Sunday, April 01, 2012

Day 1: Jesus Enters the City on Palm Sunday (Gay Passion of Christ series)

1. The Son of Man with Job and Isaiah (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“God has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” -- Isaiah 61:1 (Inclusive Language Lectionary)

God’s solidarity with people amid human suffering is emphasized from the first painting in 24-panel series “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” by Douglas Blanchard. Right away we see that Jesus is an attractive young man of today. This will be no ordinary Stations of the Cross, with a hopelessly distant Jesus moving predictably from trial to tomb. Blanchard’s vision starts at a different point and features an accessible Jesus that 21st-century readers can know and touch. As often happens with contemporary LGBT people, his gay identity is not obvious most of the time.

Jesus stands half-naked in blue jeans and handcuffs with a pair of Old Testament prophets in a dark prison cell. A barred window behind an arch gives him a crude halo. His warm, pink flesh is bleeding. In a contemporary form of dehumanization, Jesus is labeled with a number, “124,” hanging on a tag around his neck. Names painted on the sides of the frame identify the two men from the Hebrew scriptures: Job on the right and Isaiah on the left. Their presence signals that themes of suffering and justice will run through this series. The gay vision of Christ’s Passion promises to address the suffering of queer people today -- and thereby speak to the human condition.

This scene of Jesus in prison with Job and Isaiah does not occur in scripture. Maybe it represents Jesus’ own vision as he prayed in prison after his trial, listening to the crowds outside shouting for his death -- just a week after they roared their approval when he entered the city. Maybe is this a resurrection as Jesus seems to emerge from the arched door of a tomb? Or does it show how we lock away the prophets of today along with Jesus?

The opening image is also one of the most cryptic paintings in the series. It’s tempting to skip over it and jump ahead to the next scene where Jesus enters the city. Even the prophets turn their faces away. Job seems unable to bear looking at Jesus’ suffering, while Isaiah appears to be lost in thought. Jesus faces the viewer with a full frontal gaze, ready to engage in dialogue. Together the three men form a kind of Trinity. A closer look reveals a surprise: The lapel of a suit is visible under Job’s ancient robe, and the fringes of Isaiah’s robe dangle over modern shoes. The prophets are wearing modern business suits. For those who take time to decode its dense symbolism, this painting foreshadows and sums up the whole series.

Passion means suffering. It comes from the Greek and Latin words for suffering, and has become a theological term for the events and suffering that Jesus experienced in the week before his death. Both Job and Isaiah are associated with suffering. Job was a righteous man who experienced horrible calamities. Throughout the whole Book of Job he wrestles with the question: Why do bad things happen to good people? A major theme in the Book of Isaiah is the Suffering Servant, a “man of sorrows” who brings justice, but is rejected. Christians see this as a prophecy about Jesus, the compassionate servant of God.

Jesus did launch his public ministry by quoting Isaiah. He told the people at the synagogue in Nazareth that he was fulfilling this prophecy: “The Spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, and has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4:18; Isaiah 61:1)

The title of this painting is “Son of Man,” a multi-purpose phrase that Jesus, Job and Isaiah all used. Due to its male connotations, the expression “Son of Man” is translated as “Human One” in gender-inclusive language. It can mean a normal human being (male or female) or a divine ruler envisioned by the prophet Daniel. Jesus often referred to himself as “son of man,” emphasizing his own humanity while perhaps also invoking the ancient prophecy. By titling this first painting “Son of Man,” Blanchard underscores the humanity of Jesus while honoring his divinity. Blanchard’s choice of words reveals that this vision is progressive but not necessarily politically correct. This Jesus remains unapologetically male.

Blanchard’s references to Job, Isaiah and the Son of Man place this series squarely in Christian tradition. This first painting makes a theological statement in addition to telling a story. It hallows human suffering by invoking two major Biblical archetypes of Christ: the Suffering Servant and the Son of Man. Thus the series operates on two levels as a story framed within a story. The real-life adventures of Jesus’ last days and post-resurrection appearances (paintings #2 through #23) are set within a larger theological vision. Paintings #1 and 24 function like picture frames, putting the story into a context beyond time and space.

This series is based on a time-honored artistic heritage as well as religious tradition. Scenes from the Passion cycle were painted by virtually every great European artist in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, from Giotto to Michelangelo, Leonardo, Rubens and Rembrandt. Blanchard, who is an art history professor as well as artist, drew on a deep reservoir of great art to create this series. He has said that he was especially inspired by The Small Passion, a series of 36 woodcuts by German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer.

With this first painting in “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” the stage is set and we are invited to join Jesus on a journey.

