In 2006, I was fortunate to spend a month in Minsk, Belarus where I taught at a small Bible college. Very few people spoke English in a nation still sequestered from the global community by political oppression and material scarcity. For that reason, I was pretty isolated during my time without the assistance of a translator. Still, I found some satisfaction in my ability to read aloud and identify the occasional Russian word (i.e. cafe or photo) since the Cyrillic letters of their alphabet corresponded with Greek. By month’s end, a few special relationships had formed including one with Natallia Golos, an English speaker who accompanied me on a couple of outings.
Playing hostess Natallia took me to the National Art Museum and introduced me to a world of enchantment that I had not previously experienced. Before that day, I had little use for art. My preferred canvas was a high definition screen with a defensive end crashing over the tackle. In what I now recognize as a welcome break from media and English speaking people I was given the space to be content in the company of art for the first time. The small collection of European Renaissance art that had survived Hitler’s bludgeoning of this nation, once known as the Eastern front, mesmerized me. Yes, there were other pieces of significance but I was drawn in first by the floor to ceiling canvases of great Biblical stories and characters. These familiar scenes made me feel connected.
Some time later I was introduced to Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son. Nouwen’s sustained reflection on this one piece of art brought me to tears and convinced me of the value of such a medium to communicate the story of God in a profound way. Since, I have become a lover of art; not an expert but a lover. I even hold a membership at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. For me, it is the story of the artist…their tragedies, triumphs, and revelations. Even those odd abstractions on a canvas come to life when one knows the story or attempts to interpret it. What I once thought belonged on construction paper instead of canvas now occupies my attention at a whole new level.
So it is with Resurrection, a painting by renowned African-American artist Alma Thomas. Chosen by the First Lady to stand sentry over the redecorated Old Family Dining Room in the White House, Thomas’ take on a resurrection makes me pause. Why? Maybe you have the same initial reaction as me, “that’s the color wheel I picked up at Lowe’s the other day.” But, I sat with this painting a bit and then searched for the narrative behind it.
Who is Ms. Thomas? Born in the deep South in 1891, Alma Thomas migrated with her family to Washington D.C. in 1907. They trekked North to escape racial prejudice that would not even allow Alma to check out a book in a public library. One biography mentions, “Thomas often recounted the story of her family about to cross the Potomac River: her parents suggested that Thomas and her sisters remove their shoes to knock off every last bit of the Georgia sand so they could begin their new life.”1 There it is Resurrection…removal of dirt, crossing the waters, and new life. This new life afforded Alma an education in art something about which she was passionate. “‘When I entered the art room,’ she told Eleanor Munro, author of Originals: American Women Artists, ‘it was like entering heaven.'” 2
As I continue to gaze at Resurrection and contemplate Alma Thomas’ life, the color wheel becomes something altogether different for me. I see a bright person at the center encapsulated by the dark marks of sin to which I was exposed and also those I willingly invite. I see deep cleansing water mixed with blood and as I cross there is a light that radiates in every direction. Those are my observations. I’m sure there are many with artistic insight that goes far beyond my offering. Still, that’s not the point. Art in general and perhaps more specifically, abstracted art, offers the audience an opportunity to continue the creation with their own story and interpretation of the work.
I wonder if that isn’t the point of Jesus’ remarks to Thomas recorded in the Gospel of John. Jesus says to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” I can relate to Thomas. In fact, that’s my first name. By nature, I’m not much of an abstract thinker. I prefer a flat, two-dimensional world in black and white. Jesus, of course, has stretched me at this point so that I much enjoy the colors and topography of His new creation. Yet, put me under stress and I want to shrink back, raise the alarm, and have a clear understanding before I proceed. I’m that guy – the one who wants clean brush strokes and a concrete image on the canvas.
Alma Thomas’ picture of resurrection is bold. Unlike her namesake, she doesn’t need to see the nail marks. Her abstraction annoys me but only because it invites me to think. Similarly, Jesus’ resurrection annoys. Group think in his day was that the resurrection would mark the end of all things. The idea that this one man would be resurrected as opposed to all of Israel at once was preposterous. Forty days after His triumph over the grave and Jesus’ followers remained vexed. “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). In my humble opinion, Thomas gets a bad rap. He was audacious enough to say aloud what most everyone else was thinking.
By contrast, Alma Thomas gets it. Her abstraction reminds that Jesus’ resurrection was not the end of all things. It is the beginning. Resurrection is not some concrete fact that we announce to the world. It is a canvas on which Jesus invites all of humanity to paint. We, “those who have not seen and yet have believed,” can share the story in new ways as the power of the promised Counselor resides in us and works through us.
Isn’t Jesus the most wonderful abstraction of all? Really? God in the flesh? How on earth? Well, maybe that is why we pray, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
A Blessed Holy Week to All,