April 5, 2012

Piss Christ: A Good Friday Reflection.

Photo: Wikimedia

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  (Ps. 22:1)

There were supposed to be angels.

“He shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. They shall bear you in their hands, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”  (Ps. 91:11:12) But far worse than a dashed foot is happening right now.

Where are the ministering angels who came to Him in the desert, who vindicated His faith at the end of his forty-days’ fast? Here—at Golgotha—there are only blood, and dirt, and sweat and pain such as nothing could have prepared Him to imagine. Here—on the Cross—God has forsaken Jesus.

I find it difficult to believe that Jesus knew for certain, as He made that final journey to Jerusalem, that everything was going to be all right. Where there is certainty, there cannot be heroism.

If Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Steven Biko, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Susan B. Anthony, Esther, Judith, Stephen or Oscar Romero had known for certain that God would not forsake them, that everything would come out all right in the end, they would still have been “good and faithful servants,” (Mt. 25:23).  But then they wouldn’t have been prophets, martyrs and heroes. Surely every one of them had their experiences of abandonment and forsakenness; that is why we celebrate their memories.

As the elder demon Screwtape told his young nephew Wormwood in C.S. Lewis’s novel,

“Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

Somehow, Jesus was able to complete His walk to Calvary because, though He may have lost sight of it briefly in the depth of His physical suffering, He was able to see the Light. He was able to see that radiance which, in the human soul, the Quakers call the Inner Light and which, as it fills all creation, the Hebrews called “the glory of God.”  (Ps. 19:1) The Light, says the prologue to the Gospel of John, “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

The Light makes all the difference; even the memory of having seen it can be enough to keep us putting one foot in front of the other. And it can transform even the most sordid and debased scenes of human existence.

As poet Andrew Hudgins put it in his poem about Andres Serrano’s infamous photograph, Piss Christ,

If we did not know Serrano had for weeks
hoarded his urine in a plastic vat,
if we did not know the cross was gimcrack plastic,
we would assume it was too beautiful.
We would assume it was the resurrection,
glory, Christ transformed to light by light,
because the blood and urine burn like a halo,
and light, as always, light makes it beautiful.”

But in the midst of human cruelty, greed and indifference—in the midst of physical suffering, aging, disease, violence, trauma and death—the Light can be all but impossible to see. At the low point of His human journey, even Jesus lost sight of it. I lose track of it just reading the news sometimes. Maybe we are just animals, I sometimes tell myself, despite all our apparent accomplishments. “They who have riches without understanding are like the beasts that perish.” (Ps. 49:12)

In every account I have read of demonic possession, the demon tries to make those people surrounding the possessed person feel like just that: dirty, smelly, bestial creatures destined for nothing but animal death and physical decay. And I guess it would be easy to believe that in a refugee camp.

A friend who worked for Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York during the 80’s surely found it hard to believe otherwise at times. It would have been easy to believe during my mother’s final illness with cancer, or while I was working in a group home, changing the soiled sheets of profoundly disabled young women. There has to be a reason that so many of the saints took care of lepers.

I would like to see Serrano’s photograph hanging in the break room of every hospice and group home and assisted living facility. If we really intend, as the Book of Common Prayer charges us, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” we need to be reminded that Jesus is right there in the dirtiest and most degrading episodes of human life.

“We are born between the urine and the feces,
Augustine says, and so was Christ, if there was a Christ,
skidding into this world as we do
on a tide of blood and urine.  Blood, feces, urine—
the fallen world is made of what we make.
He peed, ejaculated, shat, wept, bled—
bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross, and blood and urine smeared his legs—
the Piss Christ thrown in glowing blood, the whole
and irreducible point of his descent:
God plunged in human waste, and radiant.”

So when our bodies betray us, when we are in physical or emotional pain, exhausted, sick, insulted, dependent, humiliated, beaten, may we still see—or at least remember—the radiance of the Light that shines in the darkness of human existence. May we have the God’s-eye view that sees human suffering in perspective.

Romero, Gandhi and King, like Jesus before them, had seen enough of the Light to take them all the way to Calvary—perhaps no longer wishing, but still intending, to do God’s will for the sake of that Light.

One final thought: I used to wonder, during the sleepless-nights phase of parenthood, what else but a baby could possibly have made all that weariness worth it. But that’s the thing about babies: the dirty, smelly, sticky, dependent, caterwauling little animals get you up in the darkness, but they never let you forget the Light. Tina Fey’s Prayer for Her Daughter captures this perfectly; here are the last few lines:

“…should she choose to be a Mother one day, be my eyes, Lord, that I may see her, lying on a blanket on the floor at 4:50 A.M., all-at-once exhausted, bored, and in love with the little creature whose poop is leaking up its back.

‘My mother did this for me once,’ she will realize as she cleans feces off her baby’s neck. “My mother did this for me.” And the delayed gratitude will wash over her as it does each generation and she will make a Mental Note to call me. And she will forget. But I’ll know, because I peeped it with Your God eyes.”

Always, the Light makes it beautiful.

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Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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