One traditional way to observe Lent, and Holy Week in particular, is to metaphorically journey with Jesus to the cross. For me that means immersing myself in the Gospel accounts of his passion and responding in confession and repentance for the sins of mine that set him on that road, as well as in praise for his amazing mercy and love. But it also means, in my practice, opening my eyes, heart, and hands to the suffering around me.
When Jesus began his public ministry, he read these words from an Isaiah scroll at his local synagogue at Nazareth:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)
Many Christians tend to spiritualize passages like these, saying that “the poor” means the spiritually poor, not the materially poor; the “captives” and the “oppressed” are those who are held in bondage by, or crushed by the weight of, personal sin; and the “blind” are those who can’t see God because of their stubbornness. While this figurative reading is not altogether false, the passage must also be read at a literal level. As his ministry attests, Jesus was concerned with whole persons—souls, spirits, and bodies. And he stood ferociously against not just individual sins but systemic ones, against the sorts of societal neglect condemned by God in Isaiah 58.
With this expansive view of the gospel in mind, this Lent I developed a Stations of the Cross “pilgrimage” using works from the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. The eighteen pieces I chose and the audio commentary that accompanies them speak to the passion of Christ but also encompass the passion stories of those in society who bear heavy burdens, who are walking their own way of sorrows.
Included, for example, is a nineteenth-century Puerto Rican santo (religious wood carving) of the Crucifixion, but also a contemporary cross-shaped memorial to the Charleston Nine, made of lambskin tambourines. There is a regionalist painting of falling wheat by the famous Thomas Hart Benton, evocative of one of Jesus’s famous sayings, but there’s also an expressionist painting of homeless men in New York City who have fallen on hard times.
This is not to undermine the distinctiveness of Jesus’s suffering (which was unlike any other’s both in its extremity and in the end it accomplished) nor to dignify human suffering. Rather, I seek to expose, through these artists, some of the pain that begs healing in our world. Though many artworks represent particular periods in American history, such as the Great Depression and the civil rights era, the ills of poverty, racism, and so on, still exist. I hope tour participants will consider the ways in which they themselves might be complicit in others’ suffering (e.g., what systems of power and privilege do we benefit from at the expense of others?), and that their thirst for justice will be reinvigorated and acted upon.
Below is an excerpt from the tour, reproduced in both text and audio format. This and plenty more content can be accessed at https://artandtheology.org/2018/02/11/SAAMstations.
Station 11a: Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross
For his entire life Roberto Estopiñán felt the ethical need to be engaged in the struggle for a better Cuba. In 1949 he was a founding member of the cultural group Nuestra Tiempo, and after Fulgencia Batista seized power of the country in 1952, he fought against him as an urban guerrilla. When Fidel Castro took over in 1959, Estopiñán joined the diplomatic service, but by 1961 he had become disillusioned with the dictatorial policies of the new regime and went into exile in the US. He lived in New York City until 2002, when he retired to Miami, Florida. He died in 2015.
Estopiñán was a reader of Camus. One of the passages he underlined in his copy of the French philosopher’s journal reads, “The artist must never be an ally of the powerful. The role of the artist is not simply to live history, he is to be on the side of those who suffer history. He is to be their voice when they are voiceless.” Estopiñán heeded this call and in the 1960s began an ongoing series of drawings and sculptures of political prisoners and crucifixions, giving voice to what was a terrible reality in his native country.
In this bronze, titled The Unknown Political Prisoner, a faceless man, enfeebled from beatings, bows his head. His hands are restrained behind his back, and a thick barbed wire, symbol of his imprisonment, spans the height of his body. He is pinned to a wall, much like Jesus was nailed to the cross.
Political prisoners all throughout Latin America often report how they find strength in the example of Jesus Christ, a revolutionary who was for the people over and against oppressive systems. In 1974 an anonymous political prisoner in Chile wrote the poem “He Said He Was a King,” excerpted as follows:
The armed retinue was mocking
the one crowned with thorns.
They took off his rags
and beat his head with a cane.
Offensive mouths spat on the man
with the long hair, rebel eyes, and unkempt beard.
So, mocked by the soldiers
and with a mistreated body,
a bloodied man was dying
before the eyes of the high priests—
supreme hypocrisy, supreme meanness and greed.
Today I remember you, a freedom-loving Christ,
vagabond in time, dubious in space.
Were you Spartacus’ brother,
contemporary of the slave, or comrade worker?
What matters the chain, the fiefdom, the wage,
to be Nazarene or Chacabuco inmate,
if you are on earth, brother Christ,
Son, with dirty face and calloused hands,
flesh and blood of the people, lord of history,
at home with the plane and hammer,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Eternal resident of the poor and barren hovel
with roof of tin or stars, floor of sand or dirt,
modest or captive walls,
you do not dwell in the oppressive mansion,
the caves of thieves, or the palace of Caesar.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Yes, I prefer the witness
of the one who walks, suffers, and loves,
of one who sings, weeps, and loves,
of one who struggles, dies, and loves.
I understand you, Christ,
because I know betrayal and the spear,
because, like you, I say
I am king and claim my crown.
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
Victoria Emily Jones
Victoria Emily Jones lives in the Baltimore area of the United States, where she works as an editorial freelancer and blogs at ArtandTheology.org. Her interest is in how the arts—visual, literary, musical, and performing—can stimulate renewed theological engagement with the Bible. In addition, Victoria serves as assistant editor of ArtWay, a Netherlands-based web publication that encourages church engagement with high-quality visual art, and as a consultant for the Visual Commentary on Scripture, an online biblical art project being developed by King’s College London. You can find her on Twitter @artandtheology.