Adapted from my sermon preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Albion, New York
October 2, 2011
Sometimes a painting represents a moment in the life of a congregation better than words, and I have asked Mother Cindy to pass out to each one of you a copy of such a painting. It is Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World.” “The Light of the World” was painted at the very time this Christ Church was first built and decorated. This painting is at one with the heritage of this wonderful building and it says something about what the founders of your parish were trying to communicate to Western New York when they first opened this building for worship. It still speaks to us today about the mission of this parish and the mission of our diocese.
“The Light of the World” was completed by the English artist Holman Hunt in 1863 and is no doubt familiar to almost everyone in this church this morning. Here it is: the figure of Jesus standing knocking at a door which can be opened only from the inside. Jesus is waiting in the night, near the dawn, with a light sheltered from extinction by a lantern held in his hand. He has a golden crown on his head, bearing thorns. He is robed like a priest in cope and clasp, in a world surrounded by signs of neglect. In 1873 “The Light of the World” was installed in Keble College Chapel, the monument to the revival of Anglicanism associated with the Oxford Movement. A second version was painted for St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and it toured the world in the first decade of the twentieth century, through Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, being greeted with enormous public enthusiasm. People who had never before seen a work of art travelled hundreds of miles to see “The Light of the World.”
The artist of “The Light of the World,” Holman Hunt, was himself a child of secular Enlightenment, an agnostic, a positivist, and as a young man he embraced the spirit of the times. He was an imperialist, a venture capitalist, and a founding member along with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Millais of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Rossetti’s and Millais’ contrasting good looks, their charming family backgrounds, and the endless speculative gossip about the failure of their marriages and the nature of their own friendship have made them famous and glamorous. By contrast, poor Holman Hunt was the son of a plebian London warehouse manager. Like our former President, Bill Clinton, Hunt wasted time and money on unsuccessful property deals and litigation. To seek his fortune, Hunt set off like for the Holy Land where he gained some wealth and a reputation as a good shot and a fine horseman. He confronted Bedouin brigands in the Gaza desert, stood his ground in combat, and marched the Bedouins to the British consulate in Jerusalem at gunpoint, where they were at once arrested. Hunt was paid a large bounty for each conquest.
When Hunt returned to England on a model-hunting expedition, he discovered a teenage “stunner” working as a barmaid in a rowdy Chelsea public house. Her name was Annie Miller. She was swabbing beer and filth off the floor. Her feet were bare, her cascades of golden hair were verminous, and she was illiterate. Nevertheless, hunt could see that she was a beauty. He employed her as a model and, realizing that she was also intelligent, gradually conceived the idea of making her his fair lady. Were she to become refined, take elocution lessons, learn to read and write, become suitably accomplished and ladylike, he might well reward her sexual favors and modeling skill with a wedding ring. You have heard this story before: the gap between public ideals and private behavior is part of the very definition of Victorian hypocrisy.
Hunt spent the Christmas of 1851 with Thomas Combes who had taken over the Oxford University Press that year. The Oxford Press had been doing little more than printing Bibles and Prayerbooks, at a considerable annual loss. Combe sought to broaden the scope of the Press by printing titles associated with the revival of Anglicanism, which had begun at Oxford more than a decade before and had also spread to our Diocese of Western New York and to this our parish church in Albion. In order to boost sales Combe brought Holman Hunt, the heroic Pre-Raphaelite, the soldier of fortune, from Jerusalem to Oxford to illustrate his books. Hunt was enchanted by Combe’s house in the quadrangle of the Oxford University Press with its fountains and weeping willows and peacocks wandering at will, with its beautiful library and its superb prints.
Gradually Hunt realized that he had penetrated to the very heart of a circle of Anglicans who sought to revive the fortunes of the Church of England and Anglicans abroad. To Thomas Combe and his companions, Anglicanism spoke to the Christian dilemmas of the times with such freshness that they visualized a new springtime of Christian faith within the desolate landscape of Victorian England. This circle had a vision of the whole human being, capable of the full range of affection and action, women of strength and men of feeling, and they found their model of this vision of the whole human being in the perfect humanity of Jesus, the prophet, priest and king.
Jesus as the prophet whose light renews the earth: This meant a sacramental sensibility rediscovered, which included the adoration of God present in the earth’s potential for holiness expressed through physical forms of color and splendor in liturgy and architecture and physical forms of movement in processions and music.
Jesus as king: The renewal of the earth must include a grasp of the authority of Jesus expressed here and now in the Church’s Spirit-based stance against the negative principalities and powers of this world, a recovery of the Church’s sense of a called community distinct from, but a servant to the world.
