Even if, depressingly, 21 years have passed already since the year 2000, many of us, I am sure, still keep a vivid memory of the celebrated exhibition Seeing Salvation at the National Gallery which was visited by a record number of 5000 people every day for several months – the highest number ever recorded in the UK and the 4th in the world for any exhibition ever. I remember being totally bewitched by it and going back to see it 3 times. I knew most of the works already, but what made the experience unique was seeing them side by side and the insightful thematic distribution in the seven rooms of the exhibition: Sign & Symbol; The Dual Nature; The True Likeness; Passion & Compassion; Praying the Passion; The Saving Body; The Abiding Presence.
I was not sure the concept of the exhibition made complete sense to me from a strictly theological viewpoint – at the time when I was working at my doctorate and going through a rather cerebral phase of my approach to theology. What bothered me most was the title of the exhibition, Seeing Salvation.
What one saw was improbable depictions of scenes from the Gospels, portraits of Jesus that certainly bore no resemblance at all to the historical figure (whose real features nobody knows but certainly are not those of a white Western male), and then symbols like a lamb or a fish, for example.
What one saw was the way artists throughout history had appropriated characters and episodes from Scripture in highly subjective ways, arguably because religious topics were conventionally the only ones that could be represented in visual arts (or the only one commissioned by people who could pay for them) – so that often they were just as occasion for the artist to express perfectly secular conceptions of the world, of humanity, and of society. This is entirely legitimate of course – my point was that the fact that the topic of a painting is a religious scene does not mean that it is necessarily meant to make salvation visible.
Thinking about it over the years, however, I realized that in many ways we could say the same things with relation to Scripture and to the Gospels. They are not reports but literary, that is artistic, imaginative texts. They relate just a small number of anecdotes of Jesus’ life, actions and teaching – selected in a highly subjective way and exposed in different versions that reflect the intentions, character and personality of their authors – Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. The Gospels are not meant to tell just the facts and do contain many fictional or, rather, symbolic elements - just as paintings do not pretend to reproduce the exact or presumed traits of Jesus, but only the way in which the artists imagine them to have been.
In a way, therefore, with both religious art and Gospels we face the same question: in which way do they allow us to see salvation?
I suppose that the answer to this question depends on our take on fiction and imagination. We tend to oppose them to truth and reality or facts. This is where our modern mindset is not helpful. We associate truth only to that which can be assessed according to measurable standards and verified empirically. And yet, is not the reason we prefer some novelists to others precisely the extent to which they resonate with something real our lives? Characters and plots might be the result of imagination (this is why the genre is called fiction), but they describe the tragic, sublime or comical aspects of human life not only accurately but often is such a perceptive manner that they deepen our understanding of ourselves and of existence much more than facts or chronicles can ever do.
In this sense, I think, they allow us to see salvation –in the exact way in which Simeon saw it in the episode described in today’s gospel. He takes the child Jesus in his arms and proclaims: Now I can die in peace because “my eyes have seen salvation” (Lk 2.xx).
What he saw was a totally ordinary couple which had come to the temple to perform a rite which was routine in the Jewish society of the time. That same day there must have been dozen of other couples doing exactly the same thing. What he held in his arms was a child like any other whose life was going to remain completely unremarkable for the following three decades or so. How, therefore, did he see salvation in this child and in this couple?
I suppose there are two ways in which we can respond to this question. One is to look for the supernatural, the miraculous, the unexpected – the other is precisely through the ordinary, unremarkable, inconspicuous aspect of this event.
If we want to be reassured by the supernatural, this passage tells us that the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon; that the same Holy Spirit had told him that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah”; and finally that he came into the temple that day because he had been guided by the Spirit (Lk 2.xx). We tend to take these details for granted. We think that their meaning is self-evident – when in fact we do not really know what they mean.
Biblical commentators who follow what is called a historic-critical method of interpretation tend to see these details as literary fictions, just as with miracles, or characters like demons or angels. They have a symbolic meaning of which the authors and the listeners or the time were totally aware.