“The Spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, and has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” -- Luke 4:18 (Inclusive Language Lectionary)

Jesus was one of us, a real human being. He loved everybody, even his enemies. And yet some say that LGBT people don’t belong in the story of Jesus Christ. There’s black Jesus, Asian Jesus -- and now gay Jesus to heal the hate and discrimination done in Christ’s name. This is the story of a Jesus who emphasized his humanity by calling himself the Human One.* He didn’t look very gay. He could pass for straight. Everyone found him attractive. He was fully in the present, yet felt kinship with the ancient prophets Job and Isaiah who knew about suffering. He wanted to serve God by healing people and setting them free. Here we remember his last days, his death and his resurrection. Jesus was a child of God who embodied love so completely that he transcended death. But while it was all happening, people didn’t understand. Society rejected him.

Jesus, show me how you lived and loved.


2 Jesus Enters the City(from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“And when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus.’” --Matthew 21:10-11 (RSV)

A crowd like today’s Occupy Movement marches under an arch with a charismatic young man on a donkey in “Jesus Enters the City.” This image show Palm Sunday, but there are no palms in the generic cityscape. Signs for “freedom” and “justice” make it a rally for any kind of cause, from LGBT Pride to the Tea Party. The crowd is full of familiar people from 21st-century America, a veritable model of diversity: male and female, black and white, young and old, able-bodied and wheelchair-bound. A mother and daughter are in the lead, while a black man holds the donkey’s reins. The crowd adores Jesus as if he was a rock star or political leader. They stretch their hands up to him, and he bends down to touch them. Jesus rides on a donkey -- as surprising now as it was in Biblical times. We might expect a limo, while the people of old Jerusalem expected a chariot or at least a horse. It’s a happy scene, but it foreshadows the emptiness and impermanence of earthly glory.

With this second painting his series “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” artist Douglas Blanchard begins to show events from the gospels in a contemporary urban setting. All four gospels describe Jesus’ entry into Roman-occupied Jerusalem at the height of his popularity. Adoring crowds greeted him by laying palms on the ground before him and shouting “Hosanna!”

Crowd scenes are one of Blanchard’s strengths as an artist. He captures the unruly movements of a large gathering of people almost like a stop-action photo. Indeed while working on this series, Blanchard studied Charles Moore’s photos of the American Civil Rights movement. He paints each face in the crowd as a unique individual. Check out the young man in a spiky mohawk carrying the “justice” sign on the right. He looks like somebody right out of a Pride march.

The arch is like a simplified version of the Washington Square Arch in New York City, where Blanchard has lived since 1991. It is a landmark in Greenwich Village, an artsy neighborhood with a nonconformist tradition. That arch was in turn based on the first-century Arch of Titus in Rome, which also inspired the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Triumphal arches were invented by the ancient Romans and remain one their most influential architectural forms.

All of these arches symbolize material power, and therefore end up hinting at its transience as times change. The Arc de Triomphe played a role in military victory rallies for everyone from Napoleon to Hitler, and in 1999 a new version aggrandizes a contemporary kind of empire: a Las Vegas casino. The Arch of Titus was built to celebrate the sack of Jerusalem, yet ironically in this painting it serves as the gateway to Jerusalem for the doomed Jesus. Light streaming through the arch forms a kind of halo behind Jesus’ head, like the barred window in the first painting.

“Look, the world has gone after him.” -- John 12:19 (RSV)

Everyone cheered when Jesus called for justice and freedom. Crowds followed him into the city, shouting and waving palm leaves. Their chants were not so different from ours: “Yes we can! Out of the closet and into the streets! We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” Jesus was a superstar making a grand entrance. But he did it in his own modest, gentle style. He surprised people by riding on a donkey. Some of his supporters, those who had mainstream success, urged him to quiet the others -- assimilate, don’t alienate. Tone it down. Act respectable, don’t demand respect. Stop flaunting it. His answer: I’m here to liberate people! If the crowd was silent, the stones would cry out! It was that kind of day, a Palm Sunday sort of day, a day when everyone shouted for equality and freedom. But was anybody still listening?

Christ, set me free!

This is part of a series based on “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a set of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard, with text by Kittredge Cherry.  For the whole series, click here.

Scripture quotations are from Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations are from the Inclusive Language Lectionary (Year C), copyright © 1985-88 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.


Trudie said...

This series is truly off to a triumphal start! Especially valuable is the more in depth analysis of the paintings themselves, calling attention to some of the details and symbolism that might otherwise be missed.

SCG said...

I really, really LOVE that one of Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Thank you for providing this!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks for your comments, Trudie and SCG. I’m glad to know that my detailed examination of the paintings is helping others. It’s interesting that each person seems to have a different “favorite” that they LOVE among these 24 images. More to come tomorrow!

Becki Jayne said...

