A simple post on a profound day: My latest painting, based on a water-color sketch, in honor of the only King that matters…
The Crucifixion is a motif in the history of Western art that has appeared in perhaps tens of thousands of forms. From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, to Jewish artist Marc Chagall, to Salvador Dali’s surrealistic renderings, to the controversial “Piss Christ” and on and on – The image of Christ on the Cross holds various degrees of meaning and purpose depending on the viewer and the artist. Ironically, I am a believer and an artist but I’ve never painted any crucifixion scene. However, recently I was inspired by a devout young man who diligently crafts his paintings in the art studio I help to manage.
I work at a day program for adults with developmental disabilities. Among my duties is the responsibility to provide an atmosphere of creativity and the opportunity for self-expression through art. The young man mentioned above often pictures Bible stories in his own distinct style. Currently, he is working on a Crucifixion scene which he said was for Good Friday. Here is his work in progress:
I often find myself inspired by something my students are doing. They can give me the needed push in a certain area in my own personal art exploration. Lately I’ve wanted to try out water-colors and so I decided to do some paint sketches of the Crucifixion. I showed the sketches to my wife and she though it an odd juxtaposition: A media that is often associated with things soft and beautiful used to picture the torturous death of Jesus. Perhaps she’s right. But God becoming a human being is an odd juxtaposition too.
Here are my water-color sketches. I may turn at least one of these into a larger painting. I suppose this is a fitting study during Lent:
Happy Easter, everyone! In my career as a pastor, I’ve always followed my Dad’s advice on this day. He’s a preacher, too. His words to me regarding this Christian holiday were these: “Tell the Story”. In other words, on this Day of Days, let the story do the talking.
In that spirit, I want to share with you a profound and moving allegory written by Walter Wangerin, Jr. The words belong to Walt, the illustrations are mine.
The Ragman by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
I saw a sight so strange and experienced something so amazing that it is hard for me to explain it. If you can give me a few minutes, I’ll do my best to describe it to you.
Before dawn one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking through the back alleys of the city. He was pulling an old cart filled with clothes both bright and new. As he pulled the cart he was calling out in a clear, powerful voice: “Rags! Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags!”
The air was foul in these dark streets, tainted by the filth and trash that living unleashes on the world. And yet as the man called out, the air became tinged with the faint scent of cleanliness, as though the breeze that carried the sweet music of his voice also carried with it the promise of a cleansing rain.
“Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!” The man continued to move through the dim light of early morning, his strong voice echoing from building to building and street to street.
“Now, this is a curious thing,” I thought, for the man stood 6’4″ and his arms were like tree limbs, hard and muscular. His eyes flashed with intelligence. What was he doing here, in a city that had no need for such a useless profession. Who recycled rags anymore? Could he find no better job than this, to be a ragman in the heart of a city? Driven by my curiosity, I followed him. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Soon the Ragman saw a woman sitting on the porch of a small house. She was crying into a handkerchief. Her body language said it all as she seemed folded in on herself, shoulders down, back slumped forward, knees and elbows making a sad X. She had no hope. Her heart was breaking and she was wracked with sobs. Her body may have been alive, but her soul wanted to die.
The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly he walked over to the woman, stepping round empty beer cans and old newspapers, dead toys and broken furniture. “Give me your rag,” he said gently as he knelt beside her, “and I’ll give you another.” The woman looked up into his powerful, compassionate eyes and saw something there that paused her tears. The Ragman slipped the handkerchief from her hand and used it one last time to dry away the flow of tears from her face. Never taking his eyes from hers, he laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. She looked down at the new cloth and then back again to the eyes of man who had given it to her. The Ragman slowly leaned forward and kissed the woman’s forehead and then turned and walked back to his cart.
As he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing: he put her old, stained handkerchief to his own face and then he began to weep.
He sobbed as grievously as she had done, his shoulders shaking as the tears flowed down his face in a torrent of grief.
But looking back to the woman on the porch I could see that she was left without a tear. She sat with her shoulders high and a look of wonder on her face.
“This is amazing,” I thought, and I followed the sobbing Ragman. Like a curious child who cannot turn away from a mystery, I watched the Ragman from a distance.
“Rags! Rags! New rags for old!” rang forth his voice. Though it was still strong, it also shook with emotion as he wept. “Rags! I take your old rags! Rags!”
