I had no idea the painting was actually there. For years, I had loved Picasso’s work, beginning back in undergrad when Lisa and I sat next to each other in Art class. We studied various Picassos, and I was always drawn to the ones from his “Blue Period.” There was one in particular that was my favorite.
Flash forward some fifteen years and I found myself in Chicago presenting a paper and staying at the Blackstone on Michigan Avenue. I saw where the Art Institute was only a mile down the road, so I skipped one morning’s presentations to head off and explore.
I walked through the Asian section and others, in awe. But I had to see the Picassos and Georgia O’Keefe’s Black Cross and the Van Gogh. I had my head in my guidebook when I turned the corner into the exhibition hall, and when I looked up I gasped. He was right in front of my eyes, my favorite painting: The Old Guitarist.
It’s a haunting image, isn’t it? I bought this one a while back to hang by my desk, so I can look at it every day.
It’s a fascinating piece. Picasso painted it when he was 22 years old, around 1903, in a time when he, himself, was pretty much destitute and struggling from the suicide of one of his closest friends. He tried to capture the suffering and pain that he saw in the lives of so many people—and which he himself knew far too well.
Here he is, this old man, bent and contorted, with his skin seemingly stretched over bone and sinew. With eyes closed and mouth slightly agape, he still cradles his guitar and makes music. There’s something profound about that, I think. Not denying the circumstances of life, yet leaning—always leaning—into hope…the possibility, even, of beauty.
It’s a lesson I try to take to heart: that hope springs forth in unexpected places, often out of nowhere, catching us off guard and holding our hand—or even sometimes dragging us by the feet!—as we step into a new space of life and promise.
I think Blessed Mary teaches us this lesson as well. I’ve spent a lot of time with the Blessed Mother over the past year, reading and writing and praying and wondering about this enigmatic and mystical figure that we often make into a porcelain caricature. Dressed in blue and white immaculate robes with eyes looking slightly down and hands opening out in prayer and embrace, Blessed Mary reaches out to us all.
The truth, it seems, is even more interesting than the immaculate virgin we may envision: this young woman invited to participate in God’s grand vision for all creation. After she and the angel Gabriel held their closed-door intelligence briefing, Blessed Mary agreed to open herself to participate with God’s dream: to carry God Godself within her in order to bridge the ultimate gap between the divine and the created, the sacred and the profane. O Mediatrix, as the hymns sing. O Theotokos, the God-bearer. Ah, holy Lady.
The encounter wasn’t an example of pristine whiteness. It was a precarious situation—literally—remembering that precarious finds its Latin root in being dependent on prayer.
Mary’s offence of being an unwed mother was punishable by death. The “public disgrace” Joseph wanted to avoid could have taken a deadly turn. He has enormous compassion from the start, and then he, too, is brought into the grand plan with his own visit from the Angel of the Lord: “Do not be afraid. Mary will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”
Yeshua. Harkening back to Joseph, embodying the hope that he will save the people from their sins.
That’s a lot to squeeze into a young person. That’s a lot for any of us to absorb!
Because who is worthy? How can anyone do that?
I think that’s why we turn Blessed Mary into a caricature: that we can’t imagine that someone—anyone—would be worthy enough to bear God, to hold, to carry the Divine. So, we turn them into porcelain. Because that way, we give them the honor that they are indeed due as the Mother of God. We protect them, as it were, but (I have a sneaking suspicion about this), in turning them into porcelain we also protect ourselves by keeping them at a distance!
We struggle with our own sense of self-worth, don’t we, because we know how we wrestle…how far we miss the mark…how far we are off the trail so many times in life. We know the layers of cobwebs and creepy crawlies that we try to keep shut up in the corners of our souls. So that no one sees that part of us. Because if they knew…
All the pain and struggle, all the poverty and fear, all the sadness and grief—all this is part of us, is it not? And what—now, here’s a radical thought!—what if God already knows about this and reaches out to invite us to participate in God’s grand vision not in spite of those things but because God loves all of us! And, in God’s loving all of us—the frail, the strange, the egocentric, the prideful, all all all—all of us is reconciled within God as God comes to rest within us more fully:
As the collect for today says: Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.
Indeed. Let us pray that prayer, a prayer of daily visitation and our own participation in God’s grand, incarnational dream for the reconciliation of the whole world!
Yet, we are frail humans, aren’t we. Spiritually emaciated, with the skin stretched taught over our souls, as it were…
We are the Old Guitarist, bent and contorted, yet yearning to play the music we can play.
And we need the angels. We always need angels around us, reminding us…whispering into our ears sometimes and yelling in our faces at other times: “Don’t be afraid.”
Have you ever thought about this: why did God “do it” this way? Why did God choose this young woman to participate with in coming into the world in this way? Why a young woman in such a precarious position? Why risk this much? Why not choose to come into the world through some means that had a little more security?
I think about that a lot, actually.
And I think God is brilliant. Because God knew that by using weakness and brokenness—by incarnating this way, with all its risk and vulnerability, with its poverty and weakness and struggle—imagine what that does for our own lives that are so often full of the same things Mary experienced.
How can we have hope in our times of wrestling unless we know that God knows all about it?
So, let the Old Guitarist be an icon for you this season. Honest about where you are, who you are, and about how we yearn, still…. How we’re invited to play the music we can play. To strum the old guitars of our lives and smile when the music pours forth, warming our hearts and making us smile.
Or, to put it another way, in the words of the magi Leonard Cohen:
You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Advent IV, Year A
December 18, 2016