Grief and Loss Will Be Undone (Artful Devotion)

Descent of the New Jerusalem (Georgian icon)
Gocha Kakabadze (Georgian, 1966–), Descent of the New Jerusalem, 2016. Gouache on paper.

Isaiah 25:6–9 (NRSV):

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the LORD for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

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Christians are called to be “aching visionaries,” writes Nicholas Wolterstorff in the classic Lament for a Son—much like the Hebrew prophets, who by the Spirit’s enlightening were able to see through the pain of this present era into a future where all things are made new, where sorrow is undone and Love reigns. Blessed are those who cling to this vision, and who actively live into it here and now, not ignoring hurt but acknowledging its wrongness (that’s what lament is: to say, “This is not right”) and co-laboring with God to heal it. For this task we are equipped with God’s Spirit.

(Related posts: “A sweeping vision of all things made new”; “‘Jis’ Blue’ by Etta Baldwin Oldham”)

The Christian fixation on heaven is sometimes perceived by outsiders as escapist, as opioid. Claiming its promise does console, it’s true. It does give us power to push through pain and guards us against despair. But what it absolutely does not allow is retreat from reality. On the contrary, it helps us to inhabit reality more fully. Talk of heaven doesn’t numb us to the world—or at least it shouldn’t. It makes us hyperaware, especially of history’s path. History is going somewhere! It has a telos, and it has manifestly not arrived there yet. Until then, we ache. We labor. We hope. Rather than having an idling effect, seeing the goal actually motivates us to live presently in tighter line with God’s values. At the same time we confess that we ourselves cannot bring about the all-encompassing salvation we so vehemently crave.

Brothers Philip and Paul Zach (The Silver Pages) are aching visionaries who write songs and sing. “When Your Kingdom Comes,” performed with Mona Reeves, helps us to see with greater clarity the glorious future that’s in store for this earth. One day when we come home to it, it will be heaven. The New Jerusalem will descend, and we’ll be wed eternally to its king.

To download the album version of the song (which has more pronounced percussion) along with five other Silver Pages tracks, go to NoiseTrade. It’s free in exchange for your email address.

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[After the Ring is destroyed]

“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

“A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.

—J. R. R. Tolkien, from The Return of the King


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 23, cycle A, click here.

A sweeping vision of all things made new

This Sunday’s reading in the Revised Common Lectionary is Revelation 21:1–6, in which John describes the renewal of the entire created order:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.”

Jesus’s resurrection was the beginning of a new creation that starts with man. Paul mentions this in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” But whereas Paul is talking about individual renewal, the renewal that John envisions is all-encompassing, touching everything—“an external order in full correspondence with the new nature,” in the words of Alexander Maclaren.

Theologians disagree on whether the “new” in this Revelation passage indicates that the present heaven and earth will one day be destroyed and then newly created, or rather that heaven and earth will one day be utterly transformed, made new in nature or quality. I hold the latter view, and it appears that American artist James B. Janknegt does as well.

Make All Things New by James B. Janknegt
James B. Janknegt (American, 1953–), Make All Things New, 2005. Oil on canvas, 48 × 96 in.

Janknegt’s painting Make All Things New shows the risen Christ standing triumphantly over the pit of death and under the blessing hand of God, sweeping up the things of earth into a whirlpool of color. Birds, balls, and bicycles; musical instruments and charcoal grills; plants and houses, pets and people, mowers and swing sets—all are on their way to the New Jerusalem. Beauty, work, and play.

Also present in the cosmic swirl are a loaf of bread and a glass of wine, symbols of God’s broken body and spilt blood, the activators of the new covenant. These two objects are evidence on multiple levels that God does indeed transform: he transformed the shame of the cross into glory, and at the Communion table again and again he transforms common, earthly elements into means of grace.

I appreciate Janknegt’s portrayal (through the upside-down skyscrapers at the top of the painting) of heaven coming down to meet earth as it did in the beginning, a biblical truth that has far too often been misrepresented in Christian art, music, and teaching. The restoration of the union between heaven and earth is pretty much the Bible’s main theme—one that’s beautifully explained in The Bible Project’s video on heaven and earth in terms of overlap between two spaces. We won’t eventually leave one space to fly over to the other; instead, heaven and earth will become the same space.

This is a vision that we are called to live into now! As new creations, we orient ourselves around the risen Christ, and we practice resurrection wherever we go. This can mean anything from turning vacant lots into gardens to beating guns into farm tools (literally!) to building wells in villages without access to clean drinking water to fostering or adopting an abused child to supporting a friend through rehabilitation. Where there is death, we bring life.

Make All Things New is a picture of what God has started to do in the world and will one day accomplish completely, at which point we can say along with him in praise and celebration, “It is done!” In the meantime, let’s join him in his work.

This painting is available for sale on the artist’s website and is also offered as a print.