In a little while, the sky showed gray behind the rooftops. It was light enough to make out the shredded curtains and damaged blinds that hung in dark windows.
The Ragman came upon a girl sitting on the curbside whose head was wrapped in a bandage, eyes as vacant as the windows around her. Blood soaked her bandage and a single line of blood ran down her cheek.
The Ragman paused and turned his weeping eyes upon this empty, injured child. Reaching into his cart, he withdrew from it a beautiful yellow hat and walked towards the girl. “Give me your rag,” he said softly, “and I’ll give you mine.” The child did not move and could only gaze at him vacantly while he loosened the bandage, removed it from her head, and tied it to his own instead. I gasped at what I saw: with the bandage went the wound. The girl’s head was left unblemished, while the Ragman’s head began to bleed.
He set the hat on the girl’s head and suddenly her eyes took on an understanding and intelligence that had been missing before. She placed her hand to the side of her head where the bandage had covered the wound that was no longer there. Smiling in wonder, she watched as the Ragman rose unsteadily to his feet and moved back to his cart.
“Rag! Rags! I take old rags!” cried out the sobbing, bleeding Ragman. “New rags for old! Rags!” With his powerful arms pulling the cart, he continued on his way. He seemed to be moving faster now with an urgency I hadn’t noticed before.
He stopped again in front of a man who was leaning against a telephone pole. “Are you going to work?” he asked. The man shook his head. The Ragman pressed him: “Do you have a job?”
The man looked him up and down, making note of the Ragman’s weeping eyes and bleeding head before replying. “Are you crazy?” he sneered as he leaned away from the pole, revealing that the right sleeve of his jacket was flat, the cuff stuffed into the pocket. He had no arm.
“Give me your jacket,” said the Ragman firmly, “and I’ll give you mine.” Such quiet authority in his voice! The one-armed man looked into the other’s eyes and then slowly took off his jacket.
So did the Ragman. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief as I trembled at what I saw: the Ragman’s arm stayed in its sleeve, and when the other put on the Ragman’s jacket he had two good arms, strong as tree limbs. The Ragman was left with one. “Go to work,” he said as he moved back to his cart.
Struggling to make do with his one arm, the Ragman began to pull his cart again, this time much faster and with greater urgency. He came upon an unconscious old drunk lying beneath an army blanket, hunched, wizened and sick. He took that blanket and wrapped it round himself, but for the drunk he left new clothes.
And now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. He was weeping uncontrollably, and bleeding freely from the forehead. He struggled to pull his cart with one arm while stumbling from drunkenness, falling again and again, exhausted, old, and sick. Yet he moved with terrible speed nearly sprinting through the alleys of the city covering block after block and mile upon mile.
I wept to see the changes in this man. I hurt to see his sorrow and ached each time I saw him stumble and fall. When he began to move through the industrial area of the city, away from the houses and apartments, I wanted to stop following and turn away, to leave him behind and go back to my life. But I could not. I needed to see this story through to its end. Who was this Ragman? Why had he done what nobody else would have done? Where he was going in such a hurry? How would it end?
The once strong Ragman was now old and frail, weeping and bleeding, staggering and falling, his body wracked with pain, sorrow and disease. I watched as he came to an old abandoned lot that was filled with piles of trash, old furniture, and the rusted out shells of cars and construction equipment. He moved among the garbage pits and piles of human refuse and finally climbed to the top of a small hill made from the trash of a thousand lives. He struggled to pull his cart and its sad, pathetic burden. With tormented labour he cleared a little space on that hill.
With a deep sigh, he slowly made a bed from the contents of his cart and lay down on it. He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket. He covered his old, aching bones with an army blanket. His body shook under the load of its injuries and pain and disease. His eyes wept and the wound under his bandage continued to bleed. With one last, deep sigh, he closed his eyes and died.
Oh, how I cried to witness that death! I sat down in an old, abandoned car and wailed and mourned as one who has no hope. I wept because I had come to love the Ragman. As I had followed him, I had watched him work wonders and change lives so profoundly that it didn’t seem fair that he was gone.
He had taken those things that were soiled and damaged beyond repair and had replaced them with the new and the whole. He had offered hope to the damaged and lost of the city.
But if the Ragman was gone, then my hope was gone as well. I felt such an overwhelming sense of grief and loss that I remained in the seclusion of the old car and sobbed myself to sleep. I did not know – how could I know — that I slept through Friday night and Saturday and on through Saturday night as well.
