The first chocolate Easter eggs are in the shops already, in competition with heart shaped Valentine boxes. It won’t be long till the Holidays are only distinguishable from one another by the shape the chocolate comes in.
Last year, to battle the candification of our culture, I went to an “Artvesper” in the Nassau church, on Good Friday. (Good Friday is the Friday before Easter, when the crucifixion of Christ is remembered.) In the Nassau church every couple of months a service is combined with art, music, and literature: the artvesper.
This time there were paintings by Godelieve Smulders, and the theme was Rise up and Let go. In the service the suffering and death of Jesus would be connected to suffering and death in our own lives.
The clergy people made it into performance art of the best kind. One very pregnant, the other wearing a long white dress, they took turns every two sentences with a squeaky microphone, walking with stately creaking steps on the wooden floor. Poetic texts about such diverse subjects (something about boat refugees came up), that my brain was pleasantly confused, and free to associate further. There was a pianist, and poems read by some other people, and we sung from a songbook.
When the service was well underway another person came in. Inevitably the floorboards creaked with every step, but there was an extra disruptive quality to the arrival of this latecomer. When someone is not taking trouble to walk quietly because they think the world can revolve around them for a change, it is felt immediately.
People started looking over their shoulder. This latecomer was by the looks of him a tramp. He’d sat down in the back, close to the door. Someone went to him (creaking all the way), presumably to check if he was not stealing any bibles. This reassured the congregation somewhat; we tried to focus on the service again. The tramp was very actively involved in the goings on however, and commented regularly. The poem by Pieter Buijsman called “Letting go”, “I’m afraid of that/which will come/if I’m to leap into the deep.” caused him to shout “Man, ye can’t swim!” And every time God was mentioned he shouted “God damn it!”
We, the largely Protestant, art loving public, didn’t like the disturbance of our get together. We liked this time to be about intellectual, spiritual stimulation, to rise above the daily hustle and bustle. But there was this tramp walking around, sighing loudly, what would he do or shout now? Interference between us and something higher.
In the public space of Buffalo, N.Y. a statue was revealed a week earlier: “Homeless Jesus” by Tim Schmalz. A bronze of a bench with a sleeping figure on it, wrapped in blankets. The only thing by which the viewer can know this is meant to be Jesus is by the holes in his feet. “This sleeping homeless person will be there to remind the people of Buffalo what we should be reminded of more and more. And that is when we see the broken, when we see the marginalized, we are seeing something sacred and spiritual,” the artist says about his work. Are broken, marginalized people sacred?
I always, without thinking about it, somehow presumed this was true (something about the heroism of the underdog in Disney movies perhaps). Until I read the graphic novel “Maus”. In the story the narrator visits his elderly father to record the story of how he survived as a Jew in Nazi Germany. The Jews are portrayed by mice and the Germans by cats in this book. A choice I questioned because: does the writer/drawer (Art Spiegelman) want to say that humanity consists of entirely different species that by their nature want to destruct each other? I got even more upset over the character of the old father. He is a blatant racist. How can that be? Did he not learn anything from the concentration camps? No. The answer is no. Someone who suffers does not always become a better person from the experience. Someone who is discriminated against can do the same to someone else. The marginalised, the broken, are not automatically sacred or spiritual.
But the fact that someone hit rock-bottom also doesn’t mean they are a sinner. The thought that anyone that we find annoying, anyone that doesn’t smoothly blend in with society, anyone that hasn’t showered for weeks could be Jesus, perhaps makes us more respectful towards this person.
Jesus was crucified for disturbing the status quo. Maybe He also shouted through presentations and sighed too loudly sometimes, and didn’t shower daily.
If an artwork like “Homeless Jesus” reminds us of this in a way, that’s fine. If it additionally gives us enjoyment by stimulating our intellect and being a clever combination of organization and coincidence, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Outside the tramp smashed a chair he had dragged from the church, stupidly right in front of a police van that just drove by. He got taken away. The chair seemed to me a small price to pay for his big addition to the afternoon.
Here is a little video about the sculpture in Buffalo:
And a link to the site of the Nassau church:
The image is a detail of “Christ on the cross”, engraving by Paulus Pontius after a painting by Peter Paul Rubens, 1631.