By John M. Gillespie
We often think of great art as soothing, even therapeutic. We may enjoy drowsy Sunday afternoons strolling through cool galleries, gazing at the framed masterpieces, and dutifully allotting each its due thirty seconds before moving along as if we were part of a slow-moving assembly line. Art is something we prefer to take in from our side of the velvet rope; it occupies its space, and we are left safety in ours. But occasionally great art makes an unwelcome entrance into our world. It floods our borders, reminds us of uncomfortable truths, and calls us to account.
Such is the case with Homeless Jesus, a sculpture by the Toronto artist and devout Roman Catholic Timothy Schmalz. The genius of Homeless Jesus is that he is easily overlooked. He is cast as a sleeping man on a park bench and placed in an urban setting. A blanket thinly shields him from the elements, and covers every identifying feature except his feet. If we bother to give the bronze man on the park bench his due thirty seconds, we see that his exposed feet bear the unmistakable wounds of crucifixion. Suddenly, without warning, we grow uneasily as we become aware of whose presence we are in.
The art world was also made uneasy by Homeless Jesus. Two prominent cathedrals in Toronto and New York turned him away, perhaps believing the spectacle did not fit the décor. Others also declined to host him, claiming that his presence would interfere with their remodeling projects. At length, Homeless Jesus finally found a home outside of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, which serves the affluent community of Davidson, North Carolina. While the members of St. Alban’s have received Homeless Jesus, some members of the surrounding community have protested his presence, claiming that Jesus was no vagrant and should not be depicted as one who in need of help. It degrades the Son of God, one person complained. Another passerby was so alarmed by unsightly presence of the homeless in her community that she called the police – “out of fear for the community.”
The first Christians had a similar reaction to another form of art – the Cross. To call Christ’s Cross “art” in the first century would have offended their sensibilities. Roman crucifixion was the humiliating and agonizing means by which criminals were publically executed – not something that one would generally hang on a gallery wall. “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse,” cautioned the book of Deuteronomy (21:23). To Jesus’ first bewildered followers (who had not yet worked out the salvific significance of Christ’s death), the Cross was a specter so grim and unsettling that they could not bear to depict it. What’s more, many of the early Christians converts –both Jew and Gentile – had uncomfortably close associations with the socio-political machinery responsible for putting Jesus to death. From thrice-denying Peter, to the maddening blood-thirsty mob, to the Roman state that supplied the wood and nails, the Gospels hold no one innocent. As a 19th century hymn proclaims:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.
It is not surprising then, to find that the earliest Christian art – the variety found in house churches and catacombs of the ancient world – display images of Noah’s Ark, youthful, beardless Apollo-like Christs, and even the Virgin Mary. But the Cross, the hideous instrument of Roman execution, it seemed, just did not fit the décor. In fact, one searches the tombs and catacombs of subterranean Rome in vain for a crucifixion scene; they do not appear in liturgical art until well into the fifth century, after the conscience-struck Emperor Constantine replaced the rows of crosses with public hangings. By then, artists had so lost touch with the ghastly sight, sound, and smell of a Roman crucifixion that their depictions were often bloodless icons meant to draw the attention away from earthly concerns, and upward toward the world to come.
Thanks to these medieval artists, we have become quite comfortable in the presence of crosses and crucifixes. Today, they appear atop steeples, on altars, as wall art, and as pop-art. We exchange them as gifts. We hang them from our necks and our rear-view mirrors. In public worship, we’ve developed numerous rituals to honor their presence. We bend the knee when passing the altar. We drop our heads when the crucifer passes in procession. We mark ourselves with its Sign at the invocation of the Trinity. While these devotions are undoubtedly beneficial, they are not ends in themselves. Rather, we preform them to draw our attention to the greater message, and call us to action. The prophet Isaiah wrote:
Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose:
… Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry,
bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own flesh? (58:6-7)
These are hard words for us to hear, just as they were hard words for Isaiah’s hearers, who were confident in their own religiosity. How many of us turned our backs when the beggar calls to us from his undignified nook on the street? How many of us fumble in our pockets for a few phantom coins with which we know we will not part? How many of us pretend not to hear, or feign distraction? How many of us rationalize our behavior? (“He’s just going to buy beer, after all. Best not enable his bad habit.”) How many of us just keep walking, completely aloof to the sleeping man on the park bench?
Jesus will have none of our excuses. In Matthew’s Gospel, he makes a startling claim about the invisible misfits that we so often overlook: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (25:40). Thus we cannot pass judgement upon the poor, the sick, and the homeless without passing judgement on “Jesus in disguise,” as Mother Theresa put it. No doubt the self-assured will scratch their heads and ask where – where did we see Jesus? We saw a panhandler, too lazy to get off his butt and work for a living. We saw a single mom, shamelessly using her children as a source of income. We saw an HIV patient, reaping the consequences of his own reckless promiscuity. We saw a track-marked junkie, looking to score his next fix. But holy, Jesus? Surely, not.
This is why the sudden realization of the Homeless Jesus’s identity is so unnerving. We are called to consider which side of the sheet-goat divide we have been standing. Dorothy Day wrote, “The purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Homeless Jesus surely does just that – he delivers the Gospel in a cast of bronze. He rips away at our complacency, and calls us to account. We cannot gaze on this masterpiece from the safety of an art gallery. The Christs in disguise are always among us, if we only have eyes to see them. On the bench, under the bridge, on the street corner, and in the shelter is the One we have pierced, spat upon, and abandoned to die. As with the Cross, we cannot look away forever; we all bear some responsibility.
Since the media blitz about Homeless Jesus, the Son of Man has found more than a few places to rest his head. Detroit, Chicago, Orlando, Toronto, Perth, Dublin, and Valparaiso University’s Brauer Museum of Art have all accepted replicas of Homeless Jesus, and many area churches have turned out in full vestments and liturgical fanfare to consecrate him on his park bench. Plans are underway to install Homeless Jesus on Via della Conziliazione, the street leading to St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. Pope Francis has even given the statue his blessing, elevating Schmalz and Homeless Jesus to celebrity status. One can even purchase Homeless Jesus in miniature for display in an office or bookshelf.
It is my fear – and perhaps I am alone here – that his overexposure increases the possibility of fetishizing Homeless Jesus, and turning him into just another sanitized form of art, sealed behind the glass, protected by the velvet ropes. As with the Cross, which all too often appears as a pleasant accessory, let us not forget, as the English poet Elizabeth Jennings reminds us:
Our world is full
Of dying Christs – the starved, the sick, the poor.
God sleeps in cardboard boxes, has no meal.
We are his torturer
John M. Gillespie is a teacher, history professor, and grateful member of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Kingwood, Texas.