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Pastor's Blog

  • Writer's pictureRev. Stephanie Jaeger

Looking at the Crucifixion in New Ways

For the past three years here at St. Matthew’s—NoHo many people have embraced a project that was initiated by a group of members who formed a “racial equity” group to lead our congregation to address racism in the community and in the church. The project that we have carried out these three years has been to expand the collection of religious art we have in our sanctuary. Many years ago, St. Matthew’s was blessed to receive a series of paintings in a European neo-renaissance style of Jesus’ journey to the cross. They are paintings that were framed to be utilized for the traditional Catholic devotion of 14 stations of the cross. The “stations of the cross” is a meditative devotion—by which you move from one scene of Jesus’ journey to the cross and ultimately the tomb, and ponder eachmoment of Jesus’ sacrifice. From the first time that I walked into this sanctuary in September of 2014, I liked the series of paintings—14 in all--even if they included the 6 non-Biblical “stations” like the veil of Veronica. Or Jesus stumbling three times on the way to Golgatha. I liked the paintings because their compositions are dynamic, and the colors draw ours eyes into the drama of Jesus’ compassionate suffering.

But in 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis policeman that became an emblem for racism in America, particularly in the unjust justice system, some of us here at St. Matt’s committed ourselves to viewing our church through more critical eyes, and seeing Jesus not only through white, European eyes. And so we began to collect additional pieces of religious art related especially to the crucifixion of our God. We first acquired the piece, the “Crucifixion of Jesus” by the African-American folk artist Carl Dixon.

Dixon is best known today for his wood carving “I Can’t Breathe”, a picture and analysis of which we have posted in the back of the church. In “I Can’t Breathe”--the last words of Eric Garner, the black man killed in a chokehold by an NYPD officer in 2014-- Dixon explicitly links the suffering of Jesus Christ—the unjust trial, torture, torment, and murder of God on the cross—with the contemporary experience of African Americans in our country: murder, prejudice, racism, and denial of equal access to medical care which became so obvious especially in LA during the pandemic. Dixon’s multi-scene wood cut, “The Crucifixion,” is older, and more literal in its telling of the persecution of Jesus. But unlike the paintings of Jesus we have in our sanctuary, Jesus is not white. Jesus is brown and black. As are many of the other characters—Pontius Pilate, the Romans. And that matters. Because our God who suffers with compassion for human beings, suffers with all humans. And if we as Christians are called to proclaim Jesus in fullness and truth, then we are obligated to show Jesus in diverse ways.

What is so striking to me in Dixon’s “I Can’t Breathe” crucifixion wood painting is that it shows so profoundly that our suffering God actually takes suffering beyond compassion. Our God, Jesus, takes compassionate suffering to the deep stage of solidarity—solidarity with human suffering. Our God always stands in solidarity with you and me as we suffer, and with each person suffering harm and violence and degradation.

I love our paintings of the stations of the cross, of the white European Jesus, because they render powerfully and beautifully that our God suffers. That our God suffers as we humans do.

But I love our new pieces of art more—like the wood cut of Carl Dixon, our print acquired last year by the Chicano print maker Artemio Rodriguez—now hanging at the back of the sanctuary where it can be more easily seen—and our newest work by the Chinese artist He Qui, also called the Crucifixion.

Because these new pieces, that contextualize the crucifixion in human experience, show not just that our God suffered, but how God suffers in solidarity with our human suffering. Dixon’s crucified Jesus shows God’s solidarity with people in our country who suffer the violence and diminishment of racism. Artemio Rodriguez’ crucifixion, set outside a Mexican zocalo, shows God’s solidarity suffering with farm workers and women and in some cases, those harmed by the Church, such as indigenous peoples.

Our print for this year, He Qui’s crucifixion, returns to more Biblical examples of human suffering. But when you look at the Qui’s crucifixion, it isn’t a literal rendering of the passion story with Jesus’ disciples and women weeping at his feet. In Qui’s print, the people surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion are some of the many people who came to Jesus’ in his lifetime—looking for healing, looking for liberation, looking for resurrection: to the left of the cross is the lame man carried by a friend, and the adulterous woman, naked, whose stoning Jesus prevented. To the right is the Jewish leader with the sick daughter, and a man imprisoned, and at Jesus feet, lying on the ground is an ill man---looking for new life.

Our God didn't just suffer, doesn't just suffers across the divine-human divide with compassion for us; God suffers in solidarity deep in our human experience of struggle. It is this deep solidarity with our experience of suffering and brokenness, it is this deep solidarity—not mere compassion—that redeems. It is this deep solidarity that saves us.

This is the message of this holy night, this Good Friday: that our God plunges so deep into our human suffering, even unto death, that there is nothing that lies outside the scope of God’s redemption.

There is nothing that you or I have ever done that God cannot forgive and redeem.

There is nothing, there is no brokenness—not even the gravest of social sins and suffering—that God can not enter into and redeem.

Even when one group exerts ill-gained privilege over another. Even when cities like our own LAare marred by a perverse degree of income inequality and the exorbitant cost of housing. Even when bullets tear the tender flesh of children at school. Even when their parents weep as they bury their chilren. Even when we damage the Creation that God has given us to steward. All of these wounds, all of these harms—God can redeem. If we let God in. If we let the God who not only suffers with compassion but suffers in solidarity with human experience plunge the cross of Christ deep into our conscience, our hearts, our minds, our actions. If we let our God who suffers and loves in solidarity carry us out of our suffering into the hope, promise and action of renewal.

Tonight, tonight---let us cling fast to the cross. Let us cling fast to the sign of our God who suffers deep, deep in solidarity with us and the world God loves. Let us cling fast to the cross, and let God carry us and our world into the redeemed future that God envisions and is to come.


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