December 2018 / January 2019 - Vol. 101

bright red
                  bloodgood shrub
“Let there be Light”  Red

 Part 2: Reflections on Light, Color & Our Relationship with God

by Ros Yates 

Red for Remembrance
As I start to write this The world is turning to autumn and the colours of autumn surround me. It is the 100th anniversary of World War I and there poppies everywhere in the UK.

On October 31st, the eve of All Saints Day, the public fascination with death and the Dead is mingling with the fading remembrances of war and blood and sacrifice, and the powerful symbol of millions of red poppies blooming in the fields that once were ploughed by trenches, ripped and raped by shells and bullets, blooming on the blood of a generation of youth sacrificed in what was supposed to be the war to end all wars a hundred years ago.

Life-Form 2018 sculpture by Ros Yates
"Life-Form 2018" sculpture by Ros Yates

The Imperial War Museum in London is veiled in a river of ceramic poppies.  I placed a paper poppy inside my venture into wire sculpture. It is a fragile thing but it’s colour, red, shouts a louder, stronger message than the hard wire flames that envelope it.

We have mounted a big poppy outside our church, outlined on wire caging, and an invitation to passers by to share the remembering, the thanksgiving and prayers for peace in our time and an end to the bloodshed. So many people have tied red ribbons to this act of community art giving expression to our longing and grieving in a gently rippling splash of crimson visible right down the street.

Remembrance Poppy St Dunstan’s East
                            Acton London 2018
Remembrance Poppy St Dunstan’s East Acton London UK 2018

Mixed meanings
Red is such a powerful colour – but that can be positive or negative depending on the context. It attracts attention, like the berries of autumn, inviting us to taste, yet some are filled with poison.

Yew Berries 2018 artwork by Ros
Yew Berries – Ros Yates 2018

Red labeling is used for warning signs, but is also the colour of health; cheery cheeks flushed with blood. Red fruit and veg are good for us filled with vitamins and minerals.

tomatos on the vine - artwork by Ros
Tomatoes on the Vine – Ros Yates 2018

And as the festive season approaches red stands proud and complimentary to the ever-green backdrop, we shall soon celebrate those ‘red letter days’ on the calendar, and what would a great occasion be without  a red carpet to greet and honour the celebrity guests.

But red can also mean anger; ‘seeing red’. I remember my father cursing under his breath at the ‘red letter’ in the post demanding payment of debt, or the bank informing us we are ‘in the red’.
Red can be a stain, horribly hard to get rid off if it is red wine or tomato – and is the colour of the dyes Isaiah refers to which, amazingly, will be ‘white as snow’ when the people’s sin is washed away.  (Is 2.18)                                         
though your sins are like scarlet,
   they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
   they shall become like wool.

And of course, politically speaking, red will mean different things depending on what nation you are in, and how you feel about that will depend on who you support!

Danger! – this may change your life.
But most agree that the colour red still says ‘danger’. In fact our brains actually believe that red means danger.  In an experiment people who were touched by a very cold -20 C rod on the hand reported experiencing significantly more pain if at the same time they are looking at a red light compared to a blue light. It is likely the brain associates redness with something hot and capable of burning. The glowing red hot embers of a fire have become associated in our brains with the pain of being burnt, though in other settings the glow of a fire is welcoming and life giving.

Fire is a strong image in the Bible – dangerous, yet when mastered, a God given gift to human community which has enabled the flourishing of civilization as well as giving us the tools for destruction.

Fire consumes, but also attracts. Moses turned aside to the burning bush, but his encounter with the Living God was both holy and harrowing, his heart laid bare, called and affirmed, but challenged too.  Yet it seems he eventually could not get enough of the presence of the Holy One, even asking to see God’s face to face on the mountain of fire, Sinai, where the covenant was etched into those tablets of stone.

Painting produced in ‘Creative
                              Worship’ workshop in a local school
Painting produced in ‘Creative Worship’ workshop in a local school

Blood and fire – life giving, but filled with awe.

Blood is something we often now avoid the sight of, but I think it is the very basic human fear of spilling that precious crimson which gives the colour red it’s symbolic power –both positive and negative, attracting and repelling depending on the context.
No doubt the power of red has it’s roots in the earliest days of humankind when a wound was more likely to be fatal, and everyone knew that when blood departs then so does life. The Old Testament puts it like that ‘The life is in the blood’ – and though we could debate how scientifically accurate that is, the meaning of ‘spilt blood’, the taking or giving of a life, remains. And so red becomes the colour of life and death at the same time, and the colour of sacrifice and martyrdom as well as the colour of the life-giving Spirit – at least in the seasonal dressing of liturgical churches.