Other more confessionally oriented commentators and more generally Christians who identify as “charismatic”, on the contrary, would see these details as facts which not only happened then just as they are related but keep happening even today – even now the Holy Spirit tells us things, touches us, makes us feel things physically and emotionally. Many of us will have seen a disturbing video circulating on the web in which two street evangelizers in London talk to two underage boys in the middle of the street, then pray for the Holy Spirit to make itself felt by one of them, touch him repeatedly of the shoulder and the chest – and when the boy says that his legs are shaking, they say to him that this is the sign through which the Holy Spirit is demonstrating to him that what they are telling him is true.
In other words, there are two ways of understanding what “seeing salvation” might mean: some would argue that we are given a special revelation on the spot that makes us see what we would not have perceived otherwise. Others, on the contrary, will say that mentions of the Holy Spirit saying, or directing people are narrative shortcuts, so to speak, meant to express perfectly ordinary activities – in the case of Simeon, for example, a long process of discernment based on prayerful reading of Scripture.
The New Testament, and especially Luke, portrays characters like Simeon, Anne, Joseph, or Mary, as examples and models of a well-known Old Testament category of people called anawim, which means “those who are bowed down”: the vulnerable, the marginalized, the socio-economically oppressed, those disempowered by illness of, in the case of Simeon and Ann, by old age and widowhood. The key aspect about these characters is that they relied not on themselves but on God and, as the Psalm 1 says, they “meditated Scripture night and day, and found delight in it”.
Simeon knew all the prophecies that announced the coming of the Messiah, that is the person who would act and speak decisively in God’s name and rescue the people of Israel once for all. He knew especially the page from Malachi which says that he would storm in the Temple “suddenly” and in such a way that nobody could “endure the day of his coming” because he would be “like the refiner’s fire” – something impressive, dramatic, disruptive and frightening. Being an anawim however, Simeon somehow knew better. He had meditated Scripture enough to know that despite these dramatic depictions, God’s favourite way of intervening in history was more like the way in which he had manifested himself to Elijah, that is as the murmur of a gentle breeze (1 Kings 19.12f.).
We are told that he held the child in his arms. He knew well how dependent on God his life was and here he saw God totally dependent on him, and on his parents, for food, nurture, protection, education. He saw God as a child who, like all of us, would not have been able to constitute his identity, acquire the ability to feel, speak, walk, develop emotionally, humanly and intellectually had he not benefited from the loving and caring touch of a mother and the reassuring and enveloping embrace of a father. In this he saw not just any salvation, but the salvation of the Lord he had patiently learnt to recognize in all the aspects of his life.
Undoubtedly, he must have been inspired in a special way to see God in this child – but that in which he saw salvation was not something out of the ordinary – but precisely the extent to which God is prepared to fully embrace the ordinary and in this ordinary bring his novelty, his change, his meaning.
This leaves us with the question of whether and how, in our time and in our lives, we too see salvation, that is God at work. Even those who have a tendency to see miracles and the supernatural everywhere are not spared situations and times in which God seems absent or far or very slow to act. Whether or not we prize the extraordinary, at the very least we can say that more often than not our faith challenges us to look for the signs of God’s salvation in our daily life, through a discernment based on the patient meditation of Scripture.
Most of the time we recognize God’s action only retrospectively, with the benefit of hindsight, once we have enough distance from events, and the emotions that they caused, and can revisit them calmly.
Sure, we might be told that by doing so we project meaning on episodes which in fact are fortuitous – that seeing salvation at work in our life is more akin to fiction or to the ways in which painters use their imagination to portray scenes from Scripture.
We do not have to be troubled by this criticism however - as we saw, fiction and imagination have their own ways of being truthful, do impact our perception of reality, do change our lives. This, in the end, might explain the extraordinary fascination of the exhibition I mentioned at the beginning – nothing more that literature (and Scripture is literature), figurative art and music help us to see salvation – precisely because they teach us, better they authorizeus to be imaginative, resourceful, creative in the way we see and interpret to world.