Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Jesus Appears to His Friends (Gay Passion of Christ series)

21. Jesus Appears to His Friends (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard (Collection of Bill Carpenter)

“See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see.” -- Luke 24:39 (RSV)

Friends react with joy -- and some doubt -- to the return of the risen Christ in “Jesus Appears to His Friends” from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a series of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard. Jesus allows himself to be embraced and examined by his diverse friendship group. He gets hugs from his Beloved Disciple and an elderly woman with a cane. Smiling beside them is a young black woman, apparently Mary Magdalene. Meanwhile a bald skeptic in a suit inspects his wounded wrist. Other disciples watch from behind. The red gash in Jesus’ side stands out against his manly physique.

Jesus has been to hell and back. He’s managed to return to the land of the living. The same room and some of the same people are pictured in Blanchard’s Last Supper, but here the mood is transformed from a dark-toned goodbye to a happy hello, lit up with lavender and with warm flesh tones. Misty moonlight pours in from the back window in the shape of an ascending dove, hinting at the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Everyone else in Blanchard’s painting is delighted to see Jesus, while the bald Doubting Thomas figure in the tie and glasses is busy fact-checking. Jesus affirms the believers, but doesn’t push away the pragmatist. He is welcome to check the wounds scientifically. Thomas provides a positive role model as someone who tries to engage religion without falling for any mystical trickery. Many people, queer or otherwise, share the skeptic’s desire to develop a belief system based on direct experience and not get caught up in all the hoopla about Jesus.

The Bibles offers differing accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his friends. Taken as a whole, the gospels describe how the disciples were hiding from authorities behind closed doors when Jesus “came and stood among them.” He calmed their fears and breathed the Holy Spirit upon them. One disciple, Thomas, had rejected earlier reports that Jesus was still alive. “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe,” [John 20:25 RSV] he insisted. His doubt turned to faith when Jesus invited him to do just that.

As usual in the gay Passion series, Jesus attracts a surprisingly varied group. The imagery and title emphasize that the people around Jesus were not just his followers. They were his friends. As he told them at the Last Supper, “I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from God I have made known to you.” (John 15:15 Inc Lang Lect) It was the focus on friendship that led Bill Carpenter to acquire this particular painting when Blanchard’s gay Passion series was displayed at the 2007 National Festival of Progressive Spiritual Art in Taos, New Mexico.

Carpenter is one of the leaders of Soulforce, a civil-rights group that works to free LGBT people from religious and political oppression. He went to Taos to teach nonviolent resistance in preparation for anti-LGBT attacks, which fortunately did not materialize. “I chose ‘Jesus Appears To His Friends’ because, through it, I connected with the humanity of Jesus…He had friends! And, because Doug showed Jesus’ friends as a beautifully diverse collection of humanity…just like our world…and I felt that Jesus truly welcomed each and every soul into his world…with no qualification or judgment and I wanted to be reminded of that potential within me,” Carpenter said.

The painting fits into the long artistic tradition of Doubting Thomas, a common subject at least since the sixth century. Perhaps the most famous version was painted in 1602 by Italian artist Caravaggio with unflinching realism and street people as models. Artists mostly stopped portraying the Doubting Thomas scene after the Baroque period ended in the 18th century, even though his skepticism sums up the spirit of the modern era. Blanchard contributes to the standard repertoire of Doubting Thomas iconography by putting him in a larger vision of equality where same-sex love has an honored place. Another contemporary gay version was done by Spanish photographer Fernando Bayona Gonzalez. He accentuates the homoeroticism of Thomas touching the wound in Jesus’ side in his 2009 “Circus Christi” series.

“Jesus Appears of His Friends” affirms themes of vital importance to the LGBT community: Friendship, because many have been cut of from their biological families. Touch, because touching someone of the same gender has been taboo. And doubt, because religion has been used to justify violence against LGBT people. Crossing the boundary from death to life, Jesus touches those who live in the borderlands between male and female, between doubt and faith.

“The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” -- John 20:26 (RSV)

Jesus’ friends were hiding together, afraid of the authorities who killed their beloved teacher. The doors were shut, but somehow Jesus got inside and stood among them. They couldn’t believe it! He urged them to touch him, and even invited them to inspect the wounds from his crucifixion. As they felt his warm skin, their doubts and fears turned into joy. Jesus liked touch. He often touched people in order to heal them, and he let people touch him. He defied taboos and allowed himself to be touched by women and people with diseases. He understood human sexuality, befriending prostitutes and other sexual outcasts. LGBT sometimes hide themselves in closets of shame, but Jesus wasn’t like that. He was pleased with own human body, even after it was wounded.

Jesus, can I really touch you?

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.

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