A picture can be worth a thousand words, but sometimes a gasp is a more appropriate response.

This was the case during an evening sorting out old photos from the attic of my wife’s family home. Her father died four years ago after a long farewell to dementia. This year, her mother-in-law moved to a retirement community, necessitating the sale of the house. The photos were among the items my wife and her sister found. One of these photos sparked the gasp and confusion that comes with it.

“Where was this photo taken? ” I asked.

Tom Allen

“The living room of my grandfather and grandmother Smith’s house,” Beverly replied.

“Are you sure?” I continued.

“Yeah. The couch, the coffee tables, the lamps. It’s their den,” she says.

“Were your grandparents Catholic? I asked.

“What? No. Baptists.

Two framed prints on the wall of their lair piqued my curiosity and my questions. One represented the Sacred Heart of Jesus; the other, the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Both images adorn the homes of many Catholics, revered and used in prayer and personal devotions. But the 1970s haunt of a Baptist family in rural North Georgia?

These images, though graphic, kitsch and mistakenly European representations, are also hauntingly beautiful.

Statue representing the Sacred Heart of Jesus (123rf.com)

The Sacred Heart of Jesus is often depicted as an inflamed human heart, outside his chest. The heart is surmounted by a cross, surrounded by a crown of thorns and a bleeding wound. Typically, a very white, long-haired Jesus with beautiful eyes and a perfectly trimmed beard holds out one of his nail-pierced hands. The other hand shows his wounded heart. The devotion dates back to the 11th century, popularized by various mystics throughout the history of the church.

Statue representing the Immaculate Heart of Mary (123rf.com)

Devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the mother of Jesus, began in the Middle Ages. Like the Sacred Heart of her son, Mary’s heart is also traditionally depicted surmounted by a cross and flames, with rays of light emanating from the center of her chest. His heart is depicted as pierced by a sword, reminiscent of the prophecy of the temple of Simeon in the Gospel of Luke, when Mary and Joseph dedicated their infant son. Unlike the heart of Jesus, that of Mary is not surrounded by thorns but by roses. Frequently, the doe-eyed virgin with the white lily gazes at the faithful, showing her immaculate but wounded heart.

Historically, Baptists, along with other in the free church tradition, reacted against the use of “images” in worship or private devotion. They affirmed Martin Luther’s belief that the Roman Catholic Church of his time needed reform, but they argued that the Lutherans and later Anglican reformers had not gone far enough. For them, too much was still too “Roman”. It is not surprising that these early radical reformers abandoned stained glass windows, chandeliers and pipe organs for simple and austere places of worship. And there were certainly no crucifixes or statues, much less a painted image of Jesus.

“Head of Christ”, Sallman

Centuries later, Baptist houses of worship began to reveal the tradition’s evolving appreciation for beauty, color and transcendence. Although statues of Jesus or Mary may not be in the vestibule, many Sunday school classrooms, church parlors or fellowship halls have displayed framed prints of Warner Sallman’s iconic paintings – Head of Christ, Christ at the door of the heartand the good shepherd. And you didn’t suggest moving or changing those images. In other words, you are not playing with Jesus.

A 1950s photo I encountered while cleaning up my parents’ house after they died reminded me that Jesus had a special place in our lair, too. Two popular prints, jesus in the templeand Christ in Gethsemane, both mass-produced over the past century, from paintings by Heinrich Hofmann, brought Jesus to life, both as a 12-year-old boy and as the agonizing Son of God on the eve of his death.

“Christ in Gethsemane”, Heinrich Hofmann

As these representations of the Sacred Heart, Jesus was as white as my English ancestors. Yet these images, albeit wrongly Caucasian and Westernized, along with the art of Warner Sallman, helped many, including myself, to grasp a Jesus who was as real as my loved ones whose pictures hung on side of the 12-year-old boy in the Temple.

Neither my wife nor anyone in her family has any idea how these two pictures were hung in her grandparents’ house. Perhaps they were a gift, or passed down from another relative, or simply purchased because, as people of deep faith, Jesus was the center of their home.

Mary’s Immaculate Heart on the wall is more puzzling. When I shared the story with a Catholic friend, her response was, “A mother who loved her son and a son who loved his mother. What’s unusual about that? »

I laugh, reminding him of how the Baptists, although defending the virginal conception of Jesus as strongly as the pope, make only a slight mention of Mary in sermons or songs, usually, at some point in the cycle of the Advent to Epiphany or Holy Week, when we find her at the foot of the Cross. The most liturgical among us will be able to sing settings of his “Magnificat”; a few may even sing its joyful words in Latin. Yet, although it figures prominently in our nativity scenes, it returns to storage when the tree falls.

But the question remains: how and why were these images emblematic of a tradition both foreign and, unfortunately, avoided by many Protestants at that time, in the den of a rural Baptist family in northern Georgia?

A shared loss may offer a clue. Children are not supposed to die before their parents, but my wife’s grandparents knew this deep sadness. A son was killed in a car accident, leaving a wife and two young children. Later, a grandson committed suicide after returning from the front lines in Vietnam, and my wife’s mother preceded her own mother in death. So maybe these grandparents identified with a wounded Christ as well as his grieving mother.

“Perhaps, like Jesus, they knew what it was like to have your heart pierced and broken.”

Perhaps, like Jesus, they knew what it was like to have your heart pierced and broken. Like Mary, they may have understood what it was like to have their hearts pierced. Perhaps these images became visible reminders of a faith that had learned to embrace both joy and sadness, beauty and tragedy, life and death.

Admittedly, the story behind how we have imagined Jesus and other biblical characters throughout Christian history is skewed and convoluted. Consider Da Vinci Last Supper. As the good shepherd and Head of Christ, with printed reproductions, the images can be found on everything from tapestries to night lights. To rise above and challenge these legendary depictions of Jesus and Mary as light-skinned and blue-eyed, instead of the Middle Eastern Jews they were, is both fair and just.

And in rising above such stereotypes, perhaps we can see Mary as the one who not only said “yes”, but who carried the Son of God in her womb, under her own heart, so that his heart may one day beat with a love for all of us, a sacred love that my wife’s grandparents were sure would never end.

Tom Allen recently retired as minister of education at First Baptist Church, Southern Pines, North Carolina

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