Blanchard's art is amazing. Updated within a modern narrative, his art presents us with questions -- Would Jesus fare any better, i.e., escape condemnation and a death sentence in today's world? How would his ministry be received?

June Butler said...

Wonderful commentary on Doug's pictures, and lovely reflections on the Scripture passages, Kitt.

CJ Barker said...

Hey Kitt- since you kindly asked people who've commented on these before to do so again this year, I thought I'd take you up on it. I found I didn't have much time to spend on it last year, but I'm a smidgin less busy this year, and doing this makes a nice Holy Week devotion.

I love these paintings not just for how "radical" they are, but for how much I see them as being absolutely in line with traditional Christian understandings of Christ and of Easter. I'll try to make that clear as I go. I know many people find the very idea of a "gay Jesus" to be so far afield from what they understand Christianity to be as to be incomprehensible. I don't guess there's too many of them reading Jesus in Love, but given your recent notoriety for pushing queer nativity scenes, who knows? :) And at any rate, I think it's worth pointing out.

So here you go.

day 1

The Spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, and has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”

I see the first painting as an extended meditation on that scripture. He comes to the prison to proclaim liberty - but not in the guise of a deliverer- as that is ordinarily understood. He has no key, no writ of deliverance, no pardon in his hand. He comes as a fellow prisoner- shackled, bound, bloodied and numbered... but not bowed. His eyes don't look down or aside- they engage straight ahead. And he stands in an almost military pose -at attention- like a soldier, ready to receive and carry out orders. And who is he delivering? Is the doorway the one out of the prison? Is he about to lead out a procession behind him? Or is it a doorway within the prison- in which case by position the viewer is in the cell as well, with him, and Job and Isaiah? Job - who lost much but gained more after being shown his own smallness and limits; Isaiah, of priestly family, who spoke of the coming of what most thought would be a political deliverer. They stand on opposite sides of the doorway, about to usher him through, but not looking at him. They are dressed as Jesus is not, and as most of the rest of the figures in the series are not- in clothes of their time as well as of ours. They proclaim that what they are ushering forth to us is of both their times and ours- a message about today, clothed or wrapped in an ancient story. But they are not the ones bringing it; just as they avert their eyes from Jesus they also avert them from us. It is not they who proclaim the message, they only present to one who does. But the message is not one of words- no one's mouth is open, no one carries a scroll or a book or a laptop or an ipad. The messenger *is* the message. By simply presenting Himself, bloody and in chains, at your prison door, He proclaims freedom. (A freedom that, as the writer of Hebrews states, many righteous, including Job and Isaiah, longed to see- but didn't, as their turned away eyes attest- but that you, the viewer, do.)

CJ Barker said...

2. The entry into Jerusalem-

They were expecting a political deliverer. So often today we forget..... but they were. He rode on an ass because that was what kings sons had done at various places in the Jewish holy books- or at least there are specific scriptures that were understood as speaking of the messiah, the deliverer, doing such things. The arch is a triumphal arch- what Roman conquerors threw up to celebrate their conquests- what they marched to and through with their booty, and their armies, and their captives cowering behind them, to show off their power and their dominance. He's in the center of an image constructed around that- but, unlike in the first painting, he doesn't even meet the viewers eyes. He doesn't look at the crowd either- no Kingly nods and waves. In the midst of this "triumph" he's looking down- reaching down, even - to some unseen person(s) in the crowd. Have you ever been in the front rows at a parade with politicians in it? The great pols have an amazing ability, as they go by, to look individually into your eyes just long enough to make you feel that they're waving to you alone- and then move right along and do that time after time after time to thousands and thousands of others, all day long. (Willie Brown, the ex Mayor of San Francisco, was an absolute master at it, and I'd swear Bill Clinton could do it all day long, even in his sleep.) But Jesus isn't doing that. His eyes aren't meeting anyone's we can see. The crowd are all looking forward or to the side- not at him. They're after something he's not even looking at. And he's after something- or someone, perhaps- that nobody else is paying any attention to; somebody we can't even see. He said that he wanted to "gather Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings" but that they would not. Perhaps he is reaching for someone who would? He has led these people out of that first image's prison.... but to what? And for what? Their banners proclaim freedom and justice....but the words are hard to read. They are not in prison anymore- they're able to pursue such things in a whole new way. There's a bunch of them- of all ages, races, abilities..... and they are together in proclaiming they want more of these things. But the one who gave them freedom by showing up in chains.... seems somehow disconnected from *their* passions.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks, everybody, for all your comments! I’m reading them over again and appreciating them anew now that my Holy Week writing marathon is over.

