“When you feel overwhelmed with the enormity of your assignment, give yourself boundaries. Limitations are wonderfully clarifying. So when I started thinking about illustrating the four Gospels, I gave myself a boundary and started with the shortest verse: Jesus wept.”
“Tears of Christ” Makoto Fijimura
This was how Makoto Fijimura began his speech, and the painting that started the evening. His intent in the painting was to start with a dark background (the backdrop of the voids and traumas of our world) and illumine it with prismatic colors.
The painting fit his speech, “Silence and Beauty,” as Mr. Fijimura unpacked the story of John 11 and 12. I wanted to study the painting for a long time. There is depth, darkness, movement, passion, and light in it. I watched the world-renowned artist shuffle gently back and forth on the stage, talking softly–so softly that I couldn’t catch every word, smiling, peaceful, confident, gentle. He showed us a picture of his simple painting called “Silence,” which he is giving to movie director Scorsese who directed the recent movie with the same name, based on a novel by the same name. “This is painted on mulberry paper, using ink that’s a hundred years old. It’s easy to transport, compared to my other works that are harder to take from place to place. And with their colors, when you take pictures of them, they just disappear. So you just have come see them.” Gentle tone. Shrug. Beaming eyes. Smile.
Fijimura is uncommonly equipped to critique the movie and the novel Silence because of his extensive knowledge of Japanese thought, culture, and art. His speech last night was uncommonly ambitious, moving from a nod to his art, to “Jesus wept,” to Silence and our own unanswered questions, and back to Jesus.
An aside: I was glad of how candidly Fujimura spoke when he showed a picture of the carnage in Nagasaki. He said more Christians died that day than had ever died as martyrs in that country. He didn’t dwell on it, but he put it out there. It is right for Americans to hear and see images of that unconscionable trauma that often gets glazed over.
I haven’t read Silence yet. I’m trying to decide when I’ll have the fortitude to read what I understand to be a harrowing, deep story. But Fijimura was doing more than providing well-informed commentary on Endo, the novelist, and talking to more than those who have read the book. “Do you know what it’s like to talk to God and to hear nothing in return?”
In John 11, Mary and Martha say the same words to Jesus at different times. They don’t understand His silence, His inaction. Their faith is not an issue. They know He could have kept their brother from dying.
To Martha, the busy CEO of the house, activist, organizer, the one who makes the party happen, Jesus responds with left-brain answers. To her He gives the shining proposition: I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE. He speaks her language, meets her where she is.
Mary is the artist, impractical, intuitive, inefficient. She says the same words Martha did, words of questions and bewilderment. For Mary, Jesus has no declarations of truth. He is silent. Instead of declarations and explanations, He weeps. He speaks her language, meets her where she is.
The Gospel is not about fixing things that are broken in a shattered world. The Gospel is about the tears of Jesus and His presence.
Because He is the answer. His silence is not distance. He is present, and His presence heals what is shattered.
Then in chapter 12, Lazarus is the only one is the story who does nothing. He’s not fighting a culture war to prove that he’s on the right side. He just stays with Jesus, confident, knowing reality of the Resurrection. They can’t do anything to him because he’s already died and knows death won’t have the last word. What is there to fear or be defensive about? There is nothing to defend and get worked up about. The resources he draws from have no limit. I think Lazarus’ confidence was akin to Makoto’s gentle invitation for us to come look at his paintings. A shrug, a little grin, nothing to prove or defend.
Mary, the artist, pours on Jesus’ feet the perfume that would have pleased her husband on their wedding night. Artists rebel against the bottom line because they know that their resources are infinite. Mary, extravagant, intuitive, lavish, gave the best she had.
How to respond to trauma and betrayal? What if Jesus’ artists would spread His aroma, the Gospel, extravagantly, wastefully, because we know the resources will never end? What if left brains and right brains would meet in the amygdala, the brain’s center, and be Lazarus, and not fight culture, but stay with Jesus?
Mr. Fujimura’s speech moved me deeply. I wept again this morning, remembering Jesus’ response to the women, and I know the message will stay with me always. The speech itself was profound, with ambitious themes covered masterfully in a most understated way. His words were like giant brush strokes that at first appear disconnected but eventually paint a stunning design of emerging light, space, and color.
“Consider the Lilies” Makoto Fujimura