Global Ministries Dinner hears from Rita Nakashima Brock




Rita Nakashima Brock signs books at Brethren Press bookstore
Photo by Wendy McFadden
Rita Nakashima Brock, the speaker for the Global Ministries Dinner, earlier in the Conference signed copies of her books at Brethren Press bookstore in the exhibit hall. Shown here, she chats with a reader.

By Frank Ramirez

"It took Jesus a thousand years to die." Rita Nakashima Brock, director of Faith Voices for the Common Good, began her presentation with this startling statement.

What she meant, she said, is "there is an absence of his image hanging on the cross dead until the year 960." Brock said that thanks to her study of early Christian art, "We began to see an entirely different message of Christian faith."

Speaking at the Global Ministries Dinner on July 5, during the 2011 Annual Conference, she admitted it might seem a little odd for her as a Protestant theologian to obsess over art, but she reminded her listeners that until the invention of the printing press around 500 years ago most Christians did not possess a Bible. Most could not read, but images and rituals of the church including readings, songs, and processionals told the story of faith. Even more important was the art that graced all churches.

"Our memory is largely visual and spatial anyway," she said. "People walking through the church would see an image of the faith in the church."

The idea of the atonement was not present in the art and theology of the early church, Brock said. She illustrated her talk with artwork from the churches. The first piece, from the Cathedral for the Bishop of Rome, a basilica given by Constantine to the Bishop of Rome, showed the elements typical of the art. There is an image of Jesus as the ruler over all, sometimes called the "pantokrator." Jesus is found in the dark blue field that stands as the dome of the heavens.

"It’s a bit mysterious. The waters cover the earth, as you know from the story of Creation. Above the dome of the heavens was the realm of God. Exodus makes a reference to it as being the color of sapphire." She pointed to some winged images and added, "There are the Seraphim, heavenly beings. Jesus is the incarnation that connects heaven and earth."

She pointed to "a little right hand of God. That’s all you see of God in ancient Christian art, the right hand of blessing. And you have the Holy Spirit dove, spewing water from its beak. The water flows behind a golden cross."

One sees deer drinking from the water, representing the human thirsting for the waters of God. Another consistent feature of this ancient art is the four rivers that flow from the stream, the four biblical rivers from Genesis 2 that flowed into all the world.

"The theology here is that the church believed when Jesus was baptized and the Holy Spirit came down on him after he was dunked in the Jordan, he emerged in a robe of glory. All waters were the blessings of heaven, from the paradise garden. Baptism was salvation into paradise in this world."

Brock quoted from early church fathers to demonstrate that the meaning of this art was that the church was planted to be paradise in this world. "Here is an image of salvation that is not delayed, but delivered the instant one emerges from the waters."

Other slides followed in which these basic elements appeared again and again. An additional image, that of the Transfiguration, signified, "When you receive the Holy Spirit you receive Spirit-filled eyes."

There was also symbolism attached to the Eucharist, because "after you were baptized you went to your first Eucharistic feast, hosted by Jesus. Jesus is the host of the meal. He is clearly depicted in non-imperial ways."

Brock referred to the gospel story in the fourth chapter of Luke, where Jesus opens the scroll to Isaiah 61. "Jesus told them the job of the church was to do the work the prophets talked about. Feed the hungry, heal the sick, liberate the captives, stand up to the principalities and powers of the world. Jesus’ ministry incarnated what God wanted us all to do."

The atonement is not a part of this church art, nor is Jesus seen hanging dead upon the cross. The church was meant to be the living embodiment of the Christ.

International and ecumenical guests along with Global Ministry Partnerships staff were introduced at the meal. The dinner closed with a musical presentation from the 2011 Youth Peace Travel Team that includes Mark Dowdy, Tyler Goss, Kay Guyer, and Sarah Neher.

Coverage of the 2011 Annual Conference is by the News Team of Jan Fischer-Bachman, Mandy Garcia, Karen Garrett, Amy Heckert, Regina Holmes, Frank Ramirez, Glenn Riegel, Frances Townsend, and editor and news director Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford. Wendy McFadden serves as executive director of Brethren Press. Contact cobnews@brethren.org

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