Thomas Merton said that “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” I’ve found that statement to be true, especially in worship. For me, good art brings me to a place of deeper recognition, whether it be through beautiful music, or through a painting, or poetry, and so on. Walter Wangerin Jr. wrote in his fabulous essay “An Ethic For Aesthetics” that art is not so much a thing as it is an event. He used the illustrations of someone viewing a painting or opening a book, stating that the experience that happens when the painting is viewed or the book is read is the art, not the painting or the book. Those are just mediums for art.
I feel strongly that art has a place in our worship, in that the event that happens through art can bring us into a place of worship. For Holy Week, I’ve selected a number of paintings on the life of Jesus to highlight, in hopes that they might serve to spark a new awareness of the way we think of the life of Jesus.
The first painting I’ve chosen is one by a favorite painter of mine, Henry Ossawa Tanner. It’s called “Miraculous Haul of Fishes,” and it focuses on one of my favorite moments in Scripture. I love it because it’s actually recorded as having happened on two separate occasions.
On the first occasion, mentioned in Luke chapter 5, Jesus tells Peter to put out into the deep and cast his nets down for a catch. Peter responds that they’ve fished all night and caught nothing, but he does what Jesus asks. When he goes to pull up the nets, he finds that they are so full that the nets are breaking.
After this, Peter falls down at Jesus’ feet and cries out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man Lord.”
This event happens near the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but the next time it happens, Jesus has already risen from the dead. It’s recorded in John chapter 21. The catching of the fish is nearly identical, as is the dramatic fashion of Peter’s response. Upon realizing that it is Jesus, he jumps out of the boat and swims over to the shore where Jesus is.
A while back, I was eating with two friends of mine at a meal that was being served after a funeral. One of the friends is my age, but the other is quite a bit older. At one point during the meal, the older friend said, “You know, I’ve always thought it was good to have a meal after a funeral, no matter what time of day it is.” I couldn’t help but agree with him. There is something remarkable that happens when people share a meal together. There is healing to be found in it.
When he made that comment, I couldn’t help but think of what takes place after the miraculous catch recorded in John 21. The disciples come to the shore and have breakfast with Jesus.
Let me say that again. Jesus, who just rose from the dead, conquering sin once and for all to provide a way of salvation for all mankind, sits and eats breakfast with his disciples.
For many these days, sitting down for a meal with others is very routine. In such a fast-paced world, stopping for a meal is not only an inconvenience—it’s inefficient. Why sit down for breakfast when you can eat on the go? Why brew your own coffee when you can pick some up on the way? These days, sharing a meal hardly seems like a sacred thing. And yet, Scripture gives a great amount of attention to the power of sharing a meal. Think of how Sarah hurried to bake bread for the three visitors who came to speak with her and Abraham about the son that they would bear. Think of the meal that Jacob gave to Esau in exchange for Esau’s birthright. Think of the meal that Joseph shared with his brothers just before he revealed his true identity to them.
Think also of the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples, an ordinary Passover meal that became something much greater. And look forward to the future meal that is mentioned in Revelation, The Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
Every time we share a meal, we take part in something that Christ himself took part in. Each meal is an opportunity to not only give thanks, but to look ahead at the Great Meal that is yet to come. If, at the end of this week, you take part in an Easter feast, let it not be merely another meal to partake in, but rather, let it be an act of worship—an act of preparation for the Great Feast that is yet to come.