Advent sermon with Isaiah

Advent Burning, 2020

But now thus says the LORD, / he who created you, O Jacob, / he who formed you, O Israel:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; / I have called you by name, you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; / and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

When you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, / and the flame shall not consume you.

For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour. / I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.

Because you are precious in my sight, / and honoured, and I love you, / I give people in return for you, / nations in exchange for your life.

Do not fear, for I am with you; / I will bring your offspring from the east, / and from the west I will gather you;

I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’, / and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; / bring my sons from far away / and my daughters from the end of the earth –

Everyone who is called by my name, / whom I created for my glory, / whom I formed and made.’

Isaiah 43:1-7

Revd Adam Beaumont, online sermon for the Gauzebrook Group, December 2020:

Isaiah was speaking some two and half thousand years ago to a people in their own kind of wilderness. The kingdom of Israel was in decline at the hands of the Assyrian Empire, and the Kingdom of Judah, as Isaiah had already prophesied, was captive in the hands of the Babylonians. God’s people were in a place of trauma, dispossessed of their land, their freedoms had been removed. All that was familiar felt distant, impossible to reach. No doubt God felt distant too, how could he let this be? What had they done to deserve it?

The past nine months have brought their own wilderness haven’t they? Yes stuck at home rather than removed from it, but certainly our freedoms are curtailed, our friends and family are beyond arm’s length. The papers report people feeling trapped and lonely, domestic abuse on the rise, agency taken away from us… this is indeed a strange land, a wilderness, a captivity, a place where hugs don’t exist and where Zoom exhausts us, a place where it is hard to find God because we are so used to meeting him in the intimacy of relationship – in fellowship rather than distance.

How does God respond? God responds through Isaiah with a chiasmus, a literary device in which the words are laid out in order, they get to a point and then are repeated again in reverse order. Why? To make a point, and not just to make it but to emphasise it, to point it out, to shout it out, to slap you round the face with it – ‘this is the thing I want you to know’, and the words leading up to it and repeated afterwards tell you why it’s true:

First, says God ‘I created you’ – not manufactured you like some kind of product, but crafted you with care into the shape you are, the thumbprint of the maker indelibly present on his work of art.

Second, ‘I set you free’ – I called you by name out of your captivity. I did this for your ancestors and I do this for you.

Third, ‘I’m with you’ – it may feel like I’m far away but it’s not true, I don’t keep a comfortable distance, I’m with you in every strange land, in deep rivers and consuming fires, and empty churches, and care homes you can’t visit, and the deep loneliness… I’m there I’m with you.

And fourth, I gave everything up for you – not only Egypt and other places in the past, do you remember? But I’m willing to give up so much more for you too, my son, my everything, for you.

And then it comes to us… after all the layers, after the rehearsing and remembering of the history of God’s people, after bringing to mind our experience of God over the millennia, we get to the point, the pinnacle the heart, the depth, the breadth of it all. All of this, all of this, is because… ||:  You are precious to me, you are honoured, and I love you :|| This is no glib ‘Jesus loves you, this I know, because the Bible tells me so’. No, this is the penultimate-scene-of-the-movie stuff, this is the hero and heroine in tears in each other’s arms after they’ve been through so much together, so much trauma, so much trying to encourage each other along. They’re not home yet, but in the tears, in the sheer depth and intimacy of the love they experience they just know that it’s going to be OK. These are words for a people in captive exile, words for a people in a wilderness of their own: commit them to memory, meditate upon them.

I created you, I freed you, I’m with you, I gave up everything for you, because you are precious, and honoured, and I love you.

Landing in Lacock

Lacock Abbey 2003 and 2015
Lacock Abbey 2003 and 2015

As I write my 100th blog post, it seems a fitting time to pause for reflection on my directions past, present and future. This summer I moved with my husband and two children to the village of Lacock, Wiltshire. I leave behind 20 years of living in Bristol, of which nearly 15 have been spent with part-time artistic practice. In the great migrations of my life, this is the third, and feels far more a move towards settlement and consolidation, since the first period (in Africa) was largely shaped by the missionary appointments of my parents, and the second period included my university placements in Canterbury and Nottingham. In biblical terms, I’ve moved from ancestral home to slavery at the hands of empire to… is it the promised land?

In the spring of 2003, I visited Lacock Abbey with Adam, 2 years before we married and a few months before I decided on further masters study in Visual Culture at Nottingham. I like this earlier photograph, I stand on the cusp of something, my hopes of intellectual stance forming a kind of waiting. I am resolutely facing east, with the famous abbey behind me and its primordial window. At the time, I was certainly aware of Talbot’s photographic legacy in this place but could have had no sense of its spiritual and geographical centering that has now come home to me. It does feel like a ‘coming home’ to something. As if the efforts of horizontal achievement in exhibitions, competitions, residencies has somehow to stop, and stay still, and be grounded for some serious vertical development. I am asking questions about what this entails, about my position here, and my husband’s related call to Christian ministry in this place.

Among other things, the promised land demanded reliance and trust in God’s provision of rain and pasture for the Israelites’ settlement. Yes it was to flow with milk and honey, and was deeply rich in goodness, but it was no site for empire-building projects, self-irrigation, impregnable city fortifications and monarchical authoritarianism. Israel remained small either side of Egyptian and Assyrian/Babylonian might, and her constitution ensured a community-wide model of dependence. Isaiah calls Israel God’s ‘heritage’ (19:25) – and the concept is deeply woven with the history of God’s tending and care of his vine/bride. Egypt and Assyria are called God’s people and the work of his hands respectively. There’s a backward and a forward glance in these terms, looking west and east, which at the very least suggests Israel’s orientation is locked into both vertical and horizontal dimensions.

What do I mean in the here and now? Something like going-to-ground, being geographically single and observing photography’s roots here and in me. My blogging will be less frequent, and my practice is working out the theme of Sabbath rest, as am I.

Photographing Jesus

The Turin Shroud
The Turin Shroud

For the forthcoming Images, Icons and Idols conference at the University of Manchester, I hope to present a paper with the title and abstract below. Forming part of my doctoral research, this paper will contribute to a chapter on the iconic characteristics of the photograph, particularly as they relate to the interpretation of biblical texts:

Photographing Jesus: Truth, Typology and the Turin Shroud

The first photographs depicting Jesus in the nineteenth century were typically defined by fine art conventions relating to symbolism, dress, age and pose (Gabriel Harrison, Léon Bovier, Fred Holland Day among others). A relatively young medium, the interpretation of photography’s realism, to our modern eyes, is not convincingly suited to ideal representations of a religious or mythological nature. However, in the person of Jesus Christ, the combined aspects of an historical flesh-and-blood figure and an iconic, divine being receive a unique hermeneutical treatment in the form of photography. Taking the specific example of the Turin Shroud when it was first photographed in 1898, this paper will present the photographic aspects of its representation of the crucified body, and examine the visual interpretation by which these have become evidentially and ontologically ascribed to Christ. The extent of the denoted and the connoted photographic image (Roland Barthes) on the Shroud will be discussed with reference to, respectively, the physical record of truth (as it correlates to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death) and the notion of the icon as a form of typology in reverse. With regard to the latter, the perceived presence of the real object of veneration is, I suggest, less the subject of discourses relating to material idolatry and instead a visual correspondence after-the-event to the textual pre-figurations of Isaiah 52-53.