In the past few months there have been several news stories about this piece of sculpture by the Canadian sculptor, Timothy Schmalz. The title of this work of art is “The Homeless Jesus,” and it depicts a figure lying on a park bench all wrapped in a cloak or blanket of sorts, all covered, even the head, so you can’t tell who the figure is except that the feet are partially sticking out and you can see the marks of crucified legs, the nail-scarred feet. You can see the photo of this sculpture in the news stories that I link to below.
As you can well imagine this work of religious art shook up a lot of people. This is not a depiction of Jesus like on the holy cards, Easter Greetings, Hollywood movies, etc. This is not a Jesus that the “Gospel of prosperity” people can even begin to recognize. Not even the baroque Crucified Christ found in many Catholic Churches disturbs as much as this vision—for the baroque image is often surrounded by a plethora of gold and decorations and seems strangely “removed” and distant from peoples’ everyday struggles and suffering. This is the Homeless One we see every day. In fact Schmalz was inspired by seeing a homeless person sleeping on a park bench. A subtle but important point is that there is enough room on the park bench for you to sit down next to it. It is not “enshrined” on some altar.
Schmalz offered the sculpture to two Catholic cathedrals: St. Michael’s in Toronto and St. Patrick’s in New York City. Both churches turned it down because it was “unsuitable.” Indeed! This is not the image of Jesus that fits their “comfort zone” perhaps! The sculpture finally found its place in front of Regis College, the Jesuit theologate associated with the University of Toronto. And Pope Francis apparently has blessed an image of this sculpture. But there is even more to this story. Somehow a small Episcopal church in North Carolina acquired a replica of this sculpture as a gift and the pastor put it in front of his church, and that has caused a bit of a controversy. The church is St. Alban’s in Davidson, a very upscale parish in a small college town, Davidson College, a very liberal parish from all indications. But the image is a bit too much for some of the parishioners. One of them called it “creepy” and “macabre.” Another was just patronizing saying that “it reminds us of those who are not as fortunate as we are.” Truly! I hope it does more than that!
Here are the links to two news stories and images of the sculpture:
Now I would like to share some reflections that this sculpture invites us to. Like any true work of art, it can take us in several different directions and touch us at several different levels of our heart and mind—seemingly all at the same time also!
- It feels embarrassing to say this because it is so obvious but the sculpture is a radical indictment of the inhumanity of a socioeconomic system that allows this kind of homelessness. We live in a world that has almost become numb to such human degradation and cruelty. Whether it be war and famine or being driven out as a refugee, whether it be financial disaster, or whether it be even personal failing and personal weakness, whatever be the cause, no society can be said to be just and humane and civilized that allows such human suffering. And the solution is of course not the proverbial soup kitchen or overnight shelter—these are merely there to keep someone alive for the moment—but the solution lies in a real and deep revising of our great social priorities and our own way of life.
- Now all this is on the socioeconomic level, but there is naturally the underlying foundation for all this which is religious and spiritual. Many churches favor and encourage “acts of charity”—like the soup kitchen, etc—but few address the actual problem that causes such an attack on the children of God. And if they do it usually is in some bland generic form like “greed.” All the large religious institutions are not known for their prophetic voice! So one thinks of some of the Old Testament prophets and their sharp words, their call for a kind of “deconstruction” of the social structures that oppressed the poor. Of course the solution lies much deeper even than that. One has to turn to the Gospels to even begin to get there. Consider the parable that Jesus tells about Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31):
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores……”
The parable points to “chasms” that we create in the way we view our fellow human beings—the chasm of a kind of “duality” as Abhishiktananda would put it, where we and “our brother” are two, not one—and the social consequences of that are disastrous. And this “chasm” that we put between ourselves and our brother is the very same chasm that we then put between ourselves and God. We live within this delusion of “twoness” with really bad consequences. This is at the heart of the Gospel message.
