The opening of his letter to the Romans serves as the Epistle reading for tomorrow, the fourth Sunday of Advent. With this brief and potent passage, Paul nimbly and fervently encapsulates his understanding of his ministry, of Christ, and of who we are beckoned to be as followers of Christ:
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1.1-7, NRSV)
In this brief opening passage, Paul has managed to tell the Christian community in Rome who he is, who Jesus is, what Jesus has done for us, and what God is calling them to do as people who belong to Christ. For the most part, Paul’s greeting is one long sentence, a paroxysm of words tumbling out upon one another in his zeal to convey the heart of the gospel message to his sisters and brothers in Rome.
Paul sure knows how to say howdy.
Paul probably wrote his letters before the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were penned. When he refers to the gospel for which he has been set apart, Paul is speaking not of a written text. Euangelion is the word that Paul and others use in the original Greek: the gospel is the good news, the story of God’s saving and liberating work for us in Christ. The four evangelists will come to set forth this good news in unique ways in their four different texts. Paul, “called to be an apostle, set apart for the Gospel,” inscribes the good news on his heart and becomes a living gospel for the world.
Paul bears a lion’s share—lion probably being a particularly apt metaphor—of the early church’s work to spread the good news and to form communities that would tell and live out the gospel message. Whatever foibles Paul may have had—and Paul certainly was a textured fellow—his fervor was infectious.
I’ve found myself thinking today of those who, across the span of two millennia, have given themselves to the work of passing on the good news. I think of those who have told the story, those who have proclaimed the gospel not only in word but also in action, those who have preserved and handed down the written text from generation to generation, those who have given flesh to the gospel (and the Word became flesh) in the text of their own lives.
As an artist, I have found myself particularly intrigued by those scribes and artists of earlier centuries who lavished their attention on the gospel message in astoundingly tangible ways. My imagination has been especially captivated by what are often known as the insular gospel books, remarkable manuscripts of the gospels created in Ireland and the British Isles in the Middle Ages. Between the seventh and ninth centuries, scribes and artists drew upon various artful influences, including the visual culture of continental Europe, Scandinavia, and Egypt, and created a style distinctly their own. In their hands, the surface of the page became a landscape brimming with the power, beauty, and complexity of the story of Christ. Within these gospel books, pages teem with intricate patterns of knotwork, spirals, images of humans and intertwined animals, and all manner of symbols that convey both the revelation and the mystery of Christ.
At the core of the scribes’ and artists’ artful labor lay a mighty devotion and profound sense of call that suggests they inherited Paul’s fervor for the gospel. In writing about one of the most remarkable of the insular gospel books, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Michelle Brown describes such work as “preaching with the pen.” She observes that the monk who created such a work
may also have embodied in his work a sustained feat of spritual and physical endurance as part of the Apostolic mission of bringing the Word of God to the furthest outposts of the known world and enshrining it there within the new Temple of the Word and embodiment of Christ—the Book. (From The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality, and the Scribe, 2003.)
Creating today’s door, I was thinking especially of the remarkable pages that are sometimes called carpet pages. Found in the Lindisfarne Gospels and other gospel books, these pages served to divide the four Gospel texts. Containing no written words, a carpet page typically has an intensely intricate design and sometimes incorporates a cross. Similar in style to an Eastern prayer rug (hence the name carpet page), it seems that such a page served a prayerful purpose. Placed opposite the beginning of a Gospel, a carpet page invited the viewer to pause, to become quiet, to reflect, to prepare to enter into the story contained in the following pages.
One could think of it as the artist’s way of saying howdy, and get ready for what lies ahead.
On this Advent day, how is your getting ready going? Three days before the festival of Christmas, how are you preparing your heart to hear the good news that awaits us on Christmas morning?
Are you finding a space that will help you enter into the story?
What is the good news that has been inscribed on your bones, on the walls of your heart, in the labyrinthine passages of your brain? What gospel word inhabits your breath and being?
Is there a place in your life that can serve as a living carpet page, a prayer rug, a space that enables you to hear this word, this news?
In the spirit and tradition of Paul, and the writers of the Gospels, and the scribes and artists who have shared in telling the news, and all the women and men who have kept the story alive and passed it down from generation to generation for two millennia, how are you called to embody and pass along the gospel story in the way that is uniquely yours to do?