Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Two Cities? Artists, Evensong and Apocalypse

It is not elegantly hung but merely propped up on the mantelpiece in my study accompanied (happily,I think) by some commentaries on Baxter, and Rowan Williams on Dostoevsky and Thomas Merton.  The print is, of course, by Peter Siddell and was part of a farewell gift by the English Department when I left Hamilton for adventures in Australia - years ago now.

What fascinated me  was the suggestion of an Auckland scene - the distinctive volcanic 'bumps' and the glimpse of harbour.  But there the resemblance stops as we see an empty refined and 'classical' urbanscape quite unlike the city we know.  Yet that glimpse is 'framed' by two modern glass and concrete structures and in the blurry reflections of the glass we catch the image of the villas and hills (Mount Hobson, Mount Eden?) of the place that we know.

We view then two cities or at least two possibilities, or an idea of a city and what 'we' have created.  In the lower right corner Siddell has put the Latin proverb sed fugit interea fugit irreparabile tempus (but it flees meanwhile: irretrievable time flees).

All this came to mind as I engaged with the texts for Choral Evensong the other night - the readings were from Zechariah and Revelation - I have the references below and have given the links for convenience if needed.  If you decide to persevere with this, remember that in Choral Evensong I offer not so much a sermon as a reflection or musing - usually no more than 400 words.

Revelation 21: 22-22.5

I am something of an enthusiast for the paintings of Peter Siddell.  If you don’t know his work, his most typical paintings are of cities, urbanscapes or houses – the streets and houses are immaculate but we see no figures, no signs of human habitation, no cars, but perhaps a door or window ajar. It is as if all have fled and left this pristine beautiful vaguely familiar but somehow alien metropolis sparkling in a clear light – waiting for us to repeople it or, horrible thought – to spoil it.   To contemplate his paintings is to become aware what our cities have never been, of what they could be and of a longing in our hearts and a loss.

Think then on the ideas that ‘Jerusalem’ evokes.  This earthly city with its bloody history and its  troubled present – and for all that we might say about it, as city, as the idea if a city it positively haunts the western (and Christian) imagination.  However we think of it we cannot think of it without guilt – at least because of the plight of Palestinians in what is (also) their home.

Both our readings this Evensong are about Jerusalem.

In the first, Zechariah writes to a people who have been in exile and who, as they return, must take on the monumental task of rebuilding the city and, above all else, of rebuilding the temple.  For exiles, the return to their place of origin, of sacred memory, their place of deepest belonging is a huge event; a spiritual and psychological watershed.  It is also an experience fraught with some dangers and fears: will history repeat itself?  Will we become magnanimous and visionary or will we be twisted by our fears.  Zechariah paints a vision of the just city – of a gracious and joyous Jerusalem: ‘Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.’

In the second, the writer of the Book of Revelation presents us with another image of Jerusalem.  This is the Jerusalem that stands apart from time and space, the city that is the final and ultimate community created by God at the end of time.  It is a city bathed in light, the light of God.  It is the place of restoration and healing – it is the focus and the idea of the fulfillment of all God’s purpose in creation and the end toward which we turn our hearts.  This Jerusalem is no earthly city but image of our best and deepest longings.  ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him.’ (1 Cor.2:9)

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