CJ, I am in awe of your analysis of these first two paintings in Doug Blanchard’s series. You could write the book about them! For the first painting, I love the way that you analyze the pose of each figure and raise the question of whether the door is an exit or an entrance. Your reference to ipads and your twist on Marshall McLuhans’ “the medium is the message” are perfect. I had not considered the possibility that Jesus may be about to lead a procession out of the prison. Because of your comments, I realize that this and “Jesus Rises” are the only images in the series where Jesus looks directly at the viewer.

For the Entry into Jerusalem, you really made me think about who Jesus is reaching to touch. Your comparisons to Willie Brown and Bill Clinton bring this alive on a whole new level.

Thank you for writing these in-depth reflections. I’m sorry that you didn’t continue writing them throughout the week as you planned, but I know from my own experience how overwhelming it can be. I also had trouble writing daily reflections on the paintings as the week progressed. I am hoping to write about the six post-resurrection paintings between now and June 3 (Trinity Sunday). So I hope that you will join me in reflecting on those paintings at a slower pace over the next month and a half.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Kitt- I'm so glad you liked them!

Actually- I did get several more done, but didn't get a chance to post them. Jan was feeling so well that she decided she wanted to go to a friend's Seder on Friday and then to church with me on Sunday - which meant *alot* more work for me. It's a home church- in a highly scented home- full of highly scented people. Just trying to get it safe enough for her was quite a challenge. Then, two days later, she was running a high fever and in sepsis, so I'm afraid I probably didn't do a very adequate job of it. We've been mostly in the hospital ever since - up and down, but she is doing much better now. I will finish posting on these - at some point.

I do try pretty hard not to get too down on myself when the illness intrudes - either through my body or Jan's- and says that I can't do what I planned; and I try to just enjoy the times I can. It doesn't make for being a very productive or reliable at times, heaven knows, but I've found, over the years, that contributing as I'm able has its rewards too- so I just do my best, and try to rest in that. Sorry I wasn't able to update you sooner!

Kittredge Cherry said...

CJ, I’m so sorry to hear about Jan’s “crash” after Easter! My prayers are with her -- and with you. Please do post your other reflections when you are able! I would love to read them, and plenty of people are still visiting the Passion series.

Thank you for your words of wisdom about the psychological aspect of living within limits as a person with CFS. That is one of the hardest parts for me, and I needed your message tonight. I aim to spend more time in the peaceful place that you describe: “I just do my best, and try to rest in that.”

CJ Barker said...

Kitt, years ago I took a US History class where I learned that, according to some sociologists, the hardest part of getting pre-industrial peoples to become industrial was "breaking them to the clock" - ie getting them regard the artifice of western "time" as more real than the natural rhythms of their own bodies, or the un-industrialized nature surrounding them. One of the few real advantages of having been disabled by cfs so young (at age 19) is that I lost my western sense of time when I was still young and relatively flexible. Now that I'm verging on old, and as much better as I am, it is sometimes quite a challenge, because, try as I might, what the clock and/or the calendar say I *should* be doing any day or hour are just not as REAL to me as what my body says, what the sky says, what, for want of a better term, my "intuition" says about what I should be paying attention to. I've lived by my own internal rhythms and needs so long that, when given a choice between a deadline or commitment, and a body screaming for sleep or food or medicine or whatever, it almost never feels right or moral or good or safe to me to override my body. It's a very hard thing to explain, but it is absolutely true. And because of it, I actually experience relatively little frustration over all that I miss. The delicious sensation of having a truly rested and relatively happy body- which is something that most caffeine-charged westerners have probably NEVER experienced since before they started kindergarten- actually makes me happier than the "achievement" of getting things done. Many times I have to remind myself: "No, you're NOT lazy- you just adapted to this long ago. You learned how to protect yourself, emotionally and psychologically, from the consequences of not being physically able to live the way that modern western people find 'normal.' But a vast number of human beings, through the vast majority of human evolutionary history, have lived more like you. And the thousands and thousands of animal and plant species that are being driven into extinction practically daily by our hyper-insistence on serving our clocks and our calenders above all else -if anyone bothered to listen to their testimony- might well use their dying breaths to scream at modern humankind to please learn a better way. (Oh- and their creator? He-She-or-It might well be a little perturbed about the whole thing, too.... just a wild guess. :) )"

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thank you, CJ, for drawing the connection between the tyranny of the mechanical “clock” versus tuning into our biological rhythms, and how concepts of time relate to us being too hard on ourselves when health problems prevent us from doing “enough.” In Christian theology there are the concepts of two types of time: chronos (ordinary time) and kairos (God’s time). I’ve had a hard time understanding the theoretical difference, but maybe it’s very simple: the mechanistic time of the clock versus the natural rhythms of nature. You made this comment in relation to Jesus entering the city… maybe that was a moment when the two types of time collided. Just before this scene in Luke, Jesus laments over Jerusalem because “you did not recognize the TIME of God’s coming to you.” I will send you a personal message with more about this.