Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Easter Runs On Empty

A large watercolor hangs in my wife's home office. On it you will find a dark mulberry bush, a few nightingales, and some Chinese characters. But mostly the painting is empty white space. The painting was a gift to us from a Mainland Chinese exchange student. Her mother painted it.

Emptiness is usually experienced as a quality devoid of happy associations. For example, Samuel Butler once said, "an empty house is like a stray dog or a body from which life has departed." Woodrow Wilson was of the same mind. He noted that, "in the Lord's Prayer, the first petition is for daily bread. No one can worship God or love his neighbor on an empty stomach."

But my painting, for all of its empty space, is beautiful. I purchased a frame for it, and when I went to pick it up, the painting was hanging on display on the most prominent wall in the store. The manager said that she just had to put it up because it was so stunning. So perhaps emptiness does not always have to be negative.

John Calvin, for example, knew about the positive power of emptiness. He said our faith is an empty vessel that God has given us so that we can be filled with God's grace.

I've read that in Eastern cultures like China's emptiness is actually prized for its positive potential. The emptiness of a cup, for example, invites water. An empty room invites entrance and so welcomes the guest. The empty spaces in bamboo are what make it a strong construction material.

When I look carefully at our painting, I'm pretty sure that the artist spent more time planning her empty space than filling it up. Emptiness gives my painting its unique power. And in a small way, this helps me understand the Christian season of Easter with its commemoration of both Jesus' death and resurrection. With respect to death, Paul says Jesus "emptied himself . . . humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death on a cross." (Phil 2:7,8). That is, Jesus demonstrated his love for us humans, says Paul, by pouring out his divinity rather than hanging on to it.

And with respect to resurrection, both Jesus' and ours, who could ever fail to note that three days later the tomb was empty too!

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