- But now that we have entered the spiritual and religious significance of this sculpture, let us push even further. It is clear that the homeless one is of special significance with regard to the Reality of God. Of course this kind of suffering draws the infinite mercy and compassion of God into special attendance as it were. But there is more to this. The homeless one is also a special manifestation of that Ultimate Reality we call God. The great paradox and mystery is that when we truly see this homeless one we see something of that Ultimate Mystery or we see “into it,” or into its depths. Thus there are people who deliberately and voluntarily take on this state of being homeless, take on this burden. Because in it they are immersed in the manifestation of the Divine Mystery. They embrace a true homelessness, physical and/or psychological/spiritual because they are One with the One who is Absolute Homelessness because nothing can be that limitation for the Absolute Reality which is called “home.” They embrace their namelessness because they are one with the Absolutely Nameless One. Jesus called him “Father,” “abba,” but this is only an indication of intimate relationality, of infinite closeness. But there is no name for this Reality. It is beyond all Names and all limitations, all homes, because in effect this Reality is “all in all.” Their heart cries out for this Reality and only this Reality. There is no other home for them but homelessness. In some cultures, like India, the homeless one is culturally supported in a sense because he has a recognizable “place” within the social cosmos. This is of course the profound reality of sannyasa. In Old Russia there was the phenomenon of The Pilgrim. Then there are people who are simply thrown into this homelessness not out of choice, but then they find within it that Reality which makes them not want to leave it; they find not dereliction but blessedness. It is as if within homelessness they discover their true home–examples would be the Western saints, Benedict Joseph Labre or Alexius of Rome. There is one other religious paradigm of chosen homelessness that we need to look at: in ancient Syria, at the beginnings of Christianity.
- In early Christianity, in Syria, about the 2nd Century, there arose a vision of being a disciple of Christ that made homelessness a norm, not an exception. It was a radical Christianity to say the least. Radical in its asceticism; radical in its demands for being a “true Christian.” Baptism was an extremely profound moment, and from that moment when you came out of the water (like in the initiation into sannyasa) you became a homeless wandering monk. We will have to ponder this Syriac Christianity at some point later, but for now let us just focus on this point. Baptism meant a kind of uprooting at various levels of your being. By the way, its radical nature meant that for all practical purposes many put off being baptized until they felt they were “ready” to take this step. To be sure, when you were baptized you did not simply go home and pick up your life as before. Gabriele Winkler, a scholar of early Christianity, puts it this way(after having quoted a poem by Tagore to illustrate a similar sentiment): “In the Gospel Jesus invites those who have this great power of love to stake all they have, and having staked their last penny, to stake themselves—here we find ourselves at the heart of early Syrian asceticism. The ‘game of undoing’ finds its equivalent in Jesus’ challenge to become utterly uprooted and newly grounded. Such radical poverty means: 1. Uprootedness from any comfort, let alone wealth; 2. Uprootedness from past origins and present ties; 3. Uprootedness from whatever could be considered as home or familiar surroundings; 4. Uprootedness from the essence of the ‘I’. These four conditions are particularly emphasized in Luke”(which comes from Syria). In both Luke 9:58 and Matthew 8:20 we find those overly familiar words to whose radical nature we have become numb: “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” A would-be disciple has just told Jesus that he will follow him, and Jesus basically tells him that this will entail utter homelessness. We hear no more of that would-be disciple.
- Consider this then. What does “home” mean? What does it mean to be “at home,” or to “have a home.” It is an “address” of some kind, a part of an identity-making mechanism that is constantly churning: I am this…I am that…. And multiplied a thousand times with statements and actions that society will recognize and approve. Having a home means one has some handle on this process, one is in control, one is thoroughly integrated in the mechanisms of society. To be homeless is then to be “lost” in a sense. To be homeless is also to be nameless. You really become almost invisible to the larger society—unless of course you are culturally “marked” as homeless and given that as your identity. The sculpture of the homeless one is almost without identity—we cannot even see his face; there is just the lump of a covered body, with the scarred feet sticking out. The only credentials the Homeless One has are the marks of the Crucifixion. It is striking that this Ultimate Reality which we call God would choose that as his only identity among us. We need to see that.
- But, furthermore, “home” means a “comfort zone” of sorts. This seems to be a basic human need. It’s a very deep satisfaction that we seek, but ultimately it is a satisfaction we never quite reach—and some expend much money and much effort to reach that “comfort zone” in the illusion that lavish houses, power and praise, possessions, etc. will produce that “comfort zone” of being. The great fact and the great paradox is that at the core of our being we are truly and profoundly homeless in the sense that nothing of that which is out there—wealth, power, sex, possessions, credentials, etc.—nothing will render our self as being “at home” within itself as this limited isolated self always feeling desire for this or that. (Buddhism speaks eloquently about that.) Our true home is the Reality of God, the Ultimate Mystery, the Absolute Reality. The Great Paradox and the Great Mystery is that the Christ who manifests this Absolute Reality has identified himself with the homeless ones to the extent that they and he are not “two” but “one” (“Whatsoever you do to the least…..you do to me.”) And this sacrament of non-duality invites us to discover and to plunge into the true and profound homelessness of our own hearts and to accept it because it is His Homelessness which is out paradoxical abode. And then we discover our true namelessness because it is also His Namelessness. Oneness beyond oneness. Only the truly homeless will ever be at home in this cosmos. Only the nameless one will really know who he/she truly is.