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The title for my sermon this afternoon is: Reading the Bible with triptych lenses. The Oxford English Dictionary defines triptych as “a set of three associated artistic, literary, or musical works intended to be appreciated together.” You remember those tri fold displays you’d do for a school project, or one of those three-panelled displays you see at a tradeshow? That’s the idea, but in a musical, literary, or artistic context. 

Nell Shaw Cohen, a composer and rock guitarist, describes one of her musical triptychs this way: 

“The first movement parallels the third in overall tempo, density, tonality, and duration, and contains similar musical devices (e.g., the ongoing use of droning upper strings).” The second movement is “somewhat longer, slower, sparser, and more lyrical.” 

Composing the piece in this way allows her to “explore the full register of the instrument.” 

A literary triptych is common in novels where you have three lead characters. Think Harry, Ron, and Hermione from the Harry Potter series. One fan described this triptych in an online forum as “a moving-picture of the soul’s three faculties or powers as they are in themselves and as they relate to one another.”

A visual triptych, the one that is maybe most familiar in churches, this is a standard panel of three paintings that typically go above an altar. The panels are often joined together with hinges so the frames can remain open or shut. The Cathedral has its very own triptych at the reredos. I encourage you to go and take a look after the service. It’s an icon written by Vladislav Andrejev. There are three panels: the centre, based on Rublev’s Holy Trinity, Holy Sophia on the West panel, and Logos Emmanuel on the East. Taken together they form a meditation on creation.

Another famous Christian triptych is of the annunciation by the Italian Gothic artists Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi. The centre panel depicts the scene when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her she will become pregnant with the Christ child. The two side panels show these famous women saints, Margaret and Ansanus, kind of looking on. The whole thing is painted with gold and tempera: paint mixed with egg yolk.  

So why am I telling you about triptychs? This idea of appreciating together a set of literary, musical, or visual works, this is a tool we can use to read and appreciate scripture. In our Gospel reading today, we have the famous passage of King Herod’s birthday party where John the Baptist is beheaded. If you can imagine, the first panel of a triptych, here is Herod’s daughter who has danced for Herod and his guests, and Herod promises to give the girl whatever she asks. She runs back to her mother, who has a grudge against John the Baptist, and the girl returns saying she wants John’s head on a platter.

And here’s the really key line. The text tells us that “The king was deeply grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.” 

The king was deeply grieved.

This phrase is used one other time in the Gospel of Mark. It’s when Jesus is praying in the garden at Gethsemane before the soldiers come to take him away (eventually to be crucified). So imagine here the centre panel of the triptych with Herod on the left and in the middle here is Jesus in the garden. The text says this:

“They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’”

“I am deeply grieved, even to death,” Jesus says.

The first panel, King Herod at his birthday party, deeply grieved at the request that’s been made of him, going ahead anyway and ordering the execution of John the Baptist. The centre panel, Jesus in the garden, deeply grieved with the knowledge that his own execution is coming, and he prays, “yet, not what I want, but what you want.” 

First panel, King Herod; centre panel, Jesus; so what’s on the third panel?

If we look at scripture through triptych lenses, the third panel becomes an opportunity for us to paint ourselves into the story. What is it about Herod’s scene that feels familiar? Perhaps it is the feeling of obligation to forms or institutions of power, no matter how much they take of us? Or is it the expectation of those around us, the desire to please and uphold an image we have for ourselves at all costs?

What is it in the centre panel, where Jesus stands deeply grieved, as he enters the garden to pray? What is it in this scene that resonates with you? Is there something in your own future, or that of a loved one, that feels inevitable? Out of your control? Do you, like Jesus, struggle to pray, “yet, not what I want, but what you want”? 

When we read the Bible with triptych lenses we have the opportunity to “explore the full register of the instrument [of scripture]”---to “take advantage” of its resonances. We get the chance to look upon the central character of Jesus the Christ, not alone, but in the company of another panel, of another “soul”: to consider how they exercise their “faculties or powers . . . in themselves” and towards the Christ figure and in what way we do likewise. 

When you consider the two panels before us today, Herod, and Jesus, if you were to write yourself into the third, what would we see?


For further information on the examples of triptychs cited in this sermon:

Musical triptych: 
Literary triptych:
Visual triptych: 

With thanks to Emerson Powery for the link between "deeply grieved" in Mark 6 and Mark 14: