Framers of the Gospel
Among the literary characteristics of the Gospels, one of the most significant is their episodic structure. Although each Gospel is an integral literary composition, anyone can see that they were intended to be read story-by-story. These small narratives go by the Greek name pericope, which means “a rounded section.” Obviously, the established lectionaries present the Gospels this way.
Christians assimilate the mystery of Redemption in bite-size stories. The life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus are mediated to the Church in these enclosed frames of narrative. Each account represents a window, as it were, through which believers contemplate the apologos katholikos, the story as a whole.
Let me suggest that the episodic quality of the Gospels prompts a comparison with framed art and the stage. Indeed, I submit that all these forms take their rise from the same impulse: the need for a concentrated regard in order to contemplate the whole. Chesterton perceived this need when he remarked on “the boundary line that brings one thing sharply against another.” He went on to explain, “All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window.”
A framed gaze at reality—whether in the theater, or pictorial art, or episodic narrative—enjoys a two-fold advantage:
First, recognizing that limitation is necessary to form, it draws contemplation to a focus. Whether in a scene of Macbeth or a seascape of Turner, one receives the whole truth in a size not too hard to ingest.
Second, the lines of a frame indicate an appropriate humility in the presentation. A framework announces, even before the story begins, that the composition strives to be no more than an “outline.” I prefer here the German expression, Grundriss, which better insinuates both the foundational aspect of the enterprise and the humility of the ground.
The gospel itself declares the benefit of this humility: “Whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” In a framed presentation, the myriad elements left unspoken form an internal and luminous exaltation, an intimation of energy. The cataphatic components of a scene implicitly convey a greater glory.
That is to say, the limitations imposed by the frame are not negative, but positive. For instance, neither in life nor on canvas does a viewer gaze straight at the sun. Indeed, a direct attention to the sun precludes the sight of anything else. The sun’s exaltation is discerned, rather, in the contrast of lights and shadows. The wind, too, humbles itself on the canvas; its exaltation is conveyed in the bent branches and the turbulence of the waves.
In the theater, the energy and exaltation of a given scene come largely from off-stage, being derived from the plot and context of the whole story. Indeed, few theatrical scenes are intelligible except within an “act” and the entire production. Plot and assumed context provide the sun and wind, as it were, of the narrative in the immediate scene.
Windows are usually quadrangular, in contrast to the proscenium’s arch and the circularity suggested by the noun “pericope.” Quadrangles are far more reliable than circles; these have a tendency to roll away. The quadrangle, by keeping everything steady, favors an analytic consideration of the subject. The viewer is disposed to pose questions. Angles encourage rationality.
Indeed, the quadrangle is a bold effort to hold a circle in place. It deliberately sunders the fluidity of the curve, for the purpose of critical appraisal. Parsing the 360 degrees around the circle’s center, it sends them off into four corners to turn around and face one another. The viewer is obliged to come at the subject from dialectically contrasted points, where progressing lines actually “bend back.” Angles—literally—reflect.
A similar angularity contours the Gospels—a feature, I suggest, favoring critical reflection on their content. Lines are drawn up against one another. Sundry tensions are strung from contrasting corners. The stress of opposition is everywhere: Jesus and his enemies, a rich man and Lazarus, deformity and healing, stormy waves and a calm sea, Mary and Martha, before and after, life and death, heaven and hell, “You have heard it said” and “But I say unto you,” and so on. The concentrated energy of each scene discloses the drama of the whole story.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Framers of the Gospel” first appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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