On Friday 18 March, I was kindly invited by a student organization in Groningen to give a talk about Easter.
I’ve worked in international chaplaincies in university towns all my ministry, so I’ve slowly grown accustomed to the fact that academic calendars and people travelling ‘home’ for major holidays often mean we, the churches in these lovely places, need give attention to Christmas (Carols) in Advent and Easter events in Lent. Missionally and pastorally, we all adapt, even if spiritually, we do need all the Advent and Lenten time we can get, for renewal, deepening and growth.
A week and a half before Easter, the students and I had a solid discussion about it: what happened, why it needed to happen, and what difference it makes for the world. I suggested that in order to understand Easter, we need to attempt to get into the mind of Christ and come to terms with his extraordinary motivation to offer himself up for us all. We briefly discussed images of Christ that people have, how these compare with those from the Gospels, and indeed what we perceive as Christ’s own self-understanding.
At one point, a friendly debate arose on the nature (and danger) of ‘images’. My own view is that artistic representations of Jesus can never show us literally what he looked like (because no one knows, as detailed descriptions of the most famous person to ever live on earth are strangely and interestingly absent from Scripture). Yet it is quite natural for humanity to seek to represent Christ visually, not only to communicate their love and appreciation of Him, but also as a visual aid to teach others about the faith. Since we believe in Jesus as the human incarnation of God, and ‘He is the image (icon) of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15), Jesus disrupts concerns about artistic depiction of the Divine. Out of fear of idolatry, the Abrahamic faiths have been understandably resistant to visual representations of God. But Jesus, by His very birth, changes the game, at least with respect to Himself. As St Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4, ‘6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.‘
Moreover, as we are creative beings, created in the image of our Creator God, it’s logical that we should praise God through using art, whether visual or musical or otherwise. And at Grace Church in Groningen, we have recently seen two inspiring and thought-provoking examples.
At our first Sunday-of-the-month GraceTALK on 6 March, the Revd Martin Mondal, a priest in the Church of Bangladesh, who is studying at the Protestantse Theologische Universiteit in Groningen, shared with us about Christian life and ministry in his home country. Dance is an integral part of cultural life in his part of Asia, and he taught us all how his church often opens worship with praying through dance. Even the maladroit among us (me included) enjoyed learning how to pray, physically, through dance. And Martin’s reverent and meaningful depiction of the Lord’s Prayer was unforgettable.
And on Passion Sunday, as we reflected on Christ’s offering of Himself in our Scripture readings and worship, our Junior Church group also made clay figures of the kinds of things they would like to offer to God.
We know we can never repay God in kind for what Jesus did, nor are we asked to. But we can offer our praise and thanksgiving, not only with our lips, but in our lives, in the art of living for God.
Yours in Christ, Sam