Jesus as priest: The Church as an agent of change must inevitably be bound up in a renewal also of ordained ministry, a turning aside from the false idol of professionalism alone to embrace the vision of the priest as one who takes identity not from political or economic status or social success, but a priest who takes identity solely from the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
Ultimately this old vision of a new earth, a new Church, and a new priesthood, which is also our heritage, relied in each one of its parts also on the absolute necessity of a personal appropriation of dedication to Jesus, implying a clear decision for him which results in a turning around in order to participate by faith in the new reality which is the true future of the whole creation.
A lot to absorb over one Christmas vacation, yet it was precisely the task of Combe and his Oxford companions that Christmas of 1851 to commission Holman Hunt to combine all of this into “a visual representation of the transfigured reality of all things called to salvation.” Hunt, the venture capitalist, accepted the challenge for £400. He worked for months on the painting from 9 pm in the evening to 5 am in the morning. He sacrificed his mother’s best tablecloth for the cope of Jesus. Christina Rossetti sat for the face of Christ, under the careful chaperonage of her mother—Hunt’s way with models was known! By moonlight he worked from tendrils of ivy pinned to an old board, and as he worked on “The Light of the World,” a mood of religious fervor swept over him. As he worked, Hunt’s struggle for authenticity in his art and in his own life took on new meaning.
It is this painting which best expresses our Episcopalian understanding of conversion, a painting executed while the artist himself was undergoing conversion, and when it was completed Hunt began to question seriously the justice in many areas of his personal life, beginning with his relationship with Annie Miller, a relationship which he now proclaimed openly and solemnized with a church wedding.
And though “The Light of the World” changed Holman Hunt, it did not please all Christians. When the essayist Thomas Carlyle called at Hunt’s studio to see the painting, far from praising it, Carlyle condemned it as a “papistical fantasy.” He objected, saying that Jesus had never strolled about wearing priestly roles, a golden crown, jewels and a halo.
Fired with enthusiasm for his original idea by Carlyle’s attack, Hunt prepared a set of notes defending his design of the painting. He was still using these notes in 1902 when Virginia Woolf and her friends from Bloomsbury came to Chelsea to have dinner with him. Virginia Woolf recorded her impressions: “There we found old Holman Hunt himself dressed in a long Jaeger dressing gown, holding forth to a large gathering about the ideas which inspired him in painting ‘The Light of the World.’”
This is what Hunt said to Virginia Woolf:
1. Jesus as king: It is inevitable that Jesus who enacts the saving actions of God should be apprehended as king over all the earth because he is the final touchstone by which all human events must be measured and judged. No less must Jesus be seen as the one whose death exacts the final cost of our personal selfishness. At the cross we see the cost of our public moral and political systems. The lamp in Jesus’ hand, the symbol of prophecy, is the light of liberty and possibility for all the people of the earth.
2. And yet Jesus stands with the lamp at the door of the individual human heart. The outgoing and creative elements of Jesus as prophet, priest, and king require a personal response and a personal integrity within each Christian person, who has appropriated by individual faith the new reality which is the true future of the whole creation.
I think I can safely say that in our ecclesial life in the Episcopal Church, even in our secular life in the United States since the 1960s, we have done much in courageous ways to restore the corporate dimensions of conversion, to reappropriate these with new depth and to take steps within our own generation to be committed to a human race with fewer barriers of race, gender, and human sexuality.
We have not, I think, been so successful in finding ways to appropriate within ourselves the prophet, priest, and king who stands at the door and knocks. The dilemma reflects a gnawing legacy that we in the twenty-first century have not been able to resolve any better than the Victorians: the gap between public belief and private appropriation of faith.
Faced with the more terrible choices about the morality of politics within the German Church during the Nazi era, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was certainly right to insist that it is impossible as a Christian person, respectful of those of other faiths, to be committed to the hope of the world, of an integrated, reconciled planet of just humanity, without also a conscious interior appropriation of Jesus as God and Savior. Bonhoeffer was convinced that the Light of the world exacts a price that is both public and private.
To Holman Hunt, the story of the New Testament became not merely an external reality, the greatest of public realities, but the only interior reality, so that there was nothing within him that did not speak of it, no thought or force or skill from within that did not spring from it, and end in it, “for I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who has faith in me should remain in darkness.”
The mission of Christ Church and of our whole Diocese today is to invite all inside so that lives are transformed and communities are built up. This vision is captured in “The Light of the World.” Our job now is to translate the spiritual hope we see in this great painting into the challenging realities of our Western New York region and the vexing times in which we now live.