The subverted art of Oregon Catholic Press, Holy Week edition

You may recognize this little artistic abomination.

But have you seen Holy Week?

united in christ missal

To put it gently, I find this cover art repugnant. There are several reasons.

1. Art that depicts our Lord ought to have a certain sanctity about it.

Artistically, this is more like an animated cartoon on Cartoon Network than a piece of art for adult consumption. It is more like a cheaply thrown together piece for amusement rather than meditation. Any image of our Lord, especially him crucified ought not to be for amusement but be done with reverence and respect. In the Bible Jews did not even say or write the name of God, as he revealed it to Moses. In the past decade, OCP finally removed the name “Yahweh” from it’s songs, catching on. Muslims will not allow any depiction of Muhammud. But I guess Jesus is one of us, so we don’t need to give him reverence. This over-emphasizes his humanity and forgets about his divinity. In the end, God is God and his disciples did not even recognize him.

2. The representation of those at the cross lack subtly, quality or care and represents a substantial break from tradition.

In order to make the cats jive with this cool and mellow art, Mary (Theotokos) and Mary Magdelene and John all look about the same age as Christ. Of course, Mary would need to be older than Christ, in her late forties following the tradition; John is usually depicted as a younger disciple, often without a beard; and Mary Magdalene is usually depicted younger than Mary. Mary and John are traditionally depicted standing at the foot of the cross, the Mother of God in varying stages of grief depending on how the artist chooses to render it.

The Crucifixion - Lucas Cranach the Elder
The Crucifixion – Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1503

Mary Magdalene traditionally is depicted with a more passionate expression of grief than Mary the Mother of God, likely referencing, in the degree of expression, the passion of a woman who would burst into a room in tears and wash his feet or a woman to whom Christ would later say “stop holding on to me.”

The Crucifixion – (after) Maarten De Vos

Not every portrayal need be traditional, it is true.

Christ Nailed to the Cross The Third Hour - William Blake
Christ Nailed to the Cross The Third Hour – William Blake, c.1800

Breaking from traditional images, using a method more abstract than realistic, can be an effective way to communicate a message.

Golgotha - Edvard Munch
Golgotha – Edvard Munch, 1900

So what message does OCP seek to communicate?

3. The message conveyed in this image cheapens Christ’s act which atones for our sins.

The artist replaced “INRI” (Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews) with “Cristo Rey” (Christ the King). Christ the King is a reverent title and solemnity celebrated by the Universal Church (properly the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe). “Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews” was written and posted on the cross as a form of mockery. This change is unnecessary and distorts the meaning, lessening his suffering on the cross.

Richard John Neuhaus in the first chapter of Death on a Friday Afternoon offers us steps we can take in understanding the mystery of atonement.

“First, something has gone terribly wrong. We find ourselves in a distant country far from home.

“Second, whatever the measure of our guilt, we are responsible.

“Then, third, something must be done about it.

“[Fourth], whatever it is that needs to be done, we cannot do it. Each of us, individually, the entirety of the human race collectively—what can we do to make up for one innocent child tortured and killed?

“Somebody else will have to do it.

“It must be someone who is in no way responsible for what has gone wrong. It must be done by an act that is perfectly gratuitous, that is not driven by necessity, by an act that is perfectly free.”

God becomes what we are in order to save us.

Is that not enough? Does he need to come down from the Cross, clean himself up and give us one big group hug? If we cannot be comforted by his gratuitous act of love, is a hug really going to save us? If Christ is able to come down from the Cross to comfort those with him, has he really given all?

4. It also cheapens the grief experienced and the sacrifice made by the Mother of God.

Again from Neuhaus in the third chapter of Death on a Friday Afternoon,

“The Greek word for this self-emptying is kenosis, it is the surrender of all that we hold most dear, and for Mary, it was the surrender of her dearest…’Mary had nowhere to rest her heart.’ and now it had come to this, she pondered in her broken heart, in her heart that by its breaking was made whole. That is the way it is with discipleship. The way of the cross is the way of broken hearts.”

“In all this, Mary was following her son, step by inexorable step. Her kenosis mirrored his kenosis, her life’s song was entirely attuned to his, a letting go into the vastness of whatever will be, trusting that at the end will be glory. Now his hour had come, and his hour was completely hers.”

Mary3If Jesus would, metaphorically, allegorically, figuratively or literally, come down from that cross to comfort her in that hour than her hour had not come. It passed her by. As Neuhaus reminds us again and again of Christ’s words, no disciple can be above his master. Mary shows us the way of trust, of discipleship, of following Christ to the Cross.

OCP’s cover art would encourage us to trade this in for momentary comfort. That we are not to offer our lives to and along side Christ, but rather to seek him for comfort. What higher gain is this, than the comfort of Christ? After all, this is in tune with his message, “unless you take up your cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple.” Oh, wait.

The message of a cleaned up Christ inviting us to his dinner party doesn’t sell, man. It isn’t the message of the New Evangelization.

“Reconciliation must do justice to what went wrong. It will not do to merely overlook the wrong. We could not bear to live in a world where wrong is taken lightly, where right and wrong finally make no difference. In such a world, we—what we do and what we are— would make no difference. Spare me the gospel of easy love that makes of my life a thing without consequence” (Richard John Neuhaus).

5. The Resurrection is the antidote to the grief of death.

Christ did comfort his disciples and his mother, as he comforts us today. It isn’t necessary to subvert the message of the cross. As Neuhaus exhorts us as he begins his book, stay with the Cross, do not rush so quickly to Easter.

Do not be afraid to stop and stare at the man on the Cross. Stay a while with your grief.

The Crucifixion, Grunewald


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