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

 

Reflections on Death on a Friday Afternoon, Chapter 2: Judge Not

Below are two reflections from Richard John Neuhaus’s book, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, Chapter 2: Judge Not. To read my reflections from Chapter 1, please click here.

An Approach to Faith

As a 8th grader, attending daily mass, I fell in love with the Lord through the Holy Eucharist. After high school I served one year with the National Evangelization Team, NET Ministries. In that year I learned how to pray using the lectio divina. Following that year, a friend invited me to make a holy hour every day. Throughout college I planned my courses around daily mass and my holy hour. It was a blessed time.

Then came adulthood. In my first year of full time work, I struggled to find rhythm in my prayer life. Then marriage, then pregnancy, then baby, so on and so on. During pregnancy I regained my spiritual strength to pray upon waking, but then baby. “Routine is beauty,” Mark Berchum, founder of NET Ministries said. How to find the beauty when the routine continues to change?

I struggled for a long time with this. The markers I used to diagnose my spiritual life had all changed. With a new vocation I had to look at it with a totally different tool. When I sought counsel, some excused me, some accused me. One day I attended mass, either without my child or with my child asleep. After communion I felt the Lord, I knew that presence, I knew him. “That’s right,” I said, “I love you.”

In the second meditation on Christ’s last words in his book, Death on a Friday Afternoon, Richard John Neuhaus has this to say:

When our faith is weak, when we are assailed by contradictions and doubts, we are tempted to look at our faith, to worry about our faith to try to work p more faith. At such times, however, we must not look to our faith but look to him.

Look to him with whatever faith you have and know that your worry about your lack of faith is itself as a sign of faith.

I learned to stop worrying. Periodically I have glimpses of his light and I am reminded, yes, I know you, I love you. I am the same person and you are the same God and our relationship still exists. Step by step, I will continue to follow his path. I have to remind myself to accuse myself, to confess. Each season I need to seek out ways to pray, to read, to grow. I try to be more merciful towards myself and how far we are from the goals we set for our family prayer.

So this is good advice for me.

Desire all to be saved

As Neuhaus reflects on the interaction between the Good Thief and Christ, specifically Christ’s response to him, “Today you shall be with me in paradise,” Neuhaus considers whether all can or should be saved.

“For paradise we long. Fer perfection we were made.”

“Given the evidence of Scripture and tradition, we cannot deny that hell exists. We can, however, hope that hell is empty. We cannot know that, but we can hope it is the case.”

Some might object to such a notion, and indeed many intelligent minds have. To one objection, Neuhaus reminds the reader of the parable of the workers in the vineyard, called at different times throughout the day, but paid the same wage. In response to the indignation,

“‘What is the point of being a Christian if, in the end, everyone is saved?’ People who ask that should listen to themselves. what is the point of being first rather than last in serving the Lord whom you love? what is the point of being found rather than lost? what is the point of knowing the truth rather than living in ignorance.”

Some would say that since no one can be saved except through Christ, that those without Christ do not know the truth, and thus cannot be saved.

“Everything that is true—in religion, philosophy, mathematics or the art of baseball—is true by virtue of participation in the truth who is Christ. The problem is not that non-Christians do not know truth; he problem is that they do not know the truth they know is the truth of Christ.”

At length, Neuhaus lays the foundation of understanding that God has made us for paradise and wants all men to be saved. So we must pray as the persistent widow.

“Prayer creates space for possibilities that would not otherwise be possible.”

We must care, we must desire that all be saved because this is what God desires.

“A Christian is not saved against the rest of humanity, to be separated out from the rest of humanity. Rather, we are saved, as it were, on behalf of all—to be reconcilers, intercessors, mediators for all.”

And we must make an effort to share that truth. We should not be bashful.

“Many Christians are embarrassed by this claim (that there is salvation by no one else). They are intimidated by a culture that decrees that all truths are equal. Who are you to claim that you have the truth and other do not? That is indeed an intimidating question, unless we understand that we do not have the truth in the sense that is it ours by virtue of our having discovered it; we do not have the truth in the sense of its being possession under our control.”

It is God’s truth, it is he who has made us aware of it. And so we should share it, and share in his desires that all men be saved. This is the way of evangelization. One more piece of the puzzle.

Fresco depicting the friar preaching to the Florentines

 

 

Death on a Friday Afternoon, 1: Coming to our Senses

For Lent, we are reading Death on a Friday Afternoon by Richard John Neuhaus. In Chapter 1, Coming to our Senses, Neuhaus reflects on the first word from the cross: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The reflection is vast and deep as it sweeps across reality, the problem of evil, the madness of the Cross. It seems impossible to summarize or hit highlights, as any real reflection takes one step at a time, a scavenger hunt for truth. What are the questions Richard John Neuhaus asks?

Why is Good Friday called good?

For whom does he pray forgiveness?

Who is at fault? Who is guilty?

I will share two concepts, but I highly recommend you read it yourself. Neuhaus’ prose is pure poetry.

The truths at the heart of atonement

These are truths we know instinctively, reflexively.

“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.”

Theodicy: how to justify to humankind the ways of God

From this nuanced understanding of atonement, at-one-ment, Neuhaus’ thoughts brings us to the concept of theodicy: how to justify to humankind the ways of God. I give you an excerpt.

All the Adams and all the Eves join with the brightest and the best of philosophers to declare that this is just the way the world is. And who is responsible for that?

…if God is good and God is almighty how did evil come about?

…In order to adjudicate these questions, we constituted ourselves the jury and the judge and we put God on the dock. And soon enough we would constitute ourselves as executioner as well

…The jury deliberated and reached its verdict. The decision was unanimous. With one voice, poor deluded humanity pointed to the prisoner in the dock and declared, “God is guilty!”

Why this awful, awe-filled Friday is called good.

“Only by submitting to our folly could he save us from our folly.”

“God must become what we are in order that we might become what God is.”

Personal Reflections

When I began to see the world imbued with God’s life and guidance, I saw every facet of the world being touched by him. That was before I knew suffering. As I shared in a previous post, The Madness of Miscarriage, when I encountered suffering for the first time, I struggled deeply not to see God as the arbitrator of this suffering. Consolations such as “it just wasn’t time” or “God wanted this little one in Heaven” deepened my suffering, because it is good that a child should be with his mother. No child should have a life without having been held and no mother should suffer to not be able hold her child. It just isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

Neuhaus hits this point head on. From the suffering inflicted by one on another to the maddening suffering of the innocent to natural disasters or disease, we know something has gone wrong. “Spare me that sentimental love that says what I do or what I am does not matter.”

And so, as I engage with that first sin, the line which Neuhaus draws from the temptation to determine for myself what is good and what is evil, to the judgment of God, theodicy, I suffer with anger at my heart that God is guilty, the he caused the suffering. I experienced this anger at that dark time of grief in our lives, at the times of economic insecurity as I watched my husband suffer to provide for us, at times of illness and colds that seem not to let up. Why doesn’t God make it better? Implicit in that question is the judgement of God, trying to square God with the way I see the world and how I think it ought to be and how I think God ought to act.

But God is not guilty and how desperately we must realize that. As my husband or I remind the other at times of conflict, “we are on the same side,” God is that lover that longs to reconcile, who holds it out to us.