Lips Moved by an Angel’s Hands

Correction: This post is premised on an incorrect interpretation of the work in question. Refer to Lisa Levy‘s comment below and my response to it.

Finally, on my third attempt—not counting two extra false starts—I made it by bicycle, with six friends, to see the Chagall and Matisse stained glass windows at the Rockefellers’ Union Church at Pocantico Hills, New York. We arrived just in time to see the little neo-gothic country church before a wedding rehearsal came to take over. When that happened, when we’d done our glimpse-y time among those works of endless permutations, we went half a mile up the road to get a special tour of Stone Barns farm to see the state of the art in high-class sustainability.

The window that caught me most of all, that carried me, that held me, was Marc Chagall’s Isaiah, pictured right—barely visible, unforunately. I’m sure I can’t say completely why it got me. There is an angel, who with his fingers is moving the prophet’s lips. In the bottom left, a bird and, above it, the light of the sun.

Perhaps it is a scene of gross coercion, the image of divine beings, real or imaginary, effacing our humanness by their intrusions, denying the very powers of speech that only they could have given us. Why would they do this? It is a parable for all the talents that throughout history have gone unused or forcibly denied by the divine, or by human powers acting in the divine’s name or likeness.

Perhaps, also, it is the story of truth-telling. We are deceitful, lazy creatures who know good and evil without any sure way of telling one from the other. When the truth comes out, then, what could it be but the doing of an angel? Haven’t you had that experience, of the truth passing through you, coming out your lips at the moment it needed to, along with the absolute certainty that it could not have possibly come from you alone? Or, even more so, truths that don’t feel like truths at the time, which, like Isaiah’s utterances, made so little sense to the world he knew and was speaking to. Yet, some say, the truth of those words “came to pass” in events he could not have predicted or brought about. For many of those things, people are still waiting, still hoping that it was really the angel whose words those were, those promises.

In either case, why does the angel need Isaiah at all? Why didn’t the angel speak for himself? And, by the same token, why did I and my friends so need to travel 35 miles on our own power from the city to the countryside to see this image, which we didn’t even know we were going to see?

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.