God breaking in on our world

This year for Advent, my church has built into its liturgy a time for guided reflection on an art image—one per week—corresponding to one or more of the season’s themes. Today I led the congregation in looking at a seventeenth-century German engraving based on John 1. Here’s what I said (adapted from the Advent devotional I published this month):

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Word by Christoph Weigel
Christoph Weigel (German, 1654–1725), Word, 1695. Engraving from Biblia ectypa: Bildnussen auss Heiliger Schrifft Alt und Neuen Testaments. Image courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

This copperplate engraving is from a picture Bible by Christoph Weigel published in Augsburg in the late 1600s. The Bible consists entirely of engraved images—839 in all—with key scripture texts inscribed above and below, from Genesis to Revelation.

Looking at this one, you might think of the creation story—God speaking, “Let there be light.” You wouldn’t be wrong to make that association, but actually this engraving illustrates the first chapter of John’s Gospel: the eternal Word of God taking on flesh and entering human history, a doctrine we call the Incarnation. This is the big bang of the new creation. This is God once again hovering over the chaos and proclaiming, “Let there be light.” And there was Light. Because the Savior came, and is still coming.

The top inscription says in Latin, “In the beginning was the Word” (v. 1). And the German one below says, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not comprehended it” (v. 5).

In Weigel’s illustration, the name YHWH is surrounded by a blast of light that showers down to our dark earth in this magnificent glory-stream. Before this, Israel’s covenant God was mostly invisible and unapproachable, but now he reveals himself as man and Son, the second person of the Trinity, Jesus. He’s still Yahweh, but now he’s Yahweh brought low, to be seen and touched and engaged face-to-face.

This image emphasizes the cosmic nature of the Incarnation and reinforces the meaning of the Greek word for Jesus that John uses in his prologue: Logos, which our English Bibles translate as “Word” with a capital W. This term is a loaded one, used in most schools of Greek philosophy to designate the underlying principle of the universe, one that is rational, intelligent, and vivifying; other translations include “Mind,” “Power,” “Cause,” “Act,” “Ground,” “Reason,” “Structure,” or “Universal Bond.” Philosophers had been reinterpreting the concept of Logos for centuries, but John was the first to link it to the person of Christ.

Advent is a time for us to consider what it means for the Word of God, the Logos, to have a body and be among us.

This season, may we dwell in awe of the historic and continuing eruption of hope and light that is the Incarnation.  

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My pastor’s sermon text this morning was Isaiah 6:1–7, and his title was “God Breaking In on Our World.” Isaiah’s king, Uzziah, had just died; under his fifty-two-year reign, Judah had enjoyed stability and prosperity, but now the people faced an unknown political future. Isaiah needed the vision that followed. He needed to be reminded that the throne that matters is not the king’s seat in Jerusalem but the heavenly throne upon which the Lord of glory sits.

Pastor Irwyn pointed out that the seraphim don’t sing that the earth was or will be full of God’s glory, but that the earth is full of his glory—right then, and right now! At a time of national loss.

When God breaks into Isaiah’s consciousness, he reveals Isaiah’s guilt but also his own all-eclipsing glory and grace. When he broke into human history at Jesus’s birth, he did the same. And as he continues this in-breaking work today, those three Gs—glory, guilt, and grace—are still his calling card.

Pastor Irwyn encouraged us to recall Weigel’s image throughout the season as a counterbalance to all the imagery of the poor little baby in a manger, to remind us of “the glory of the Lord, in all of its radiance and majesty, breaking in on the darkness and brokenness of our world to reveal our sin and extend the immeasurable riches of the grace and kindness of God to us.” Jesus’s advent isn’t just an event of the past and the future; it’s present, ongoing. God’s Word is still speaking! His glory and grace are all around us.

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I was delighted to see some of the kids from the congregation engaging Weigel’s image with crayons and colored pencils. Laura—friend, crafter, educator, fellow church member, and mom of three—created and distributed coloring sheets inspired by the engraving, along with a memory verse coloring sheet (John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”).

word-coloring-sheet

Laura’s doing all kinds of cool things with her kids to integrate the Advent images I published into her kids’ homeschooling and devotions this December, including:

  • Identifying the artists’ home countries on a world map and using it as an opportunity to learn about those countries and pray for the people there
  • Making art using different media and techniques—construction-paper mosaics (à la Marko Rupnik), finger painting on silk like Yasuo Ueno, etc.
  • Making a “candle” like the one in Eduardo Kingman’s painting and processing with it while singing
  • (Because hands are a central feature in Kingman’s work . . .) Exploring different things hands can do and ways they can communicate
  • Empty bowl as an object lesson on poverty—material and spiritual—paired with personal distribution of food and toiletry bags to some of Baltimore’s homeless population
  • Science lesson on light and dark and how they’re used as metaphors in the Bible
  • Putting together a puzzle derived from one of the art images

I developed Come, Lord Jesus, Come: Visual Devotions for Advent mainly with adults in mind, but I love how Laura is adapting the program to fit the needs of her family, using my booklet as a jumping-off point for creative, kid-friendly activities. Her intentionality about making art and spirituality part of her family culture (and she’s been doing this since long before I came along!) is so edifying to me as I look toward someday becoming a mother myself. I hope I’ll have half the imagination she does when it comes to training up my own kids!

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