I recall my youthful bemusement when persuaded to view abstract works of art on school trips to the Tate Gallery. “Anyone could do that” is perhaps the most common response, but they don’t! “What is it meant to be?” is the next response, assuming that all art should represent something recognisable.
That all ended when I was taught to simply ‘see it as it is’. It is not trying to be something other than a painting – colour, shape, form. Yes, I interpret what I see because it arouses feelings (excitement, boredom, indifference) and associations from my personal experience, but it is the work of the artist and not of my imagination or memory.
I wonder if God is perhaps a little like an abstract painting. He is who he is. He is not meant to be anything else and while we attempt to define him in terms of our human experience we will always fall short.
In the same way, we get closest if we attend to our feelings and not our knowledge. Above all, God is love and while we might see and experience this in action it is in those relationships where we feel and experience love that we find God.
What then of Jesus, the man who shared our experience in order that God be made real within it? Certainly, he was not abstract but we do find it hard to ‘get a handle’ on him. He was a first century Jew and for that reason many find it hard to discover his relevance for the 21st century in western culture. Artistically many have placed Jesus in their own time. Many of the greatest painters have represented gospel stories set in the time in which they lived, but this misses the point in many ways. Jesus is not the white anglo-saxon with blonde hair of the old Sunday school painting, but neither is he the dark-skinned dark-haired man of more recent films. He is love. He is forgiveness. He is life lived in relationship with God and neighbour. He is who he is.
The photograph is chosen with a hymn by John Mason in mind - “Thou art a sea without a shore”
1 How shall I sing that majesty
which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
thy throne, O God most high;
ten thousand times ten thousand sound
thy praise; but who am I?
2 Thy brightness unto them appears,
whilst I thy footsteps trace;
a sound of God comes to my ears,
but they behold thy face.
They sing, because thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
for where heaven is but once begun
there alleluias be.
3 Enlighten with faith's light my heart,
inflame it with love's fire;
then shall I sing and bear a part
with that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
with all my fire and light;
yet when thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.
4 How great a being, Lord, is thine,
which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
to sound so vast a deep.
Thou art a sea without a shore,
a sun without a sphere;
thy time is now and evermore,
thy place is everywhere.