Black and white

There’s been a game circulating on social media recently. Each day for seven days, you post a black-and-white photograph. No people, no explanations. Just an image from your life as it is right now. Each day, you also challenge someone else to do the same. It is simple, focused and makes life look beautiful.

Maybe that’s the effect of black-and-white. It’s a little bit retro-nostalgia, a little bit art-house. Even clutter seems to have good lines in photos like these. Or maybe it’s the restrained nature of these faceless images. Either way, they have a quiet stillness.

It’s a nice game in a loud and messy world.

Today, I planned to take a photograph of a wooden carving at our church. I didn’t end up taking the photo because my four-year-old was in a running mood, which made for an active Sunday for us. None of that would have shown up in a people-less photo, which is part of the solution and perhaps part of the problem, too.

Gathered to read

I wanted to photograph the carving because I walk past it every Sunday and I’m drawn to the contrast of its old, dark wood set in a white-washed alcove. Ours is a very old church. There has been a worshipping community meeting on the site since the sixth century and the present building dates from 1120, when Britain was Norman. The carving is a little younger than that – fifteenth century, I believe – and it depicts Mary on her deathbed. The apostles are all gathered round, giving her company and what comfort they can. Some look grief-stricken, others kind and patient. Some bend their heads in prayer. A few hold books and you can imagine them reading to Mary from their own descriptions of Jesus’ ministry. Which is a great image, when you think about it. A mother comforted by those who loved her son and promised to follow him to the end.

The calligraphied note beside the carving doesn’t identify the disciples, so you can cast them as you like. Thomas, praying perhaps. Peter, holding her hand. One of the reading disciples sits at her feet, wearing big glasses something like mine. I like to imagine this is Andrew. The glasses seem a bit comic, but I’ve learned that this artistic representation of Mary’s death was standard in medieval churches, as were the books and glasses. So it is an old anachronism rather than a new one.

St. Andrew’s Feast

I have strong fondness for Andrew, glasses or no, and his feast day is coming up at the end of the month. Maybe I’m showing my Presbyterian roots here, but I’ve always thought he’d be a sympathetic soul. In the Orthodox tradition, he is remembered as the First-Called, and he serves as a patron saint for countries from Scotland to Russia to Cyrus to Columbia. I like Andrew because he tries to make the pieces fit together. In John’s Gospel, Andrew is described first as a disciple of John the Baptist. He is someone looking for answers. Then, after hearing John’s witness, Andrew seeks out his own brother, Simon, and says to him: “We have found the Messiah.” To echo Scottish theologian Marcus Dods, this is “the most comprehensive of all eurekas.” In Jesus, Andrew found the answer he had been seeking.

But clear answers don’t always come to Andrew, and I like him for that, too. When a large crowd gathered by the Sea of Galilee to listen to Jesus’ teaching and the day was growing long, Andrew was quick to see that the pieces didn’t add up. “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they among so many people?” That kind of questioning feels familiar. How are we going to make this work? Problem plus perceived solution don’t always equal a good answer. So Andrew laid the messy logic on the table and then Jesus responded with his own surprisingly abundant way forward.

In our daily lives – planned and unplanned, noisy and still, black-and-white and beautifully greyscale – we are all trying to make pieces fit together. It is good to hear stories of those who have asked questions before us, and in the answers, see how the pieces might fit together.  


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