But then, on Sunday morning, I was awakened by a violence that shook me to the core of my being. Light – pure, hard, insistent light – slammed against my face and demanded that I awake. When I was finally able to open my eyes, I blinked against the light and squinted in the direction of the pile of trash where the Ragman’s body had been. As I looked, I saw the last and the first wonder of all.
The Ragman was there, yes! But he was no longer dead. He was alive! There he stood, folding the old army blanket carefully and laying it atop the neatly arranged handkerchief and jacket. Besides the scar on his forehead, there was no other evidence of what he had previously taken upon himself. There was no sign of sorrow or age, no evidence of illness or deformity. His body was whole and strong and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness.
I wept to see him again. When I thought that hope had died along with Ragman, I had abandoned any hope for my own life. And yet there he stood, healthy and whole. Climbing from my shelter I moved toward the Ragman, trembling from what I had seen and because of what I knew I needed to do. Walking to him with my head lowered, I spoke my name to him with shame. Looking up into his clear, loving, compassionate eyes I spoke with yearning in my voice, “Rags. Please take my tired rags and replace them with new ones.”
And he did just that. Taking the old, tired rags of my existence that covered the griefs and wounds of a life sadly lived, he replaced them with the new clothes of a life spent following Him. He put new rags on me and I am now a reflection of the hope he offers to us all.
As a Christian on Good Friday, I can’t help but consider this day and its events, its impact on history, its resonance despite the distance of almost 2,000 years. The fact is that the day wouldn’t hold such prominence if not centered on one man; a man whose life and death transcends easy categories.
Jesus is so many things to so many people but to me on this day I remember the man who battled the religious and died with terrorists.
His most heated debates, his harshest words, his greatest rebukes were directed at those who loved God and sought to worship Him with all their heart, mind and strength. They were believers living under the rule of an unbelieving Empire and they fought desperately to maintain their sense of right and wrong, their faithfulness to the Bible, their calling to represent their God in an increasingly wicked world. It is easy to cast these characters of the Gospels as villains; but that would be forgetting that they were very sincere in their desire for the wholeness of their faith. They believed that it was crucially important to guide their fellow Jews along a true path. They saw Jesus as a threat, one who would undermine this goal. Increasingly they saw the man of Nazareth as a religious rebel, a “blasphemer” who was sullying the name of God and tearing down all the distinctiveness of Judaism and therefore dragging the faith into the mud. For people who saw themselves as defenders of their beliefs, Jesus became an adversary that had to be dealt with before he dragged more people down to his irreligious level.
An honest reading of the Gospels makes it much easier to understand their perspective, especially if you are a believer and put yourself in their shoes as you read. Jesus seems to go out of his way to pick fights with the upright of his day. He recasts the Law time and again, putting his own spin on things, telling people “this is what you’ve been taught for hundreds of years but I say this“. The seeming arrogance of his statements, the casualness of his apostasy, would have rankled so many of his fellow Jews; particularly those who felt the pressure to live true to their faith in the midst of a world that was dominated by the non-believing, the godless and the secular.
Jesus invited the presence and the influence of the non-believing, the godless and the secular. He didn’t live as if there was an ever-increasing gap between those who believed and those who did not. In fact, he lived as if that gap didn’t exist, as if the warfare that waged between the faithful and the wicked did not influence his goals or his mission. In other words, he doesn’t seem at all motivated by the factors that motivated his Jewish peers. His agenda was not their agenda. Their fears did not play a role in his mind, words or actions. Unlike the religious, he boldly stepped into the breach. He brought hope instead of fear; love instead of law; he said “Yes” virtually everywhere they said “No”.
And, yes, he did die with terrorists. The Gospels record the fact that he was crucified between two criminals, often called “thieves” in a traditional recounting of Good Friday. However, it is highly unlikely the Roman authorities would resort to their harshest form of execution over a couple of common thieves. It is much more likely that these two men were insurrectionists, Zealots: Jewish men who felt so strongly about their people, their nation, their faith that they were willing to kill and to die for the cause. To them the evil Empire that dominated their land and lives needed to be directly opposed and attacked. Their crime was probably killing Romans or others they saw in league with the Empire. Therefore, the two men crucified with Jesus were, in the eyes of the Romans, terrorists; those who would use fear, violence, intimidation as a means to their end.
