Piss Christ: A Good Friday Reflection.

Via Scott Robinson
on Apr 5, 2012
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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


About Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson taught college music at a Christian university for ten years before leaving to pursue creative work and fatherhood.  He has written for Sojourners Magazine, PRISM, Cross Currents, Minnesota Parent, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  He currently composes, records and performs original kirtan with his band Mandala mandalaband.net. Scott is a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis,  and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and two incessantly shedding dogs. 


17 Responses to “Piss Christ: A Good Friday Reflection.”

  1. ValCarruthers says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Valerie Carruthers
    Please go and "Like" Elephant Spirituality on Facebook

  2. guest says:

    "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."
    Isn't that upside down? IF he was gods son (or god) and talked to god and KNEW, I agree, it wasn't heroism. So yes, the story isn't quite kosher. Either he was gods son and had a direct connection and thus knew he would only be dead for three days OR he wasn't the god of son but just a prophet who pretended (like so many others) and didn't know and was trying to be a hero. (and maybe he didn't rise from the dead, maybe that was just his followers grieving)

  3. YesuDas says:

    Maybe we're all God's children, only Jesus wasn't anything else.

  4. SwamiMike says:

    No, I don't think he did. In the Christian scriptures we read that Christ did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped and of his emptying himself. We read of Jesus praying in the garden before he was arrested that he not have to go through all of it, and while on the cross he asked God why God had forsaken him.
    In my opinion Jesus was a child of God, was sent to remind us that we are too, and to set us on the path of building the Dominion of God. To remind us of our basic goodness and to aid us in building an enlightened society to use Shambhalian terms

  5. YesuDas says:

    Thanks, Swami Mike; I think so, too.

  6. Peggie says:

    This was exactly what I needed to see today – thank you so much. Beautiful, and profound as always.

  7. Jana Mercado says:

    The title put me off, and I didn't want to read this, but am so glad I did.

  8. Ashley says:

    Beautiful! But I think babies smell good 🙂

  9. YesuDas says:

    Me, too, Jana!

  10. YesuDas says:

    Off and on. 🙂

  11. ValCarruthers says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Valerie Carruthers
    Please go and "Like" Elephant Spirituality on Facebook

  12. nimitta says:

    What a deep contemplation of the texts, traditions, and my own body, mind, & heart tell me is this:

    We know Jesus through the words and hopes of others, none of whom ever met him.
    Many of the views attributed to him actually came from followers – Paul, for example – who didn't fully understand what Jesus was saying.
    He was no more nor less divine that you or I – in other words, mortal but more precious & enduring than most realize.
    He was an apocalyptic Jewish prophet whose fierceness & violence in the temple threatened others and led indirectly to his arrest & execution by the Romans.
    His birth was probably illegitimate in a culture that ostracized such children & their mothers.
    Forgiveness was a key theme in his teaching, and most likely in his personal & family life.
    Like Siddhattha Gotama, he encountered & vanquished his demons during an extended period of meditation in the wilderness.
    If the Gospel of Thomas did in fact derive from the early 'Q' oral tradition, now lost, some or perhaps most of Jesus' teachings pointed to a nondual apprehension of unfolding reality.
    Many of the parables attributed to Jesus apply more convincingly to the purification of consciousness than to affairs of the world, even though that may seem to be what they are about.
    Fanciful stories about virgin birth and resurrection came later.
    Few modern Christians – not even Mel Gibson or his father – would likely recognize or celebrate Jesus today, just as few can surrender to the magical beauty of Serrano's 'Piss Christ'.

  13. YesuDas says:

    Thanks, nimitta. Yes, I don't know why these virgin birth stories keep creeping in; Lao Tzu supposedly came down on a falling star, etc. Though I think the resurrection story is meant to convey a genuine spiritual truth in concrete terms. And I think Jesus posed a lot more threat to the established order than the cleansing of the temple conveys–in fact, I suspect that was the least of it. But yes–it's obvious that you have contemplated Jesus deeply; thanks for sharing the fruits of that contemplation.

  14. nimitta says:

    Thanks to you, Scott, for inspiring some timely reflection…and I LOVE that Tina Fey blessing, having 'been there, done that'!

  15. nimitta says:

    One more note: I would say that Serrano's 'Piss Christ' is at heart a Tantric work, although I doubt the artist conceived it explicitly as such. It shows how a sublime radiance suffuses and illuminates even the most base substances of this life, and invites us to see the sacred in them.

  16. YesuDas says:

    The Incarnation shows the same thing, though a lot of Christians seem to have a way of forgetting that. That's an interesting thought about Tantra.

  17. YesuDas says:

    Nimitta: since we had this conversation, I have read about the kula ceremony, and now understand exactly what you meant by this!