The Symbolism of the Evangelists

the murals

First of all I would like to express my gratitude to the Rev. Rob, vestry, and to the whole of the St. Mark’s community for allowing me to do this project. It’s been a dream of mine for quite a while to do a big project like this.

When I first came here two and a half years ago, I saw the bare panels and immediately thought to myself, “Oh, they need painting!” I suggested to Rev. Rob, whom I knew already from teaching at Queen’s, to paint all six of them, but he suggested only these four, leaving the centre panels bare, and I immediately thought that it must be the four evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

But why did I paint these symbols? Of course, the man, the lion, the ox, and the eagle are the traditional symbols of the evangelists which have appeared in Christian art since the 5th century, and in Christian writing since the 2nd century. They are based in two scriptural texts – a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, and one from the Book of Revelation.

The passage in Ezekiel describes the prophet’s vision of the four “living creatures” drawing a sort of “throne-chariot” of God out of a fiery cloud. In that vision, each of the living creatures has four wings and four faces – the face of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. This image in Greek is referred to as the “tetramorph”, the creature with “four forms” or “four shapes”.

In the Book of Revelation, the four “living creatures” are now seen surrounding the throne of God in heaven. In that vision, they have six wings each, as do the seraphim who surround the throne, and they are covered in eyes front and back, but they have only one face each – one of a man, one a lion, one an ox, and one an eagle. So here, the tetramorph has been divided, but whenever the four appear together, they are still referred to collectively as the tetramorph. In Christian iconography, the image of Christ Pantocrator, Christ Ruler of the World, especially when shown enthroned, is often depicted with the divided tetramorph surrounding him.

But where do these symbols come from? Why did the prophets envision these very odd “living creatures” to begin with? One scholarly explanation that has been given is that the prophet Ezekiel lived in the 6th century among those who had been exiled during the Babylonian Exile. At that time, the mythology of the surrounding Babylonian and Assyrian cultures, with which he would have become familiar, was rife with images of wild creatures associated with various powers of nature – the ox with the earth, the roaring lion with fire, the eagle with the air and the sun (it was believed that eagles, for example, could look directly into the sun without blinking). To that extent, the vision of Ezekiel, far from denying the existence of such nature deities, would rather have suggested that any nature deities there were would be themselves in the service of the mighty God of Israel, pulling his throne-chariot.

It was not until the late 2nd century, however, that the four living creatures were associated with the four evangelists of the gospels. Irenaeus was the first to make this connection, although he associated the lion with John and the eagle with Mark. In fact, since Irenaeus’ time, there have been numerous interpretations of the tetramorph which link the creatures up in all different combinations with the evangelists. The combination which in time developed into the most widely accepted and today standard system was first proposed in the 4th century by Victorinus, and later supported by the highly influential figure Jerome. After that, towering figures such as Ambrose, Gregory the Great, and Thomas Aquinas supported this same standard combination. Although Augustine curiously interchanged the symbols for Mark and Matthew, and there have even been alternate combinations proposed, though always with these four symbols, right into the mid-20th century.

In any case, what you see here is the most widely-accepted combination in the tradition. Christian art beginning in the 5th century started to depict the evangelists, at first merely accompanied by each their own associated living creature (with the creature shown instructing and divinely inspiring the evangelist in his activity of writing his gospel), and then later as merged with, wholly symbolized by his associated creature. But what do these symbols mean? What has the traditional interpretation of the tetramorph-evangelist connection been?

In fact, over the centuries, even those who accepted this standard combination of the connection have given a wide variety of explanations for it. The most enduring ones have related to six basic considerations: 1) how each gospel begins; 2) Christ’s main quality as emphasized in each gospel; 3) the key qualities of the creature associated with each gospel; 4)the natural element associated with each creature; 5) the virtues necessary for salvation which are displayed by Christ in each gospel; and 6) the specific Christian doctrine as suggested in each gospel by all these other factors.

panels talk

Now obviously I couldn’t incorporate all of this symbolism into the murals when I painted them. But I did get some reference to the natural elements into them, in the attempt to evoke some of the natural scenery of the Newfoundland landscape (coast, mountainous west coast, rolling fields, the sun). Reverend Rob said, for example, that the eagle reminds him of the Torngat Mountains. I was telling this to Cheryl Faseruk, and she said that if I really wanted it to be about Newfoundland, then I should have portrayed the eagle as a seagull, the ox as a moose, the lion as a big Newfoundland dog, and the man as a mummer. Now I wouldn’t so much necessarily think of mummering as the ideal of human perfection. But when you think about it, mummers are disguised, and people must guess their true identities. Well, in the same sort of way, our true identities as perfect, loving, welcoming, creative, immortal children of God lie still deep within us, and these outer identities are only symbols and must, as well as they can, be transformed, and help us make our way through to our true perfection within.

