Thursday, April 12, 2012

She is nailed to the cross.

Totus Christus (The Whole Christ), by Matthew Milliner

In his meditations the Stations of the Cross, the controversial twentieth-century saint Jose Maria Escrivá wrote the following: "Don't just read the Passion of Our Lord… to read is to recall something that happened in the past; to live it is to find oneself present at an event that is happening here and now, to be someone taking part in those scenes." There is, of course, nothing controversial about this statement.  What is controversial is leaving Christ safe in the mists of history and not permitting him to occupy our present. 

This is the impulse behind countless art historical depictions of Christ's suffering, paintings such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Procession to Calvary, where the Lord blends in among Bruegel's contemporaries alongside sixteenth century torture devices.  For us, Breugel's work may seem "historic," summoning us to safe stylistic observations.  But for Breugel's contemporaries, as the recent film makes clear, the painting was screamingly current.  This too, it seems, is the impulse behind Greg's stations, where the Passion becomes so immediate as to be woven into his very family and into the lives of contemporary victims of torture in the Chicago area that generated his work.

All that, I hope, is rather obvious.  What is more problematic – perhaps even "controversial" – is Greg's choice to include, in two of his most powerful photographs, a woman as Christ.  Greg even went so far as to write, "She is nailed to the cross" beneath the station.  The photographs remind us of Edwina Sandys 1975 Christa, which – in the artist's words – "simply reminded viewers that women as well as men are called upon to share the suffering of Christ."  In the same way, Greg's female Christ is not courting controversy or attempting to shock.  Greg does not believe the Christ was literally female, any more than he believes his wife Karen is actually the Virgin Mary.  Instead, Greg's stations "simply" remind us (if only it were so simple!) that the suffering of women, perhaps most especially the suffering of rape so delicately alluded to in one of Greg's photographs, Jesus is stripped naked, is also the suffering of Christ – a thought that, we can hope, might summon the hesitation of some future assailant.

Artists who (unlike Greg) toy around with religious imagery hoping to instigate protest have unfortunately made it more difficult for us to notice the kind of sincerity on offer here.  But I'd like to go so far that we have no choice but to grasp what Greg is suggesting, and not because of recent theological developments (though they can help), as much as because of the historic, orthodox core of Christian faith.  Most of us are familiar with the passages where Christ speaks with and ministers to women. But in a less familiar passage, Acts 8, Christ specifically identifies himself with women.  Saul, Luke tells us, "dragged off men and women and committed them to prison" (8:3).  That is not a gender inclusive translation.  The Greek goes out of its way to say "and women."  One chapter later comes the famous words of Christ, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me" (9:3)?

The body of Christ, which sits on the right hand of the Father, is, and remains, a circumcised Jewish male.  But Christ (the head) also intimately identifies with the church (his body).  Theologians refer to this as the totus Christus (the whole Christ), which necessarily incorporates all of us united to him in faith – perhaps especially, as Luke seems to suggest, victims of torture.  So is Greg's show heretical?  The question is best answered by another, namely Paul's, addressed to all believers, male and female: "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ" (I Cor. 6:15)?
Procession to Calvary, Peter Bruegel the Elder, 1526

Christa, Edwina Sandys, 1975
Christa (detail), Edwina Sandys, 1975

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