Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
March 20, 2016
Over the past year and a half or so, I’ve begun to use a lot of art when I do my preaching, and I also have begun to use art and to reflect on art more seriously in my writing and lecturing and things like that. I’ve been delaying an answer to a question that sometimes comes up to me which is why, why so much art? Why does it matter? Why use art so much?
The other day, I was in Detroit at an incredible performance space and coffee house and I overheard one person introduced me to another kind of as I was out of earshot getting a coffee. He said, yes, he’s got a Doctorate in Art History. And I came back and I said no, no, I just care about art and I had to correct the record.
So I suppose it’s time for me to tell you why I consider art so important. It’s because I think that art is a way of telling a powerful truth. Nina Simone in one of the interviews that she gave said that it was the calling of an artist to bear witness to the signs of the times, and by that she meant that artists have to identify in their work the creative and sometimes destructive tensions in the society around them. Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners said that the vocation of the Catholic artist is to tell the truth, and by that she meant accurately portraying the world that is encountered.
So this is why I like art. Art tells a powerful truth and it brings it alongside the reason why I’m a Christian. If someone were going to ask me why I’m a Christian, I might say something that would surprise you. I would say I am a Christian because I believe the Christianity tells us a powerful truth. Truth about ourselves and a truth about our world.
In 1998, these two concerns, these truth claims came together in a really powerful way for me. I was working as a priest in New York City and this fellow came in to see me out of the blue. His name was Jeffrey and we sat down and he told me his story. He had been admitted to the Rhode Island School of Design which was and is one of the premier institution for art in the country. He was from North Carolina and was African-American, and while he was in his first year in RISD, he came out as gay and then there was some interruptions in funding from his family and his community and he couldn’t pay his part of the tuition that was owed and RISD wouldn’t let him register for his second year.
And so he moved to New York City and tried to make his way there but he actually found himself homeless for few months. Then wonder of wonders, he was discovered by a gallery in Soho and was just about to put on his first show, his first gallery show, and the reason why he came to see me that day wasn’t because he had the question of why God allowed him to suffer or why he lived in a world in which people like him had no place to go because so often their own receive them not. It was because the question that was eating at him was the how he could hold together his life? What kind of frame could he find that could make sense of both a rejection that he experienced as well as the attention that he was getting?
And I told him that I didn’t have any good answers for him if he wanted to stay the same. I didn’t have an argument that I could give him or insight I can offer that could put him at ease. I said the only answer is to somehow find your story and God’s story. And by that I mean the story of Jesus. And I told him that it would be difficult and it would be challenging and he would have to confront many of the same things that he encountered in his family or in society. But for reasons that I cannot entirely explain, he decided to do that. He began to attend our weekly Bible studies. He began to participate fully in the celebrations and services and Eucharist, and after a couple of months, he said that he was ready to be baptized and that baptism happened right at the time of his first show.
And I remember going to that first show and seeing all these incredible, powerful works of art, and at the center was this piece which had a red dot around it that said not for sale. And the week before he was to be baptized, he told me that he had gone to one of these parties that he was invited to and somehow things got—the conversation turned and was exploring the place of religion and everybody around him was saying that religion was dead, that organized religion was merely a wounding experience and he said—in the middle of it all he said, I’m about to be baptized, and somebody made light of it and kind of raised a glass to Satan. He said at that moment, he said, “I’ve never been prouder of my decision.”
So Jeffrey was baptized. And I was discovered. I was delighted and overwhelmed to discover that the gift that he had for me was this painting. If you look at it, you see an incredible depiction of a wounded Christ set against a background of gold and that’s meant to convey a powerful truth about who Jesus is and about who we are and about the world we live in, and the project for him as an artist and his own faith journey fused in this painting. And suddenly I realized why art mattered.
Over the next week, you and I have the opportunity to go through a similar journey to find ourselves, our small stories in the larger story of God’s story, the story of Jesus. And you and I are to test our lives and to test our world and to see ourselves in light of a powerful truth. That truth is not an argument. That truth is not a proposition. It’s not meant to keep you comfortable. It’s meant to change you. And all that will depend upon whether you’re willing to enter into that process and see yourselves and your world anew, from that perspective of Jesus, His own life, death, and resurrection.
In our readings for today, there’s something that is highlighted that I think is incredibly important to this exercise. With the one that keeps it going and keeps it true in the truest sense. And that is that running through this activity of placing yourself in God’s story is the recognition that it requires humility. We read in Philippians that Christ did not think equality with God is something to be exploited but humbled Himself in emptying Himself out, taking the form of a slave. That Greek for emptying tells you everything, kenosis. It’s a willingness to be poured out. Humility can be defined by many things but I think humility here is defined by the willingness to pour out yourself, to empty yourself, to be willing to give yourself totally to something larger than yourself. To find yourself in the midst of losing yourself.
We are told that that is precisely what Jesus did when He came among us to transform our world. And you and I in order to see yourself truthfully, to see our world truthfully need to mirror God’s own kenosis, God’s humility. That is the task before us. I want to offer you one more piece of art to look at. It’s a sculpture by Anselm Kiefer called Palmsonntag, my German is awful.
Kiefer was born in 1945 and most of his early career as an artist was spent trying to figure out how it was that Germany could rebuild out of its own cultural resources, a new image of itself, a truthful image of itself in light of everything that happened in World War II, in light of the rise of national socialism, in light of The Holocaust. And so he came to the conclusion that art and the world and people need to recognize the reality of the spiritual world we live in, and yet at the same time to always be aware of how these powerful myths and beliefs that we hold onto can be used to wound people and perpetuate evil.
And so Palm Sunday is his attempt to draw upon the deepest resources in the Christian tradition and yet to see it as something which is not going to wound, not going to perpetuate evil but somehow communicate and connote and inspire healing and wholeness and I would say truthfulness. And so you have this incredible large lifelike, life size Palm tree that has been blown over and is lying on the ground and you’re invited as the viewer to see in that Palm tree all the things that you’ve tended to believe and all the things that you have tended to hold dear as both powerful and yet needing to be submitted to a larger truth claim.
The propensity for us to wave our Palms, Kiefer says, is something that we’ve done time and time again because there have been many people who have come into a large city riding on a horse and proclaiming to be our rulers. Only someone who sees in this image an opportunity to humble herself and to see in this celebration of Palm Sunday, an opportunity to humble herself will be able to see the truth of Christianity.
Of course there is one more angle when we look at this beautiful sculpture and that is that the Palm does not simply represent human tendencies to celebrate things and to raise up grand myths, the Palm itself is a type of Christ who was cast down. But not by any natural disaster so that we might live more powerfully. What is the powerful truth that God is showing to you this week and the stories of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? What in your life needs to be emptied out? How can you find resources in this larger story to make sense of your story? In what way will you be changed? These are the questions you and I must ponder as we walk these days. Amen.