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Deuteronomy 26.4-10a

I Corinthians 15.1-8


(Five to Seven for Good Behavior – IV)

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

When I was serving my church in Calumet, Michigan in the early 1980s, I was invited, on two different occasions, to serve as the Minister in Residence at Olivet College in Michigan, a small UCC liberal arts college.  On each occasion I spent two weeks of study and research at Olivet at the college’s expense, and the only expectation was that at the end of the two weeks I would share my research with faculty and students. A topic that interested me at the time was the development of the church’s earliest creeds, like the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed.  So I spent my first stint at Olivet researching what are called “credal fragments” in the Bible, words and phrases that eventually found their way into the church’s creeds.  Both our scripture lessons qualify this morning:  the passage in Deuteronomy is an affirmation of faith the Jews made as they were bringing their temple offering; and in the one from I Corinthians, you can actually hear part of the development of the Apostles’ Creed, where Paul writes, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”  Or as the creed puts it, “[he] was crucified, dead and buried… the third day he rose again from the dead.”  When I was invited back two years later, I decided to trace the development of the creeds from biblical times to their actual institution, specifically the time when the Nicene Creed was codified in 325 CE – the more familiar Apostle’s Creed was never officially adopted by the church, it just developed on its own and became more popular.  So it was that, twenty-four years later as I was planning my 2008 sabbatical to Italy, I thought, why not add a third chapter to my research?  I came to call that chapter “Credo,” the Latin word for “I believe,” opening words of both Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and my project was to find ways the church expresses certain aspects of its historic creeds in its art.

I didn’t have to look to far or too long to begin my research.  The first church we visited on our first full day in Rome was the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, or St. Mary the Great.  It was so wonderfully built and appointed it could really have doubled as a museum – which, in terms of their wealth of art, you could say about many Italian churches.  The ceiling had some wonderful mosaics, the altar featured striking statuary and icons and paintings of the life of Jesus and of Mary, and it was at Sta Maria that I quickly learned that you didn’t need merely to look up and around to take in the wealth of images, you also needed to look down.  The floor of the church  held multiple mosaics in both sacred and secular patterns and representations.  But for me the highlight occurred when I turned around, faced the back of the church and looked up; the rose window at Sta Maria was spectacular; it is the image on the cover of this morning’s bulletin, and you can see how much of the church’s story that one window tells.  It depicts the Ten Commandments, the Passover with the menorah, the cross of the crucifixion – it is an empty cross, so it also represents the resurrection - the wafer and chalice of the Lord’s Supper, the dove or spirit of Pentecost, and of course, the Madonna and child, Mary the great and her son Jesus.  With such a wealth of images I almost could have ended my research there and then, but it was only day two and I had five more weeks to go, so I decided to press on.

We spent the first four days of Rome, and then drove to the Amalfi coast.  To get to Amalfi from Rome you need to drive through Naples and then over the Monti Lattari, which ascend to 5000 feet before descending into the Mediterranean.  The road which snakes through the Lattari is a series of narrow switchbacks with deep cliffs on at least one side at all times, and no guardrails.  There were a few times when a truck came bearing down on me from the opposite direction when I offered up a few Hail Marys of my own.  In fact I remember Blythe in the back seat with her eyes closed and her earbuds turned up to ten, and I only wished I could have done the same thing.  But it was a lovely week we spent in Amalfi, I visited a few churches there, in Atrani, Ravello and Castiglione, with a delightful day trip to Capri tucked into our week.

From there we drove north to Umbria where we spent the next three weeks.  The location provided access to towns like Orvieto, Perugia, Spoleto and Assisi.  We feasted on the specialties of the region, truffles and wild boar, I have a photo of my daughter Clare standing in front of Assisi’s Chiesa Sta Chiara, or Church of St Clare, St Francis’ female counterpart.  The Umbrian Jazz Festival was taking place in Perugia while we were there, and that was fun to take in one Sunday afternoon.  And there was no shortage of churches to visit.  Of course, the large and impressive cathedrals that dominated the center of nearly every town and village had their impressive architecture and artwork, paintings and mosaics, sculptures and statuary and stained glass that told much of the church’s story.  But one of the things that struck me was that some of the smaller churches held some valuable artwork as well.  The city of Florence has altarpieces by 15th century master Pietro Perugino, but I also found a couple small chapels in the Umbrian hills that also feature Perugino’s hand-painted altar work.  Renaissance painter Raphael’s work is featured in several Roman churches, including Basilica Sta Maria Popolo and the Sistine Chapel, but it was in tiny San Sebastian church in the village of Panicale that we came across an altarpiece the artist had created for them.

