The Need to Honor
May 8, 2022
“The Need to Honor”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G Garry
Matthew 16. 5-11
When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!”
It’s called the Pitti Tondo. The Pitti Tondo is a sculpture by Michelangelo. You can see it in Florence at the Bargello Museum or on the internet. I commend Florence.
When I saw it, I was mesmerized. Any sculpture of Michelangelo has this potential; he was a remarkable artist to say the least. And I have seen his David, and dying Gaul, and the unfinished slaves, and the Pieta. But the Pitti Tondo is what stays with me the most.
The statue is like a large medallion and the sculpture is a low relief. It other words, it’s like the image on a coin more than it is a free standing statue. The image of the Pitti Tondo is of Mary and the infant Jesus. Mary is looking out toward the viewer; it is as if we have interrupted her studies as she has an open book on her lap. The infant Jesus is unique in that he appears playful, impish. His elbow is resting on the book his mother is trying to read. He’s being a pest.
When you take in the whole scene you are led to wonder who is bothering Mary more, the audience who has come to see her or this child who is obviously trying to get her attention. So much is happening, so much life and love and truth.
A confession here: I am ever in awe of great sculptors. To unearth the images of beauty from the stone is shocking. But, if the truth be told, it is not the massive, colossal statues that hold the greatest appeal. Bernini’s fountains are wild and massive and impressive, but they don’t hold a candle to the low relief Petti Tondo, the way the image seems to be emerging for a moment; it is as if the Madonna and child could simply withdraw, return to the stone, disappear. So much power, so elegant.
I included on your bulletin cover a piece of art. It’s a drawing of my wife. If you have met Kathy, you can attest the likeness is uncanny. The drawing was on a card from a student. It was a thank you card— thank you for being my teacher, Mrs. Garry. Although unlikely to be displayed in the National Gallery or the Whitney, this is great art.
The greatness is the power to convey honor. There is no line in the drawing without love, without beauty, without freedom. Bring them together and the honor the child sought to convey emerges just like the Petti Tondo.
Modern Art, like Jackson Pollack’s drip paintings are often criticized, as are the painting of Joan Miro: a child could do this. My five year old could make this art. Not only is this critique a terrible misunderstanding of what became of painting in the last century, it is a terrible misunderstanding of what it means for a child to create art.
Art and honor often go together. Honor means to embellish with grace and esteem. Most art has been done in honor of God. It is only in the last two centuries that God has not been the honored subject of art. Yet before our time, God as the subject of art, art honoring God seemed to have no real rival.
Nowhere is this truer than the mother and child paintings, sculptures, icons, and mosaics of Western and Eastern Christian art. I’m not sure of the percentage, but it must be somewhere near half, at least half of all art is Mary and the child Jesus. Mary being told she is pregnant; Mary being greeted by Magi; Mary with the infant Jesus: everywhere. The only other subject that comes close is the crucifixion.
It has taken me a long time to appreciate the Madonna and child art. This didn’t come easily to me. So often the Madonna and child, the Sagrada Familia, just looked like a menagerie of devotion or worse a kind of kitschy attempt at devotion to the Holy Mother, a kind of idolatry.
This is the Protestant view, the critique we put forth, inaugurated in the sixteenth century. We were the ones who tore out all the Mary and child statues, got rid of the paintings and covered over the mosaics and frescoes. Protestants didn’t much care for the devotion to Mary. We didn’t care for the saints either, or the martyrs, at least in terms of praying to them. Yet, in truth, what we really didn’t like or get or appreciate was the way art was to honor, how beauty was the way you honored God.
In the place of art we focused on the book. The Bible was our object of honor; this became our statue our painting our idol. Art and architecture shifted to sermons and study and reading. To find the beauty of the Madonna and child I had to work my way through this rejection, to fight my way through layers of the bible alone. We rejected the beauty of art for the power of the spoken word.
Yet there was another challenge. Not only did it take a long time before I could appreciate, let alone, find freedom in the Madonna and child, but I also had to leave aside the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees, religion with no beauty.
Our daughter Laura just had her second child, a boy, Elias. He just lost all his hair and is now a bald baby. Laura sends us pictures of him smiling. She doesn’t send any pictures of him fussing or crying.
We went down to see them a few weeks ago. Just before we left, I walked little Elias to sleep. Took about an hour. It was interesting to feel the muscles in my back tighten, start to strain, and then ache. It had been a while since I held a child in my arms for hours, paced the floor and gently rocked a baby. I was out of shape. Of course, I voiced the depth of my suffering so to gain acclaim. “Boy, my back hurts.”