So I finish again with gratitude to St. Mark’s for being a church and a family which so dearly values the creative contributions made by its members, and which supports all of us in, little by little, discovering and revealing to one another always a little bit more of our own true, creative identities. May we always carve out, with God’s help, that welcoming space within our hearts to make room for what others have to offer of themselves to us. For sometimes the greatest gift that you can give to another person is an empty space within yourself to receive that which the other has to give of him- or herself to you.

Amen.

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Creation Care in a Throwaway Culture

seven rs

“The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth…once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.”

– Pope Francis, Laudato Si

These rather harsh words from Laudato Si come to mind every time I go for a walk in my neighbourhood. Actually, wherever I’ve travelled in this province I’ve always been taken aback by the incredible amount of litter I see. Much of it is a result of inadequately-secured trashcans and dumpsters or uncovered garbage bags. Much of it has simply been tossed by individuals with no moral qualms about treating our land as a trash heap. Regardless of its source, litter is more than a thoughtless desecration of the earth entrusted to our care. It is an outward and visible sign of a deeper brokenness that afflicts much of the human family – our unwillingness to accept full and personal responsibility for the waste we create. This brokenness goes much deeper than failing to ensure the waste we create winds up in our municipal landfill and not in our soil, forests and waterways. Indeed, addressing it requires an intentional decision to create the smallest amount of waste possible and finding tangible ways to live out that decision.

We have become much more intentional about recycling as a means of reducing the waste we create. While this is a step in the right direction, it should be seen as a least-worst option. First of all, just because something is “recyclable” doesn’t mean it will be accepted by municipal recycling programs. Often, there is no viable market for a particular “recyclable”; consequently, such items wind up in the landfill. There are also times when recycling is actually down-cycling. This is especially true of plastics. While glass, steel and aluminum can be recycled repeatedly, plastics can only be recycled a few times, and even then as a lower-value product. That plastic water bottle you recycled does not become a new water bottle. So, there are times when recycling simply delays waste entering the waste stream.

A better way to reduce waste is to reuse items, finding new uses for items that no longer serve their original purpose and repairing items that can still serve their original purpose. We can also re-gift items we no longer need by giving them to someone else who can use them (Home Again Furniture Bank comes to mind). As long as there is a use for something it shouldn’t wind up in the waste stream. However, much of what we consume today is disposable, difficult to use in another way, and cost-prohibitive to repair (intentionally so, to get us to consume more). Taking creation care seriously demands that we become thoughtful – indeed, reluctant – consumers.

When it comes down to it, the most effective way to care for creation is to reduce the waste we create in the first place. If we refuse to buy, accept or otherwise consume something we really don’t need, that something will not enter the waste stream. If we gave as much consideration to the impact a purchase will have on our planet as to the impact it will have on our wallet, a lot less would enter our waste stream. “Reduce” is the first of the three R’s for good reason.

Quite frankly, our planet cannot sustain the debauchery of unbridled consumerism that plagues our society. In this province we produce more than sixteen hundred pounds of waste per person annually. If there ever was a time to accept full and personal responsibility for the waste we create, it is now. This requires that we walk a path of counter-cultural intentionality. So, too, does our baptismal covenant.

Father Mark Nichols is the Associate Priest of St. Mark’s.

Originally published in the January 2019 issue of Anglican Life.

How the Light Gets In: A Sermon for The Feast of Epiphany

epiphany fireworks

It’s a safe bet that you spent New Year’s Eve staring up into the night sky, mouth gaping open, oohing and aweing over some type of fireworks display. Maybe it was in a friend’s backyard or at a municipal display like we do here at Quidi Vidi Lake. Perhaps you looked at fireworks on television in the comfort of your own home. One of my favourite memories of growing up in rural Newfoundland, where there was nary a firework to be seen, was sitting and watching fireworks on NTV waiting for the name of my hometown to scroll across the bottom of the screen. When it did I was filled with a sense of jubilation equal to the jubilation felt at the stroke of midnight that launches the New Year.

When I had kids of my own it became our tradition to pile into the car on New Year’s Eve and head down to park on the side of the road on Signal Hill overlooking the lake where the city’s fireworks would be set off. This vantage point gave us a panoramic view not only of the fireworks but the entire city. One year there must have been some kind of malfunction in the pyrotechnics because only one firework illuminated the sky that night at midnight. But as we sat there waiting for the show to continue our attention turned to the city laid out before us. The whole city, actually as far as the eye could see, from town out to Mount Pearl, and towards the Northeast in Torbay and beyond, had erupted in fireworks. We sat there in silence just watching. It was a truly beautiful sight.