As we made our way through Italy, principally the regions of Lazio, where Rome is located, Campagne, Tuscany and Umbria, the churches, chapels and cathedrals all offered a wealth of art in a wide variety of forms.  And over those five weeks I took over 900 photographs that in some way or other fell into my sabbatical theme of the ways the church’s art expresses and interprets its early creeds, the fundamentals of its faith.

Because it is more familiar, I decided to use the Apostles’ Creed as my primary outline.  Most congregationalists don’t use the creed in church any more, although there was a day that we, along with our other reformed cousins like the Presbyterians and Lutherans, recited it weekly.  But as congregationalism developed, we became more of a covenantal church than a credal church, and while a few of us may be able to dredge up the Apostles Creed from somewhere in our ancient memory, if we ever had it memorized, chances are good we don’t any more.  So as a reminder, here it is, and please excuse the gender-exclusive language, but most of us stopped reciting it before it was reformulated.

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.  He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.  I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  Amen.”

You can see from this morning’s bulletin insert how I laid out my sabbatical project.  I did categorize most of my photos according to the various articles of the creed, and what I’ve printed out for this morning is obviously a very small and abbreviated sampling.  The first picture is familiar to all of you, it is the well-loved image of the creation of humanity from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting.  The second creation picture is from the doors of the grand and opulent Chiesa Santa Maria in Orvieto, which was my absolute favorite – I’ll tell you why in a moment.  But the story of creation is depicted on the Orvieto church in a series of friezes on the church’s front exterior.  Other images include the creation of woman, the establishment of the seas and the fish therein, and the creation of the beasts of the field.

For the second article of the creed, just for this morning I telescoped all the affirmations about Jesus into his birth.  The first picture was taken of a public water fountain in Siena – not all of Italy’s sacred art is confined to it churches.  And the second is another Madonna and Child from the church of St Eufemia in Spoleto.

I have two representations of the Holy Ghost, both of them doves.  The first is from Rome’s St Peter’s church, and the second from a church in Assisi, Santa Maria over Minerva.  An odd name, that, and it indicates that St Mary’s church was built over an ancient Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Minerva.  This is something I encountered several times while in Italy, and even more often on my following sabbatical to Grecce:  the practice of building a church on the site of an ancient temple, both a physical and a symbolic gesture of the church’s taking precedence over a former religion.  In fact, in the Macedonian region of Greece, in Thessaloniki in particular, there is an extended back-and-forth between Christian churches and Islamic mosques.  Because Thessaloniki was on the main route between Chrisian Rome and Muslim/Christian Constantinople, along the way you can find  churches built on ancient mosque sites, you can find mosques built on ancient church sites, and in at least one instance, you can find a church built on an ancient mosque site that had been built on an ancient church site.  That’s why the church with the stained glass holy dove is called Santa Maria over Minerva.

If any phrase of the Apostles’ Creed gets under the Protestant’s skin, it is likely to be “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church.”  I assure you, when the creed was written, the phrase did not refer to the Roman Catholic Church, but rather it uses the word catholic to mean universal, I believe in the universal, the worldwide church of Jesus Christ.  The two churches I included today are Sant’Andrea in Amalfi, and Sta Maria in Orvieto.  The reason I like the Orvieto church so much is, if you look closely, it is constructed by alternating layers of black and white striated marble, and the entire front is covered with paintings and friezes and hammered metal and stained glass.  It is a gorgeous structure; Assisi’s Sta Chiara basilica is similar, only with white and pink marble.  And directly below the hill that Orvieto is built on is an Etruscan necropolis, or village of ancient tombs which date as far back as the eighth century before Christ.

Finally, four depictions of the final four articles of the creed:  the communion of saints as found on the hammered tin doors of the Duomo in Sienna; a ninth century baptistry in the Vatican Museum symbolizing the forgiveness of sins; another detail from the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s painting of the resurrection; and a heavenly Jesus instructing the apostles to represent the life everlasting, from Rome’s Sta Maria in Aracoeli. 

As I said, there are many more paintings and mosaics and buildings and domes and tapestries and stained glass windows and icons and triptychs and statues that also find their way into the Apostles’ Creed, but I think this is a good representation of the ground work I did in Italy in 2008, and then how organized it all on my return.  The end result turned out to be a CD that I copied and gave to members of our Bible study group when I presented the results of my sabbatical.

I’m going to be away next week, and in two weeks we will follow two legendary figures through Greece:  the apostle Paul, as he undertook his second missionary journey as it is described in the book of Acts; and Odysseus, as he returns home from the Trojan wars as it is described in Homer’s Odyssey.

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