Saturday, July 26, 2014

“Christ in the Sea Monster”

Images of the biblical narratives often show us the gospel by linking one image to another, thereby helping us to see a character or an event in new light. Gail Ramshaw has spent many years unveiling these images in order to help us see our faith through lenses both verbal and visual. 

Sometime before the thirteenth century, some unknown Christian invented an elaborate forty-page biblical instruction, now called the Biblia Pauperum; each page depicted an episode from the life of Christ, which was flanked by pictures of stories from the Old Testament that were considered to be in some way parallel. Christians transported this Bible study program all over Europe, painting it on church walls, translating its text into their own language, and printing it in block-books. On the page dedicated to the resurrection, Christ is holding a standard of the cross as he rises up out of the tomb, and in an adjacent picture Jonah is grabbing onto a tree on the land as he rises up out of the mouth of the sea monster.

These Christian artists and sculptors presented to the viewers not some large fish or whale, so as to prompt learned and literalist discussion about the size of the animal's stomach and the likelihood of Jonah's surviving his ordeal. Rather, the tradition was to depict a grand mythical sea monster with a long and sinuous dragon tail, thus connecting the story of Jonah more with our imagination of evil than with the water creatures at the local aquarium. Jonah was kept alive and well in Christian imagination as a picture of Christ rising from the grave and of Christians given new life after their baptism.

The images are the wallpaper in the room of the Christian assembly . . .

Many Christian churches have used biblical imagery all along in painted ceilings and walls, leaded glass, icons, and other artworks.

The Gospel writers lifted up images from the Hebrew scriptures to open the minds of those to whom they wrote a new interpretation of already familiar religious terms. Such is the trajectory of insight: on the foundation of what we already know, we are given a slant, a twist, even a radical new shape for seeing.

Sometimes such pictorial imagery is masterful and religiously helpful, but often it is too ill-informed and too tame, so that the picture does little except render the biblical story small.  

. . . Because we humans can construct these mental images, store them, and access them at will, believers steeped in the Bible have in themselves a gallery of pictures of how God acts, who Christ is, and what is the life of the baptized community. For this lifelong project of assembling a picture gallery of salvation, the more biblical readings proclaimed at worship, the better.
I concur with my church body that it is better for the first reading to correspond in some way with the Gospel reading than for it to progress week by week on its own. When the first reading, and during the Christmas and Easter cycles also the second reading, cohere with the Gospel, the varied complementary biblical selections assist preachers and worshipers to probe the depths of the Gospel narrative. And so I urge also those who read consecutively through the Hebrew scriptures to note especially the images in the readings and to concentrate on their importance for Christian meaning.

As readers of this journal are aware, the Old Testament is not “history” as our culture knows it, factual and even certifiable accounts of the past. Christians read the Old Testament not to know what happened in the past, but rather mostly to understand what the New Testament is saying about Christ.
Ramshaw’s essay ranges through numerous specific instances in which knowledge of the linkage between Old Testament and New Testament imagery changes how we read a passage.

Preachers will find fresh impetus for preaching and personal nourishment reading Ramshaw’s thoughts on lectionary and image.

Gail Ramshaw, “Christ in the Sea Monster: Biblical Imagery and the Proclamation of the Gospel,” Liturgy 29, no. 4 (10 July 2014): 38-44.

Gail Ramshaw studies and crafts liturgical language from her home outside Washington DC.

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