But why do we do this? Why fireworks on New Year’s Eve? Our ancestors have been using noise and light to welcome the New Year for millennia. The beating of drums, firing of canons and guns, the ringing of bells, the lighting of candles and fires were all meant to chase away evil spirits and give rise to a prosperous and healthy beginning to the New Year. Around 2000 years ago the Chinese invented fireworks and used them as part of New Year’s celebrations to do just that, to scare away evil spirits and to dispel the darkness. The tradition quickly spread to the West from the wise people of the Far East.

Actually, light overcoming darkness is one of the primal stories of the human experience. It’s no accident, then, that this light shining in the darkness gets adopted by the early church. It was already there in the Judaism and Paganism of the day. What we now celebrate as Christmas came to be some 300 years after the death of Christ and took the place of Pagan winter solstice celebrations. Celebrations of the dispelling of darkness at the rebirth of the sun at the solstice now became worship of the Son and the dispelling of the darkness that engulfs our hearts and the world.

Our gospel reading today has a lot to do with that tradition. It is the reading associated with the Feast of Epiphany, the showing or shining forth, of Jesus to the Gentiles. In this story we are told how the Magi, the scholars, priests and scientists of their day, came from their home in modern day Iraq or Iran to worship the newborn Jesus. They were led by a star, or a comet, or some other celestial phenomenon. These foreign stargazers were overcome with joy when they found the birthplace of Jesus and offered their now famous gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. Except for the gold these are not the most practical gifts for a newborn baby. The scene is the stuff of Christmas cards and songs, the stuff of classic art and the stuff of children’s pageants the world over.

But the details of the story are scant. Why come all this way for Jesus? What is about him that had drawn them here to this nowhere town to the birth of just another peasant baby? Why worship him? The text doesn’t really say why, but the visit of the Magi to Jesus does fit with the bigger themes of Matthew and the New Testament. Jesus is the light coming into the darkness of this world. The Magi, the Gentile Magi, are drawn to this light, just as the Hebrew Scriptures said that the Gentile nations would be drawn to the true messiah. Jesus is the light of the world, beyond religious, national and cultural borders. And as much as the darkness tries to extinguish this light, the light still shines.

In common, everyday language what we are talking about here is hope. Hope that things will be better. That this unlikely baby king messiah, born to parents of low station, could be the kind of king that could make the world right, could make us right, make us better. It is a hope that what they are witnessing is a turning point for the human family. That maybe, just maybe, we will get our act together and be the kind of people that countless prophets and sages through the ages have told us we could be. Hope that we will be able to overcome the darkness of fear that gives rise to the divisions that separate us from each other in hatred, violence and oppression. All of this in a baby born in light, the pure possibility of new life, of new hope.

Which takes me back to our fireworks. That night on the side of Signal Hill and again this New Year’s Eve while looking out my living room window across Airport Heights toward Signal Hill, I was struck by the sight of a city erupting in fiery celebration. I couldn’t help but think of the people setting off those fireworks and those looking on. What was going through their minds? People who are struggling to make ends meet. People whose prospects look bleak. People whose relationships are falling apart. People for whom the darkness is not just the absence of sunlight but the lack of any hope. I imagine that their thoughts were not that different than that of their ancient ancestors. That the fireworks were an offering of sound and light, not to ward off evil spirits, but as a spark of hope that maybe this year will be better, that they will be better.

But we know that it will take more than some bright fireworks to make things better, to do anything to improve the human condition. We need a brighter light, something or someone to illuminate the way. In the Christian tradition that’s just what Jesus is: the light of the world. Just as Jesus was the spark of hope for the Magi, the early Christians and countless number of people who have followed him ever since, so he is for our world today. The light that Jesus shines into the world is the light of humility, forgiveness, and selfless, sacrificial love. We trust that his way is the right way and strive to live it out. That’s called faith.

Today on the Feast of the Epiphany we celebrate baptism, as do Christians around the world. We welcome Amy Susan to the Christian family. We acknowledge her identity as Christ’s own, forever. We give her the light of Christ that will guide, nourish and sustain her growth into the full stature of Jesus. In doing so we acknowledge that the light of Christ only really comes into the world through us. It comes as we lovingly and gently pass on the light that was lovingly and gently passed to us. It comes through people, faith communities that strive to care for each and the world, who work for justice and peace, who love their neighbours as themselves. So may we do this for Amy Susan and for the whole world. May we be a sign of hope, a beacon of light, in a dark and scary world. And may we do this together.

In the name of God who is creator, redeemer and sustainer of all life. Amen.

Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s in St. John’s, NL.