by Laurie Oswald Robinson

When Pastor Renee Kanagy at New Creation Fellowship asked for a volunteer to provide visuals for the five-week season of Advent leading into Epiphany, George Krievins – like Mary in the Christmas story — took a leap of faith that birthed something new.

Though Krievins, an architect, had not painted since high school, he created a five-panel painting (pentaptych) that included the Annunciation, the birth of Jesus and the Visit of the Magi. By painting a new panel each week, Krievins, by Sunday, Jan. 5, finished the piece that spanned the front of the sanctuary in the Sister Frieda Chapel in Newton, Kansas. The chapel was built in 1954 as part of the former Bethel Deaconess Hospital and was later purchased by New Creation.

He said his architecture background has helped him to appreciate the colonial-style chapel. So when the call came for a volunteer, he saw his opportunity to make the space – and the story – to come alive. His inspiration came from comments Kanagy made in Sunday school on healing spaces.

“This space is so well done from a design point of view, with its arched ceilings, lighting and correct proportions, which makes it a very peaceful place to be,” he said. “I saw my opportunity to enhance this space so others could better see what is here and how beautifully it works as a whole. … Space, and what is in it, deeply affects how we worship.

“In doing this project, I answered a question that Jude McCulley raised in a sermon, ‘How do you make an old story new?’ I learned that to make a story as old as the Christmas story become new and relevant, I had to retell it myself. And if retelling it in words is not enough to make it vital, then I need to tell it in a way that is outside my comfort zone.”

The project, though very stretching from start to finish, brought fresh poignancy to his Christmas, Krievins said. “Christmas was less stressful, as I connected with the very deep meaning of what the season is all about,” he said. “Once a week, I took my paints and brushes and worked in the sanctuary all by myself for four or five hours as I played music in the background. It was a very contemplative time.

“It felt as if the whole process was being guided by the Spirit. I was constantly reminded by the challenges of creating this – as well as the other things other people found meaningful in the artwork that I didn’t intend — that I was not in as much control as I thought I was.”

One thing Krievins did shape, however, was the original conception of the artwork which he shared in the bulletin each week. He writes, “The five panels visually represent heaven and earth. The heavens arching down symbolize the Creator’s longing for relationship with his creation, and the earth arching upwards symbolizes the reciprocal longing of mankind. The patterns on the land echo the mile roads and fields of the Midwest, placing us in the center of this cosmic tension.

“Three shepherds stand in silhouette outside a sheepfold. … There are countless numbers of sheep in the sheepfold that stretches towards the horizon, and a ripe field of wheat fills the foreground, signs of the Creator’s care and provision for creation. But there is yet no shepherd to guard the gate. One star twinkles in the sky above the shepherds. Is it a sign?”

In his explanation of the panel depicting the Annunciation, he writes, “I believe God works in subtle and mysterious ways, so there is something about angels and the multitudes of heavenly hosts that mystifies me. … The field of wheat and the vineyard foreshadow bread and wine … the body and blood of Christ, a coming sacrament that celebrates the restoration of our relationship with God.”

To depict the nativity, Krievins paints Joseph holding Jesus. “Faith is a journey, and in this moment, on a cold dark night in a stable, far from friends and family, God’s incarnation is a mystery that is challenging to grasp,” he wrote. “Mary believes, a belief entangled with the emotions of motherhood, but very real. Her faith connects her to God in heaven, even as God is connecting humankind through his birth.”

The river represents a stream in the desert, symbolic of the living water that Christ brings to the thirsty places in our lives. “Even as the west half of this pentaptych depicts a fruitful earth, the east side will balance that with a more rocky, dry, and thorny reality,” he wrote.

To explain the Epiphany imagery, he wrote, “The three kings come bearings gifts to welcome the newborn king…we don’t know who they were, or from where they came, or even their number or gender, but in this story, they represent the ‘other.’ They represent us. We close this longest night with the first glow of dawning in the east.”

Kanagy said, “This experience has revealed the powerful interplay, or dance, between the scripture, the liturgy and the church seasons. We didn’t intentionally link this to the Year of the Bible. And yet, just as stained-glass windows in earlier times told the gospel story to pre-literate people, art allows us to embody the words of the biblical narrative in ways that cause them to come alive in new ways.”