Friday, February 4, 2011


I spent Tuesday of this week at St. John’s College and Abby; in prayer, meditation, and working on this week’s service. As a side-note, I also sampled a homemade cookie that a cook in the Abby Guesthouse randomly offered me mid-morning. Considering it bad form to turn down such unexpected hospitality, I forwent my typical, “Sorry, I don’t like sweets.” And though I’m probably the wrong person to judge, I’ll admit it was well done and rather tasty. For being a cookie, that is.

Anyway, I’ve been to this wonderful campus before, although the last time I didn’t peek in on the St. John’s Bible. Which, in retrospect, was a missed opportunity. So I rectified the mistake, and perused the display after lunch. That was, I must say, a great idea.

In case you’d forgot, this Bible is the Western World’s first Benedictine commissioned illuminated manuscript in over 500 years. In less complicated language, that means it’s a hand-painted and scripted Bible, including both beautifully wrought text and stunning artistic renderings of Scripture. Before the days of the printing press, these manuscripts were created across the Christian world; typically the painstaking work of teams of monks requiring years of faithful effort. After that invention, however, the Bible became more accessible to everyday Christians, and not simply those with resources to commission such artwork, or who knew Latin. The downside of this comidification of Scripture, though, was the virtual end of this long-nurtured artistic tradition. In this Protestant’s opinion, the tradeoff was worth it. But I do like beautiful Bibles, nevertheless.

And the St. John’s Bible certainly counts as one, amen?! Last year, a group of us attended an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Science Museum, at the end of which was a gallery with original pages from the St. John’s Bible. If you saw that, or have otherwise encountered these images, I’m sure you’ll agree they’re stunning. Not just pretty handwriting of biblical text, but also examples of profound theology produced through art.

I could go on and on about what’s incredible in this Bible, but I’ll limit myself, in this letter, to the illumination of Mark’s story of the feeding of the 5,000. Remember the event? It’s one of the very few moments in Jesus’ ministry that all four gospels record in some form. A bunch of folk were, one day, listening to Jesus say awesome stuff, but as the night drew near, his disciples worried about how they’d all be feed. Logistics, it seems, is a perennial complication of good ministry! So Jesus says, “Whatever, I’ll feed them.” They find him five loaves of bread and two fish. He breaks the bread, gives thanks (Communion, anyone?!), and hands it to those gathered. And in some “Son of God” way, those small morsels feed the entire crowd, such that twelve baskets of food are leftover.

In the St. John’s Bible, that scene gets depicted not literally, but impressionistically. The page is filled with images of communion wafers, little fish that are reproductions of millennia-old cave drawings in Israel (the traditional site of this story), geometric designs derived from the basket-making tradition of certain Native American tribes (i.e. God’s activity occurs beyond the boundaries of our Scripture and tradition), and smatterings of gold leaf pressed in random shapes. Apparently, the gold represents “The Divine in Scripture,” which is what makes a manuscript “illuminated.” But what I loved most was that these images pushed into the page’s margins and beyond, only broken, occasionally, by black lines and white spaces. To the artist, the black lines represent moments when people act inhospitably, or with malice. And the white spaces represent opportunities for compassion and hospitality not taken. The idea is that the multiplication of Jesus’ miraculous feeding continues, in the ongoing acts of love his followers still perform. The only thing stopping it is our unwillingness to imitate Christ’s love, by what we do, or fail to do. Which left me with a question I’m passing onto you- Who have you fed lately?

Illuminated manuscript, indeed! And not a bad way to spend a half hour in prayer.

Grace and Peace,

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