Better Together

Rothschild Canticles (Yale University)

Among the holdings of the Yale University library is a richly illustrated little book (about 7” x 3”) known for a previous owner as The Rothschild Canticles. The Canticles are a collection of quotations from other sources including the Song of Solomon from the Bible and Augustine’s book On the Trinity and was likely intended to aid the personal devotions of an individual Christian. 

The image above is of two of the pages about half-way through the book.

We are immediately struck by the richness and quality of the work. The drawings are carefully designed and skillfully rendered. The gold color is real gold leaf glued to the page and the blue and red inks which are lavishly used would have been made by hand through a labor intensive process.

Rothschild Canticles detail (Yale University)

Continued attention to these pages and several others like it, show whimsical images. The figure in the upper left (above) points to the opposite page and draws our attention to what might be interpreted as a playful scene.

Rothschild Canticles detail (Yale University)

Two human-like figures embrace while a bird stands before them with wings outstretched. A closer look reveals hands holding each of the wings, indicating that all three figures are caught in an embrace. They strike this pose in the center of a burst of golden light which itself is surrounded by a patterned red ring around which is twisted a length of white fabric.

Rothschild Canticles detail (Yale University)

Two angels, one with bells and the other with a harp, appear out of the clouds above them, while two people (to me, a women in a blue dress on the left and a man in a monk’s habit on the right) kneel under it all, yet reaching up to grasp at the fabric frame.

Rothschild Canticles detail (Yale University)

In the imagination of the artist, this is Father, Son and Holy Spirit caught in a dance to the music of angels while humans gaze in wonder.

The Triune God of the Christian faith – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – dancing may not be the first idea that comes to mind as we think about the nature of God who is, after all, infinite and ultimately beyond our knowing. Yet, as Augustine himself observes, we can’t help but imagine God in human bodily form. The artist of the Canticles seems to be egging us on with the question, what is it for our God to be a community of three yet substantially one? The answer seems to be that the togetherness of God really matters.

Togetherness matters for us as well. We’ve all observed that one of the revelations of our pandemic-imposed isolation is just how critical social interaction is for our well being, both as individuals and collectively. As COVID restrictions have eased, almost all of us have flocked to gatherings and events that bring people together in one place. Almost everyone agrees, it’s good to get out and see people. 

It can also be exhausting!

When we gather with other people, they bring their whole selves to the meeting – not just their image on the screen which we can mute or turn right off if they get difficult or we get distracted. Whole people are complicated and occasionally frustrating, even problematic. And when we show up in person, we bring our whole person too – not just the cultivated persona of our social media profiles. It’s unpredictable.

It can be messy.

It might even be anxiety inducing, especially when we add our own uncertainty about the future to the mix.

The temptation to disengage from it all is real – even if we all said we couldn’t wait to get out and see people again.

Helmut Thieleke, a theologian and pastor who worked and wrote in the midst of the crisis which was Nazi Germany, observed that the antidote for anxiety is love. We might, in our time, dismiss this as naïve and entirely simplistic – after all, our anxieties and uncertainties have real power in our lives. They are responses to real circumstances with real potential for harm – as we imagine it in our most vulnerable moments. How can something like “love” possibly combat such circumstances?

In a devotional essay entitled “I Am Not Alone with My Anxiety,” Pastor Thieleke notes that at the height of his suffering, while he hangs from the cross, Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When I’ve heard those words read on Good Friday, they’ve impressed me as evidence of Jesus’ utter abandonment. Can one be any more destitute than this – to be forsaken by the Father with whom you’ve claimed complete unity? 

But Thieleke sees it differently. To his mind, the fact that Jesus has one to cry to at all means that he is not alone. There is someone else on the other side of this cry. The Father hears the Son and that is enough. Jesus, at the time of his greatest anxiety, has someone to whom he cries out and that someone hears – even if the cry is one of accusation. So great is the Father’s love.

But Jesus doesn’t just cry out for himself. His cry of abandonment is the cry of the alienated and self-alienating whole world. It is your cry when you’ve had it up to here and can’t take it anymore. Jesus cries out on our behalf, trusting that the Father will hear and love and that in that love there will be life.

After all, they’ve been dancing together for all eternity.

Pr. Jim

March 30, 2022

Rev. James A. Wetzstein takes turns writing weekly devotions with Rev. Katherine Museus Dabay at Valparaiso University, where both serve as university pastors.

Image: Rothschild Canticles. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Shailor, B. Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, MS 404.