Living in Community

This month, as we feel the tensional pull of the reflection of Holy Week and the more joyful celebrations of Easter Sunday, I am particularly drawn to this painting by Rogier van der Weyden called “The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece.”  I have asked several friends of mine, who just happen to be women pastors, to comment on this painting using the following as their guide:

 Community—Seasons—Sacrament— Sacrifice — Cross— Christ

 I asked: “Like the sounding of a complex chord in music, which one of these words do you feel you are hearing the loudest  as you view this painting?”
(I hope you will be able to click here to see the details of the seven sacraments that surround the crucifixion scene in the center.)
Image Source: Seven Sacraments Altarpiece 1445-1450, Rogier van der Weyden, 1399/1400-1464, oil on oak panel, 200 x 97 cm (central panel) Royal Museum of Fine Art Antwerp.
On the left you will find the childhood sacraments of baptism and first communion placed in front of the act of confession taking place in the background.
In the center, the focal point is the crucifixion scene with larger figures of John with the 3 grieving Marys placed around the foot of the Cross. Christ’s sacrifice is constant and on going while in the background  you can see Holy Communion being administered to a faithful disciple in real time.
On the right, you will find a young couple beginning their married life, a novice priest taking his vows and an elderly person receiving last rites.

COMMUNITY ~ guest blogger Pastor Charlene Barnes

As I began to study this painting by Roger van der Weyden called The Seven Sacraments, I was struck by the quantity of people I found within its frame and I enjoyed picking out and identifying the different acts of worship. In a funny way,  it reminded me of those childhood picture books called “Where’s Waldo?”  and I just enjoyed finding and identifying each sacrament.

I was impressed with how this artist was able to capture all seven of the Catholic sacraments in one painting: baptism, first communion, confession, holy communion, marriage, ordination, and last rites. As a Lutheran pastor, I paused to think on the differences between our two traditions and how as Lutherans we only celebrate two sacraments: baptism and holy communion as these are the two specifically found in scripture. See Matthew 28:18 (baptism) and Luke 22:14-23 (holy communion).

However the longer I viewed this painting, I found respect for all seven of the Catholic sacraments. I can see how each sacrament, from birth to death, envelopes us into the church, and allows us to form a community united as we continue to live our individual lives side-by-side. I can see the importance of these acts of worship and how they bring people together who share common attitudes, ideas and camaraderie that can bring a community together around the central theme of Jesus who died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins and gave us the promise of heaven. Has the church always been good at community? No, but God doesn’t ask us to be perfect only that we try to do our best!

Thinking on this, I am filled with gratitude for the stories we find of Jesus as he asked his disciples to follow him forming a new kind of community.  I can see in my mind’s eye how they traveled the countryside united in their cause and how Jesus attracted more and more people to his new movement to share the good news of God’s love.

Looking again to the painting, I wondered why Jesus needed to create this community so many years ago and I marvel at how church life still exists today.  I believe, the church continues to practice community because the members receive more support, love and knowledge together than they would alone. Therefore, support, love and knowledge have become an important backbone to life in the church community.

As we participate in these acts of our faith, our collective knowledge that God loved the world so much that he gave us his only son! So that those who believe on him shall not parish but have everlasting life! (John 3:16), and by participating in the community we insure that others understand this not just in their heads but their hearts too!

I think also of my own personal experience of the greater Christian community in the world. In my youth, I spent two years living in England and I remember worrying about finding a church that I would feel at home in. I visited all kinds of churches: Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, and non-denominational. While I could see how they all had their unique voice, the group I felt the most community among was a non-denominational church. It was there I learned more about God and started friendships that I still have to this day.  My new community of God was found in an unexpected place but one where I grew in my faith and the memory of this I still treasure today.

Seeing this painting by Rogier van der Weyden, has reminded me that as humans, we are never alone. Even so, as I look again I suddenly see a man in the center portion to the right by the second pole. I wonder why I had not noticed him before. It is strange to me how he is looking at the active support of the community from birth to death going on all around, but he still seems to be separate and alone. Seeing this, I realize the wisdom of Jesus’ plan and the importance of becoming an active part of the church family. When we enjoy the fellowship of having others in our lives who support us on this pilgrimage on earth we become a part of the unending church community that Jesus started over 2,000 years ago in sharing God’s love, forgiveness and grace with everyone.

May we daily welcome each other into community!

And may God’s peace be with you!!

Pastor Charlene Barnes is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for ten years serving in Kansas and Maryland. Currently serving at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Essex, MD for the past three years. Pastor Charlene is passionate about serving people who are marginalized and helping everyone grow in their faith. When not at church, you can find her listening to live music, painting in watercolor and playing with her two dogs, Jackson and Caleb.

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