READING: from Saving Paradise by Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock
It took Jesus a thousand years to die. Images of his corpse did not appear in churches until the tenth century. Why not? …
Initially, we didn’t believe it could be true. Surely the art historians were wrong. … How could it be that images of Jesus’s suffering and death were absent from early churches? We had to see for ourselves and consider what this might mean. …
We began in Rome, descending from the blaze of the summer sun into the catacombs where underground tunnels and tombs are carved into soft tufa rock. The earliest surviving Christian art is painted onto the plaster-lined walls of tombs or carved onto marble sarcophagi as memorials to the interred.
In the cool, dimly lit caverns, we saw a variety of biblical images. Many of them suggested rescue from danger. For example, Abraham and Isaac stood side by side in prayer with a ram bound next to them. Jonah, the recalcitrant prophet who was swallowed and coughed up by a sea monster, reclined peacefully beneath the shade of a vine. Daniel stood alive and well between two pacified lions. Other images suggested baptism and healing, such as the Samaritan woman drawing water from a well, John the Baptist dousing Jesus, depicted as a child, and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus also appeared as a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders like Orpheus.
We could not find a dead Jesus, not even one. It was just as the angel had said to the women looking for Jesus at his tomb, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5) “He is not here.” (Mark 16:6) He most certainly was not.
I think I have told you before about a memorable experience I had years ago as a chaplain-in-training. I was anxious about visiting strangers in hospital rooms – it felt a bit like making cold calls, no guarantee how they would receive me – and I used to retreat to the hospital chapel every so often to center myself before making more visits. The chapel had an image of Jesus up front behind the altar, which I had assumed was a crucifix: the dead Jesus I expected to see. On one of those occasions, after I had sat meditating for ten minutes or so, I got up to leave and actually looked at that image. It was the risen Christ, arms open in blessing. Not a crucifix at all. The shock of having my expectations interrupted and overturned made that moment significant for me. It is as if not only had I seen the image, but it had seen me, and given the blessing I was seeking. It sealed and reinforced the experience of centering that I needed.
The dead Jesus most certainly was not there.
The significance of the image that – once I looked – shattered my expectations is that it was always there, silently proclaiming its message of hope, silently resisting my expectations of it.
Many of our neighbors experience a mirror-image of this, in relation to our so-called “Confederate” monuments. Back when Lee was still atop his pedestal, I visited and examined the graffiti written on the stone base of the pillar. Some folks had written paragraphs, short disquisitions on the hurtful meaning of this symbol that still silently celebrated the segregation of American society and the establishment of Jim Crow laws, silently resisted the progress of civil rights and equity in that prominent and celebrated civic space of our city. Lee was so high above us that he was not easily seen, but the image there did not speak to the struggle that Lee and some of his brother generals made to accept military defeat and social change in the years after the Civil War. And, like my expectation of the crucifix, the expectation of some to see the Lost Cause there blinded them to how the Civil War generation made meaning of their shattered lives. Were they to look closely into the facts of Reconstruction, as I have – filling the gaps left by my schooling – they, too, would see the hurt that the pedestal scribes recorded.
For the Lost Cause most certainly never was.
The significance of the four monuments that have been removed – and of several more, particularly on the neutral ground of Jefferson Davis Parkway – is that they inscribe upon our civic landscape a myth constructed to undo guarantees of civil rights and equity that so many of our ancestors and countrymen died to establish and defend. Lee and his brother soldiers struggled with the contradictions of their cause. The builders of those monuments struggled bitterly against the memory of those soldiers’ nobler struggle.
It has been suggested that, rather than “homo sapiens” (“wise man”), human beings should be known as “homo narrons” (“storytelling man”). The habit of turning our memories and experiences into stories runs deep in us.
A mere account of events is empty; a story finds the meaning and the beauty, the best in our experience that can give us peace in the present as we move into an unknown future. And so we tell stories, and make images, and build monuments, to feel that we have our place in an ever-changing world, that we ourselves are rocks anchored in the stream of life. We fear, often, to embrace the deeper truth that the stream of life is within us, that we are ourselves ever-changing rivers, and that ultimately – to keep up with us and our needs in the place we find ourselves – our stories also must flow through time, a recognizable current in the shifting landscape of human experience. A story told once upon a time will only make sense if its hearers can understand the landscape that shaped it. Either its symbols still speak intelligibly, or its hearers have sufficiently done their homework.
And this we know from experience: it’s hard to get that homework done when the lessons haven’t been taught us.
This is why movements to remove some monuments and to refurbish or establish others is vital to the life of any city. In our civic spaces, we tell our story to ourselves and to our visitors. Like our annual Jazz Funeral for the Old Year, it’s part of what it means to welcome strangers as friends. What I mean is: Jazz Funerals don’t happen anywhere else. Ever since 1833, we have had folks who “aren’t from here” attending and joining our New Orleans churches. So once a year we take the time to learn about and explore a tradition that is of this place, of this city. If you’re from here, you know that this is how we do things. If you’re not, we want you to know, so you’ll understand us better.
And that’s what civic space is supposed to be about.
Storytelling – in all its media: ritual, symbol, and narrative – runs deep in us. It’s how we greet strangers as friends, and how we tell them and ourselves the truth about us.
We have an opportunity this afternoon to experience a ritual of renewal of civic space, during the Congo Square Sacred Marketplace, from noon until 6pm today. The marketplace features food vendors, children’s activities, health screenings, drum and dance workshops, tours of the Sculpture Garden in Armstrong Park, and music and dance performances. And at 3pm today, the City of New Orleans Park and Parkways department will unveil a restored Congo Square historic marker as a special event. If you’re able, I encourage you to go and experience the marketplace in this frame of civic storytelling. This is how civic space is supposed to work.
Rebecca Parker and Rita Brock discovered in their journey through the world of early Christian art that images of rescue from danger, of blessing, and of healing were the most common themes before the tenth century. Also, depictions of paradise. But this was not a paradise of life-after-death. It was a paradise of here-and-now. The word “paradise” came into the Hebrew and Greek languages, and ultimately into our own, from a Persian word that meant “a walled garden.” It implied cultivation during life-before-death. Maybe God has a perfect garden in Heaven, or had the perfect garden in Eden long ago; either way, “paradise” was a symbol of the possibility of cultivating at least a pretty-good garden together, now, right where we are. It was a symbol of a good and just society that can be, if we build it and maintain it. Cultivating whole selves and a just society. Spiritual practice. Moral purpose. Justice and peace.
The symbols that worked for the early church, expressing its resistance to the violent abuses of empire, held on as long as the Church formed during Roman times still functioned within a classically-rooted Graeco-Roman culture, but they lost their power with the rise of the Empire of Charlemagne. That new power center, rooted in a different cultural heritage, produced artists who favored depictions of the dead Jesus. Human suffering replaced human labor as the path to paradise. And paradise grew ever more remote.
How we tell our collective story – the many stories of which the collective is composed – guides our imagination of what can be, and shapes our descendants’ hopes of building a just society, of cultivating a garden bearing fruit in human wholeness and peace. It’s important work for neighbors to do together. It can connect us to our noblest ideals, our highest resolve, and our best selves. And it can make a difference in our ability to produce just and peaceful outcomes in civic affairs for all our neighbors.
Hope to see you today in Congo Square! Amen.