazarus differs from Rembrandt’s original in several ways. One of the most obvious is that van Gogh’s is set outdoors in the sunlight, while Rembrandt’s is indoors. I wonder if van Gogh’s choice is an effort to remember that the power of God is mightier than all the powers of darkness.

The most touching and important part of van Gogh’s painting for me is that the face of Lazarus is a self-portrait of the artist. To me, this is a powerful example of faith in spite of everything. In the midst of torment, van Gogh is aching for God to refresh him and make him well. He longs to peer out from the rocks that hold him back and see the face of God.

Being called out of the darkness

How might we see our own faces in the story of Lazarus? Are we trapped in a rock, unable or unwilling to move? Do we hear the voice of Jesus calling us out of the darkness and into new life? Are we responding to the invitation, tripping over grave cloths and pebbles as we hurry toward the entrance? Or are we like the mourners gathering outside the tomb, ready to help “unbind” others as they begin anew? One gift Christ gave to all believers is the capacity to act as little Christs to one another, continually reminding one another “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).

We are freed to imitate our Creator in our own acts of freeing and creating. We are called to beckon forth beauty where others see nothing promising — maybe even nothing at all. To labor with intensity over what is not yet is to partner with God in a way that draws us closer together.

When one person is released from oppression and captivity, the whole community is involved. I pray that each of us will hear and respond to the call to “Come out!” from our rocky tombs and boldly enter the new creation.

Discussion questions:

1. What piques your curiosity, attracts you and holds your attention for a significant period of time?
2. When have you experienced God provoking (calling forth) healing through art?
3. Which works of art (your own or someone else’s) have most significantly impacted your spiritual journey?

The Rev. Susan Schneider is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Madison, Wisc. She is an appreciator and sometimes creator of art and believes absolutely that God has healed her through art more than once.