Our daughter Laura tends mock me at moments like this, saying things like, oh, let me call a “wambulance”; “you gotta toughen up there old man.” Given her recent experience of childbirth I don’t protest her antagonism. I get it. I am not pacing the floor through the night; I am not losing sleep; I am not a lot of things.
Laura’s chiding is banter. She knows how much I honor what she is experiencing. My complaint was a way of recognizing her. She knows I just want to see her and Elias together, to see the mother and child. For the sight is life giving; it’s beauty. It’s a beauty I can only honor. Part of the beauty is a living image of the gospel, if you give your life away, you gain it. The kingdom of God is when offer ourselves to each other, lose our life as a gift of love.
You would think that such moments, such art, would be holy, honored, revered. I believe that is what the preponderance of Christian art is trying to say. Look at this one giving her life away. Look to the mother and the child. You might believe this is so simple how could we ever forsake this, forget this?
But we do. We can ruin what is sacred with great conviction and all seriousness. Michelangelo turned stone into life; his Pitti Tondo makes the marble breathe. The mother and child are love incarnate. The yeast of the Sadducees and the Pharisees, this does the opposite. This is the temptation to turn life into stone, to remove freedom for subservience, to put joy aside for seriousness. Mostly though it is when we replace grace and beauty with code and law.
In the place of beauty, we honor laws and tradition and laud the abuse of power. Religion, instead of release of the captives, becomes slavery. It is a quest for perfection without beauty, truth, or the good. Honor without love.
The yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees finds no joy in the child’s drawing, the purity of a child’s praise because it has no measure, no determination, no respect for basic principle and aesthetic requirements.
It took me a great many years of work and pilgrimage and devotion to beauty before I could see the power of the yeast of the Sadducees and Pharisees. To see the rejection of the Pitti Tondo as bad theology or opposed to the bible or idolatry. It took time for me to see how religion becomes subservience, the abandonment of honor. The force of Protestant disdain for beauty was so great, it was a hard path to see how fear replaces hope. Mostly, though, what I discovered was how the yeast of the Sadducees and the Pharisees was a misplacement of joy, a forgetting. I had to remember the heart of the gospel is a choice to give your life away as an act of love; the gospel is ever a choice. If you choose to lose your life, you will gain it.
A few years ago, Christmas Eve was on Sunday. So we had services in the morning and the evening. My daughter Zoe, home from seminary, asked if she could preach at the morning service. I said, of course. Yet, in short order I found myself in quite a pickle. Zoe said, “I want to preach on the ‘Me-too Movement.” I told her, “No. Another Sunday, sure. But Christmas Eve? No.” Christmas Eve was not the right time to speak of this.
Needless to say, we argued and argued, and she seemed to concede. But she didn’t really. Sunday morning after reading the story from Luke where Mary and Elizabeth come together, Zoe paraphrased the conversation, she retold it. “Elizabeth said, ‘I am pregnant.’ And Mary said, ‘me too.’” As the sermon progressed the references to “Me-Too”, all well placed, offered a double entendre. A shared moment of joy was also a shared moment of suffering. I got it. And so did everyone else who had not been asleep under a rock for the last five years.
I thought of her sermon this week. I considered doing likewise, weaving into different stories the basic truth of the gospel: if you choose to give your life away, you will gain it. Each reference would embody choice and thus would have been a not so veiled reference to the painfulness of the week— if you have no choice, you lose all beauty and freedom and grace.
In the end I choose honor instead of protest. I am more on the level of a child’s drawing than the skill required for the Pitti Tondo. Today we honor the beauty of mothers who gave their life away, gave themselves so others would be free, we say thank you like the young artist. That is what today is meant to be, to honor the possibility of beauty. That is enough for today.
Tomorrow, we must beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It doesn’t take much for all of this freedom to become slavery, for devotion to become a required subservience. The beauty of art, all joy, can be betrayed, become threat.
So, it is right today as we honor mothers to remember the essence of the gospel, holdfast to the truth: if you choose to lose your life, give your life away in love, you will find it, save it.
Perhaps one day, someday, we will once again see our faith born anew in art. What a joy it would be to find faith and beauty walking together again. In this our honor would last for centuries. For now though honor the mothers in your life for the love they gave away. Remember the love given away for you. And then offer the greatest honor: do likewise. Amen.