The Gospel of Luke tells the simple but profound account involving these two terrorists on either side of Jesus. In Luke’s account, one of the men joins in with those who came to the cross to mock Jesus, to rub salt into his wounds. It is really not a surprise that this man would do so, especially if he was a hyper-committed Zealot. Jesus had spoken and acted like he was the Messiah but had failed miserably to live up to that promise. To this criminal on the cross he was just a pathetic poser with delusions of grandeur. Even as his own death was imminent, this terrorist would feel anger and resentment towards Jesus, someone who was undeserving of a martyr’s death.
But the second criminal, instead of sinking deeper into the void of bitterness, seems to gain insight as he sees the specter of death approaching. He rebukes his fellow terrorist for his harsh words directed at Jesus saying, “We are getting what we deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” And then, in one of the most heart-wrenching and direct statements recorded in scripture, he turns to the young rabbi hanging next to him and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Did he understand at that moment the deeper implications of the death of Jesus? Or was he professing a faith that no matter what transpired that day, this man crucified next to him must be the Messiah; he had to be, he could be no one else? Whatever was the motivation, a man who likely killed out of his fierce ideology was now proclaiming faith out of the glimmer of hope his soul still clung to.
Jesus rewards this gasped confession of faith with the powerful words, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
These words of Jesus, as his own life was ebbing away, is just another example of the fact that, time and time again, when he was faced with an opportunity to respond to those around him, he says “Yes”. Jesus never turned someone away and he always saw a movement towards him as a movement towards truth, towards good, towards what God had in mind in that moment. And he approached each of these moments without fear, without a judgment based on the moral character or background of the people before him. He showed us over and over that when given the chance to do so, he was a Yes Man.
I am pondering this on Good Friday at a time when there is firestorm of debate on social media surrounding the recent events in Indiana. From one side of the story it is a triumphant expression of religious freedom; on the other side it is a cloaked and dangerous form of discrimination. I am in no position to take any one of these sides as I am simply not informed enough. However, as a Christian, I am saddened that non-believers automatically associate the discrimination, the negativity, the exclusion, with followers of the same Jesus I have been writing about here. To those outside the faith so often we are people who, when confronted with the opportunity to engage with the world the way Jesus did, give a loud and undeniable “NO”. As people who believe and follow a man who did not act out of fear, we continually and repeatedly rely on fear as our “fall back” position.
This disturbs me on this Good Friday. As I see it, Jesus died to free us from sin, to give us forgiveness and eternal life. His resurrection on Easter seals the deal. It is God’s great act of restoration and healing for us and all Creation. We can make the theological proclamations and re-affirm this belief. But in day-to-day living what does it mean? Ultimately I believe it means that we are meant to live and engage in our world the way Jesus did, without fear, without our actions being tainted by our mistaken notion that we are “defenders of the faith”. We get so caught up in the wickedness of the world, in our concern that religious freedoms will be stripped away, that a godlessness will descend on our lives that we miss the moments, over and over and over again, to display to our world the powerful example of Gospel grace and truth, love and mercy, openness and engagement without fear.
We are meant to embody hope to people who so desperately need it. Our world is full of sadness. We are not meant to make life more of a struggle to a people stumbling around in darkness. We are meant, like Jesus, to shine; to take those moments offered to us, when our world needs a word of love amid its gasps of pain, to speak and act as our Lord did. Perhaps this was one reason Jesus was so critical of the religiously upright of his time. He saw their attempts at preserving a pure faith as laying heavier and heavier burdens on people who were already feeling crushed. He reacted to their expressions of fear of their world by throwing it back in their faces, confronting them with the actual God they thought they knew and understood.
I’m not sure what it means to you to follow Jesus. But to me it means that every time I am presented with an opportunity to be Jesus in someone’s life, I want to say “Yes”; recognizing that these opportunities will often come with a heavy dose of challenge to my values, my belief system, my understanding of what is right and wrong. Because it is not my job to make sure everyone lives in accordance to the will of God. It is my job to do the will of God, period. And the will of God has never been more powerfully on display than in the life of the one I follow: Jesus.
On this Good Friday, I ask God to grant me the strength to be a Yes Man to my world. To be present and real and a source of hope; to not live my faith out of fear but out of joy; to act and speak from a place of trust in my God and love for all. In other words, I ask God for the strength to be more and more like Jesus.
A happy and hopeful Easter to you all.