Ears That Hear and Eyes That See

Seeing In and Through Our Visuals

Eyes to See

Do you ever remember a time, walking in the woods or just looking out your kitchen window, when you saw the sun’s rays filter through the mist, casting a shadow between the branches of a pine tree? And you sensed hope in and through that light?

Do you remember a worship service when, just for a moment, passing the peace became more than a chore and you looked at your neighbor more clearly? And you sensed awe and delight in and through another’s eyes?

If you’ve been fortunate enough to visit the Sistine Chapel, do you remember your eye resting on the middle panel of the ceiling where God’s finger reaches out to Adam’s with that empty, yet so full, space between them? And you sensed truth in and through that painting?.

This is what God meant Israel to sense when they saw the ark of the covenant. God said, “There I will meet with you . . . between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant . . .” (Ex. 25:21-22). Although God’s presence could not be contained within the tabernacle or the ark, the people could encounter God in and through them.

We experience and understand the mystery of our encounter with God in and through our humanness—through our human senses and perceptions. We hear, feel, taste, and see the goodness of the Lord through each other and the created world around us.

Jesus’ hope for all of us was in his question to the blind man, “‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God” (Luke 18:41-43).

When Jeremiah cries, “Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but do not see, who have ears, but do not hear” (5:21) do we not call out like Bartimaeus to Jesus, “Lord, let us see again?” Our prayer, with the psalmist, is “Open my eyes, so that I might behold . . .” (Ps. 119:18a). Our desire to see God is visible in Jesus Christ, whom we long to meet face to face. Someday “his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:3b-4).

A Deeper Purpose for Lent and Easter Visuals

How do we see in and through the visuals of our worship space? Where do we begin? Robert Webber speaks of four levels of worship planning: purpose, form, style, and mechanics. These are also very helpful in planning visuals for worship and in keeping our eye focused on the deeper purpose of worship (see diagram).

Our tendency is to approach this topic backwards. When we want to create something for a worship space, we first focus on mechanics, on ideas, on practical tips and details: How are we going to get something up on a wall that is twenty feet high? The viewer also tends to first ask, How did you do that? These are important questions. But the fundamental question should be, Why do we want to incorporate this art piece into worship? Getting at the deeper purpose generates the “what” (using elements of design such as line, color, texture, proportion) and, in turn, moves us to the “how” questions.

Focusing our attention on the meaning helps move our appreciation for an art piece beyond its form or style to our wonderment of God, just as the ark of the covenant once did for those wandering in the wilderness.

Compare these vessels. Through the form these vessels take, our awareness of the Word spoken during communion is sharpened and our participation in the Word is experienced more holistically. In one, we see thorns and imagine in a new way the suffering Christ went through on our behalf.

In the other, we see glass covered in gold and, as we pass it to our neighbor, we see ourselves reflected on the surface, enabling us to rejoice more deeply in the resurrection and glory of Jesus Christ. In and through–our theology speaks visually, our visuals speak theologically.

We can take this a step further if we recognize that each season is embedded in and seen through the lens of the other. That is, we always experience an Easter Lent and a Lenten Easter. In other words, the force of the message is in the whole story; each becomes more visible, not less visible, through the eyes of the other.

The Son never lost sight of the Father’s ultimate plan during the hardest struggle he faced. Nor did he lose his scars after his resurrection and ascension, but shared them with the disciples as a reminder of the whole story. How accurately do your elements of worship paint an integral picture?

Seeing Through Elements of Design

Compare these installations. The Holy Week installation incorporates symbols of the Passion. Yet the sorrow of Lent and the joy of Easter are each felt. The weight of the coarse burlap spills onto the ground. Your eye rests on the rooster, cocky in its central position. At the same time, through the use of lighting, the backdrop of Jerusalem hints at the historical event but also points toward our hope of the “new Jerusalem.”

In the Easter installation there is a repetition of the vertical line from Holy Week. The coarse burlap hangs as a strong reminder of Lent. Yet it is interspersed with festive ribbons of white and blue (colors of Easter and hope), their silky, soft texture catching the light and contrasting with the rough, earthy texture of the burlap. Rock orbs replace the symbols of denial and suffering as signs of the tomb stone rolled away and God’s sovereignty. We see with one glance an Easter Lent and a Lenten Easter.

Moments of true awe, delight, or hope do not happen every day. Let us pray together for God to focus our eyes, as well as open our ears, that we may glorify God’s name through our wonderment—until the day we see God face to face and our fingers touch once again.



Related Reading

  • Chinn, Nancy. Spaces for Spirit: Adorning the Church. Liturgy Training Publications, 1989.
  • Dyrness, Bill. “Contemplation for Protestants: Where the Reformed Tradition Went Wrong.” Image, no. 49 (Spring 2006) pp. 71-79.
  • Jensen, Robin M. The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community (Eerdmans, 2004)
  • Kaai, Anneke and Eugene Peterson. The Psalms: An Artist’s Impression. Piquant, 1999.
  • ______. From Beginning to End: Painting Creation, the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed and Apocalypse. Piquant, 2006.
  • Saliers, Don E. Worship Come to Its Senses. Abingdon Press, 1996.

Elizabeth Steele Halstead (eah9@calvin.edu) is Resource Development Specialist for Visual Arts at the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is the author of Visuals for Worship (Faith Alive, 2006) and illustrator of Rings, Kings, and Butterflies: Lessons on Christian Symbols for Children (Ausburg 2006).

Reformed Worship 82 © December 2006, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.