This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to spend time in the National Gallery of Art. Harry and I had been there briefly some months before but we hadn’t had ample time to fully contemplate the beauty of some of the grand masterpieces housed there. We were both hoping to have a more spiritual experience as we prayerfully sat with some of the more religious pieces that told our Christian story and contemplate their meaning. This would require moving at a slow and deliberate pace, even sitting for some time in one place rather than hurrying through the entire exhibit.
The day didn’t disappoint as we gazed at gigantic landscapes brimming with detail from every vantage point, close up and far away. We were captivated by the blue hues of Picasso’s the tragedy and caught up in the mystery of the painful and eerie scene along the shore of a sea. We noticed the way Jesus changed in each depiction throughout history from a humble man to a strong angelic warrior. We wondered about Mary and what each painting had to say about her over the centuries.
But the most intriguing of all unexpectedly caught the corner of my eye as I hurried through the part of the museum that housed the sculptures. I had not planned on being drawn to those items and so… even though I said I wouldn’t hurry, I tried to hurry by assuming that somehow I knew the experience that God was planning for me and that it wasn’t going to happen in the sculpture section.
There in the center of the room was a beautiful gold chalice… at first glance it seemed like it was a trophy… maybe because I was in a hurry. In fact, as I wondered why there was a trophy in a museum of ancient sculptures, I went close enough to recognize that it was indeed a chalice, “the chalice”, it was called. It was originally purchased by a French monk in the early 1100’s. That alone was enough to grab my attention. I am always drawn to items used in early worship.
It had golden handles on each side embedded with emeralds, rubies and other beautiful gems… with an emblem of Jesus on the front base of the cup that read, “I am the Alpha and the Omega”. It was lavish and extravagant… that seemed odd to me as I thought about its use in worship. It would have held the wine as they celebrated the Lord’s Supper. It didn’t seem like something Jesus would have used. I wondered about the meaning there.
Nestled between the gold filigree and jewels, was this beautiful cup carved out of sardonyx. It sat on a gold pedestal base with the gold handles protruding from each side. The sardonyx had been carefully sculpted so that light could shimmer through the thinner areas. There were flumes carved into the stone which was a deep brown, black… it almost seemed like blood. With the natural veins of the stone, it actually looked like the blood was flowing and full of life in this cup.
Beautiful, I thought, as I pondered the words of Jesus, “This cup is the blood of the new covenant poured out for many for their forgiveness of sins” A lavish and extravagant gift for all. After so many years, these words were still poignant and living, still full of life and hope… just as the cup depicted. The sculpture indeed told that story, the story of a most precious gift that had been given to us… a gift that would indeed never end.
Another glance revealed that a French monk had actually acquired this on behalf of his monastery and then commissioned an artist to add the gold filigree and encasement. The cup, carved out of sardonyx was actually a remnant of worship from 1st century Alexandria… a true treasure preserved for so many years. Suddenly, I understood the gold adornment, the jewels and filigree… an expression of the treasure it held. This cup, originating so close to the time when Jesus himself extended the cup of the new covenant with his own blood, reminded me of the treasure now extended to me. It was an invitation to reflect more deeply on the blood of Christ poured out for me, for the world, for eternal forgiveness and love.
To think that I almost missed it as I hurried by is sobering. I wonder how much I miss of God’s lavish love for me each day as I hurry through to the next thing. I wonder how deeply I allow myself to experience the deep rituals we practice in worship as we pass the cup and break the bread… as I breeze through the ancient scriptures each day before I am whirling out the door to the next activity. This cup is a reminder of the invitation to drink deeply of this life that has been extended to me.