Sunday 3 July 2011

Sermon: Emmaus epiphany

As part of ongoing work designed to develop temporary and possibly permanent artworks in the parish of St Paul's Harlow and St Mary's Parndon, which will involve a study day on 'The value of public art' on Saturday 19th September at St Paul's Harlow, Jonathan Evens preached the following sermon today at St Paul's Harlow:
Thanks very much for the invitation to come along to St Paul’s today. It’s great to be here. As Rev. Martin Harris has mentioned I’m part of a group of artists called commission4mission which encourages churches to use contemporary art. We are the people who put together the Church art trail leaflets for the Barking Episcopal Area which feature St Paul's Harlow because of its artistic importance in terms of its architecture and the ‘Emmaus’ mosaic by John Piper, something which I’m told Martin manages to mention in each of his sermons! I’m here today with Robert Enoch (who installed your Easter pillars) and we’re here because we would like to work with your church to develop new pieces of art as part of your vision for the growth of this church and as part of the mission work you are undertaking in Harlow.
So I’m going to talk for a few minutes about some ways in which art can open our eyes to see more of God in our world. I’m going to start, naturally enough, with a painting.
(Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio)
I wonder if any of the children or young people here could tell me what they see in this painting by Caravaggio. Did anyone here watch the quiz show called ‘Catchphrase’ that used to be on ITV on Saturday nights? ‘Catchphrase’ had its own catchphrase which was ‘Say what you see’ and that is a good rule of thumb to remember whenever you look at a painting. So, who would like to say what they can see in this painting?
  • Who is at the centre of the picture?
  • How does the artist make sure we focus on Jesus?
  • Why is Jesus the central person in the picture?
  • What is Jesus doing?
  • How are the other people reacting to him?
At the centre of the picture and at the centre of the story is a very simple and ordinary action; breaking bread or tearing a loaf of bread into two pieces. Although it is a simple and ordinary thing to do, it becomes a very important act when Jesus does it because that is the moment when Jesus’ two disciples realise who he is. They suddenly realise that this stranger who they have been walking with and talking to for hours is actually Jesus himself, risen from the dead. They are amazed and thrilled, shocked and surprised, and we can see that clearly on the faces and in the actions of the disciples as they are portrayed in this painting.

Something very simple and ordinary suddenly becomes full of meaning and significance. This simple, ordinary action opens their eyes so that they can suddenly see Jesus as he really is. That is art in action! Art captures or creates moments when ordinary things are seen as significant. When our eyes are suddenly opened, in this way, to see meaning and significance in something that we had previously thought of as simple and ordinary, that is called an epiphany.

There is a time in the Church calendar that is also called Epiphany. Who can remember when Epiphany is? What do we remember and celebrate in the season of Epiphany? At Epiphany we remember the Magi or Wise Men coming to visit Jesus as a young child.

In the Epiphany icon above Jesus has a halo and is being spotlighted by the star that led the Magi to him but Jesus would actually have been a very ordinary looking young boy. There wouldn’t have been anything special that the Magi would have seen that marked him out as being significant but nevertheless they realised who he was and worshipped him. They saw the significance of the ordinary looking child they had come to visit and that is why they had an epiphany. By giving Jesus a halo and spotlighting him with a star, this painting focuses our attention on the significance of Jesus, rather than this ordinariness. It shows us the significance that the Magi saw in this ordinary looking child through their epiphany.

An epiphany happens when an everyday reality becomes charged with spiritual significance. This is what art can do for us. It can give us epiphanies by helping us see ordinary things in new ways. Caravaggio’s painting does that for us. It is a painting of an epiphany but it is also an epiphany itself because it brings the story to life in a way that helps us see it afresh, as though we were seeing it for the first time.

You have a wonderful and important work of art in your Church – John Piper’s ‘Emmaus’ mosaic. It is important because John Piper was a significant British artist and also because this mosaic is probably the first that he made for a Church. Whatever you think about it, whether you like it or not, because you see it so often it is likely that you often don’t really notice it or think anything much of it. That is what happens whenever something becomes very familiar to us. How could we change that so that we start to see it afresh, as though we were seeing it again for the very first time?

Art could do that for us? One of the ideas that Robert Enoch has suggested for this Church would make that happen, if it was tried as a temporary installation, by covering up the mosaic initially with another design; like this …

Then over several weeks more and more of the mosaic would be revealed until the whole image was visible once again.

We’re not saying that that idea will definitely happen – that would be for you to decide as a Church and we would like to discuss some of our ideas with you after the service is over – but, if that installation were to happen it would have the effect of helping you see your ‘Emmaus’ mosaic again as though for the first time. Just as the disciples had an epiphany when they saw Jesus as though for the first time, this artwork would help you to have a similar epiphany about your ‘Emmaus’ mosaic.

Something similar could happen with the Church building too. Lots of people locally will come into the centre of Harlow regularly and walk straight past this building as though it isn’t there. Again, it is something so familiar that they don’t stop to look at it and see it as though for the first time. Once again, art could make them stop and stare. Another of our ideas is to project images at night onto the west windows of the church. Changing or moving images in those windows, again as a temporary installation, could make local people stop and look again at this building. Through the projected images we could show on the outside something of what happens on the inside and that might make people stop and look and see this church – the building and the people – as though for the very first time.

This is what art can do and when art gives us epiphanies like this then our eyes are opened, as were the eyes of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and we see something of God in the ordinary, everyday things around us. Whether we like the idea of the artworks that I’ve mentioned this morning or not, having epiphanies, seeing God in the everyday, seeing heaven in the ordinary, now that is something for which each of us should pray on a daily basis. Art can help to make that happen for us but our prayer should first and foremost be may our eyes be opened to see the glory of God all around us, whether that comes through art or by some other means. May it be so for each one of us. Amen.

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