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Messenger in a Homeless Culture

I was raised in a southern country church that didn’t recognize the liturgical year. Now, Advent and Lent are more often celebrated but the gift of Epiphany still eludes many Christians. The Epiphany passages invite us to dwell with Jesus in his local community. Here we glimpse the coming Kingdom as wise men honor the Christ child, witness the Lord’s baptism, and ponder his first miracle of at a marriage feast in Cana.

​​Patrick Adams: Messenger, 2015, 30" x 64", oil on canvas.

The work Messenger, part of the series Elemental Signs by American artist Patrick Adams (b. 1965), helps us read the signs of God’s creative acts in the Son of Man through transformed and reimagined landscapes. Adams is an Orthodox Christian with a sacred view of the world that defines his work. Messenger is symbolic and his composition, colors and textures serve as spiritual metaphors that show the human experience of place, i.e., seeing the world as our home. Whereas most Western cultures divide secular and spiritual, this work illustrates the complex relationship of spiritual and physical activity.

We may be tempted to make out figures in this painting, but Adams does not paint people in his landscapes. Instead, he asks us to remain outside of the painting and learn to see signs that our world is sacred. Adams states, "We are the priests of God’s creation, created from the beginning in his image. We stand both within God’s creation, and, at the same time, outside and above it. We interpret the world. We read the signs of God’s work in his creation, which, we are told, declare God’s glory. We are given the template of God’s material creation to shape, order, and complete. And, finally, as God’s priests, to offer it back to God."

When my students studied Messenger, they considered “the Word became flesh” to be the main theme. While many colors and forms fill the painting, the blue and red illuminate the landscape. The atmospheric blue invades and clarifies what may otherwise be dark and flat, such as an empty door (or tomb) on the left. We can read the blue as streams of “Living Water” flowing from the top (Heaven) to the bottom (Earth), to represent members of the Trinity or the Presence of the Holy Spirit at Christ’s baptism.

The red symbolizes the promise of Jacob’s ladder: Jesus identifies himself as the “ladder” upon which the angels ascend and descend, John 1: 50-51, a “bridge” between heaven and earth, connecting the two worlds. The red links Christ’s blood shed for us and hints of the double helix of DNA. Shared DNA is no small thing: every culture of the world recognizes the intimacy established through shared flesh and blood. When the Word became flesh, the Son became part of the fabric of our world as shown with the red threading at the bottom of the work.

Epiphany and Messenger show the complexity of Jesus’s creativity and hospitality in a hostile environment. Before we encounter the Resurrection, we encounter the craftsman. It’s not by accident that the Son of God lived and worked as a craftsman for most of his life. The arts have a culture making (and desecrating) force that shapes our lives in powerful and often unrealized ways. Yet, in the course of my work with churches I’ve discovered a posture towards heavenly accommodation and disinterest in culture beyond morals or ethics, an attitude not far removed from Gnosticism (a Christian heresy that teaches that the earthly life was to be shunned in favor of a purely spiritual realm).

Adams states, "We have become strangers and aliens on our own planet. Our very survival as a species seems to threaten the created order. Even so, God, in his infinite wisdom, has left the sign—the witness—of beauty in the world. Our creativity and our art, inasmuch as they participate in this beauty, are the highest and greatest of our callings as God’s priests in his creation. The primary purpose of these activities is to complete the work Christ began in bringing his kingdom into being. However, for this to happen, for the Kingdom of God to appear, heaven and earth must be reunited in the human heart."

God’s kingdom story advances creation and acts as an imaginative matrix for seamless kingdom activity. Epiphany and Messenger call us to faithfully care for all areas of culture. May we join Adams in prayer: Lord, may your kingdom come, and may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

About the Artist:

Patrick Adams has been a full time professional artist since 1992, and has twice been awarded the prestigious Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council. Adams’ work is represented by prestigious galleries across the United States. His paintings are in many private and corporate collections, such as the Mayo Clinic (Jacksonville, FL), Hilliard Lyons (Louisville, KY), and Gaylord International Convention Center (Washington, DC). Adams painting, “Rockface” was featured in People Magazine: Country Special Edition (Oct. 2011) in an article on multi-Grammy Award winning artist and member of musical trio Lady Antebellum, Dave Haywood, who owns the painting. He is the author of Light beyond Light: Beauty, Transformation, and the Kingdom of God (2019).

This visual meditation was originally published on on January 31, 2016.

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