Why is blood red?
The chemistry of our blood has birthed a symbolism with transcends culture and language and history; Science has revealed the mystery and the mechanism behind the importance of blood - and in particular it’s redness - for sustaining life

Haemoglobin, that amazing catalyst molecule which welcomes and cradles atoms of oxygen in its fingers and carries the energy-element to where ever in our bodies it is needed, then gives it up freely. It gives up also the shining scarlet hue created by their bonding, the blood returning, dulled to a dark wine, back to the lungs and ready to ferry more.

We could learn from that parable - how to be carriers of the breath of life to others in a delivery service which lights us up as we carry the gift, but which must be given away so we can take more. We can't keep it to ourselves or the body will die.

There is perhaps another parable in what happens with Carbon monoxide poisoning where the gas bonds preferentially to the haemoglobin, blocking the places where oxygen would be carried. Worse, it sticks 200 times more strongly than the oxygen and is not easily given up. If we fill our lives with the wrong things, more attractive and more 'sticky', then we don't have space for the 'oxygen', or the ability to fulfill our calling to carry life to where it is needed. The 'carboxyhaemaglobin'  formed when carbon monoxide gets in the bloodstream makes it 'cherry red' but it remains in the veins as well as the arteries, refusing to ‘give up’ the poison gas and so the victim may look flushed – when in fact they are starved of oxygen.

Do we carry things in our lives counterfeit things which ‘stick’ and prevent us from living out our calling?  How might we lay aside the attractive but fake before they displace what is authentic and life-giving?
Hebrew 12.1-2
Let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

The blood of Christ
Jesus’ sacrificial life and death was a constant ‘giving up’ for the good of others. Interestingly, the wine of the Eucharist, is a colour closest to that of venous blood which has given up it’s oxygen for the good of the body. For Christians, the blood of Jesus, shed for us, is the most awesome symbolic meaning in the story of the colour red. He shared our humanity – our flesh and blood – giving it up as the total offering of himself. In Russian icons, the colour red represents humanity, and Jesus is usually depicted wearing red but with a blue cloak showing the union of his two natures. ‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see’ (Charles Wesley, from ‘Hark the Herald angels sing’)

Most of us don’t see much real blood in our daily sanitized lives, though ironically, the amount of graphic bloodshed in films and TV has increased to the point where it may cease to shock. 

The power of red blood in the ancient world and the worship of the temple needs to be appreciated in order to enter in to its meaning and allow the imagery of the Bible to hit home. We may need the strength this brings in the days ahead.

It may seem illogical to us that a garment washed in blood can come out white!!  (though I liken it to a ‘mud-pack’ where the clay draws out impurities in the skin leaving the face cleaner than ever before). ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7.14)

There is probably more that can be said about the colour red but I’ll leave you with two pictures.

The colours of autumn leaves in my Japanese Maple ‘Bloodgood’ are the result of nutrients being withdrawn; a reminder that there is glory in the natural cycling of things, life and death, and rebirth.
Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ shrub
Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’

And finally, something seasonal – the traditional English folk Carol turns every part of the Holly plant into a symbol.  ‘The holly bears a berry as red as any blood. And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to do us sinners good.’

May you be blessed by his presence in all the signs and symbols of Christmas this year.

Ros Yates

Christmas Card 2013, Ros
                                          Yates artwork
Christmas Card 2013, Ros Yates artwork

Ros Yates is a member of the Antioch ecumenical Christian community in London. She has been painting and drawing from an early age. Having studied Biology and Theology she is now an ordained Deacon in the Church of England, a self-taught artist, and mother of four children.  Not surprising then that themes of creativity, spirituality and the natural world are constantly interwoven in her life and art. 

She uses art and crafts in prayer and Bible study workshops with adults and children. The natural world is a constant course of inspiration. She loves gardening and spending time at The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London, the London Wetland Centre, and holidays in Purbeck on the English South Coast. All these find their way into her art, as do the word-images and parables of the Bible.

> See other articles by Ros Yates in Living Bulwark

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