Tuesday, June 2, 2009

4-15-2007: 2nd Easter (C)

Acts of the Apostles 5:12-16/Psalm 118/Revelation 1:9-11,12-13,17-19/John 20:19-31
One of the conclusions the Church draws from reading today’s gospel of the Doubting Thomas as he explores the crucified body of the Risen Lord is that Jesus not only retains his humanity in corporeal form for all eternity but, with it, the marks of his crucifixion as well. The glory of resurrection does not expunge the wounds of suffering; the spiritual doesn’t eradicate the physical. The body is not a disposable commodity but the sacrament of the soul – our scars serving as an eternal testimony of how we have intercoursed with history.

In the beginning Christian piety seems to have shared the Jewish and pagan aversion to the depiction of crucifixion not only because of its gruesome reality but for its personal humiliation as well – Jesus’ scourging is inseparable from his being stripped naked for all to see. It wasn’t until the Black Plague of the Middle Ages that Catholic piety embraced the image of the crucifix as an object of veneration. Perhaps it was the hopelessness of the situation (one third of Europe was decimated by the plague) that allowed people to see in the humiliating image of the suffering Christ a sense of solidarity. But the Protestant Reformation would once again reject the crucifix for the bodiless cross – a sign, perhaps, of Protestantism’s rejection of the sacramental nature of reality itself. Veneration of the crucifix remains a particularly Catholic piety though the depiction of Christ on the cross has spanned the spectrum of interpretation from extreme gore to peaceful acquiescence to majestic glory (a matter of taste, perhaps). There were, however, objections to some depictions of the crucified. Orthodox Catholicism rejected the Jansenist depiction of Christ’s arms being nailed too close to his torso suggesting he might not have died for all but only for the few.

One might surmise that the recent objection to the exhibition of the crucified Christ in chocolate was orthodoxy’s triumph over irreverence (but don’t equate the bombastic William Donohue of the Catholic League with Catholic orthodoxy too quickly - even if he does have a cardinal or two on his side). From what I read it was never clear to what precisely Mr. Donohue was objecting: the fact that the image of Christ was made from chocolate or that it was naked. If the objection was to the chocolate, fair enough -- I hate edible art too. But, then, shouldn’t we take offense at all those Easter crosses made of chocolate as well, and not be buying them as Easter gifts? And what about the Slavic tradition of molding butter into the Lamb of God at Easter – why isn’t that considered an offense against Christian sensibilities?

If the objection is to Christ’s nakedness, it’s more understandable. Though there are great works of art considered worthy of veneration that do depict the naked Christ, I’m not familiar with any which employs full frontal nudity save for the countless renditions of Jesus as a baby. Yet it seems reasonable to assume that Christ’s complete nakedness during his scourging and crucifixion was more likely than not. When we pray the Stations, meditating on Jesus being stripped of his garments, isn’t that precisely what we’re saying – that nakedness in suffering is a humiliation. While it might not be “tasteful” to depict a naked Christ, should it be judged offensive and irreverent, if indeed it was more than likely an historical fact?

Finally, more than chocolate or nudity, it is the inferred intention of the artist which seems most objectionable to Mr. Donohue. I do not know if the artist intended to make light of the crucifixion, or worse. But even if he did, it remains a very dangerous thing to judge a work offensive based on the subjective intention of the artist and not solely on the object created. For if we start down that road (and we’ve traveled it before) then get ready to burn all those beautiful depictions of the Annunciation painted in the Quattrocento since many of the girls who posed as the Virgin had highly dubious reputations. And whitewash the Sistine Chapel while you’re at it, for who knows what lascivious thoughts Michelangelo, as homosexual, must have been thinking when he painted all those male nudes.

Mr. Donohue and his allied prelates demand censure of expressive art because they feel it an offense to religious sensibilities, but do they do Catholicism any lasting service? By all means they should express their opinion and convince us, by reason, why they believe something should be deemed offensive. But screaming that a chocolate, naked Jesus is offensive simply because it is chocolate and naked or even because the artist hates Christianity -- without giving reasons why any of those realities turns the work itself offensive -- makes these bombastic apologists for Catholicism not so different from their Muslims counterparts who threaten (in mob-like fashion) anyone who even draws a picture of the prophet.

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