Friday, 9 March 2018

Christa: the cross, shock and dignity

This is the text of a Lent Talk given as part of the "Faith through Art" series at Guildford Cathedral. As a result of tech glitches, we started late and had to rely on a black and white copy of Edwina Sandys' "Christa".  This is the approximate text with some additional images and links including Sandys' own site and reflections on "Christa" thirty-years on can be found in an article in the Huffington Post

Alexandre Getsman and Edwina Sandys in front of CHRISTA
Image and interview from New York Social Diary: 18 November, 2011

On her website, Edwina Sandys describes herself as a  'New Yorker by choice and marriage'.  It is perhaps unsurprising that, given her father Duncan Sandys was a Cabinet Minister and that her grandfather was Winston Churchill, she considered standing for Parliament. 

It's even less surprising then that as an artist, her work is very much inspired by political and social themes - including gender. There's a sense of joy and playfulness in her work - whether we are looking at images of flowers or expressions of female embodiment. And in her wit we find wisdom and challenge. 

She is most well known for Christa a bronze sculpture of a female Christ figure on the cross. First shown in 1975 it was displayed in a range of galleries and churches before being installed at the Cathedral of St John the Divine (New York) in 1984. As the first such representation, the work created considerable furore - the inevitable outrange and voices moved by the emotional power of the work.  

What do we see when we look on this image?

Are we shocked or inspired by the suffering, composure and strength?

The human desire to identify with Christ Jesus in his humanity is an enduring and universal concern.

The human desire to explore what it means for God to be with us in the fullness of our humanity is reflected in a multiplicity of images.

We are provoked to look beyond the pale, male, blond, blue eyed Jesus of some western art, to think about a rich spiritual and religious iconography. Every generation and culture seeking to mark that likeness. 

More than that,  as members of Christ’s body, through baptism, we want to make visible our ‘in Christ-ness’ as a community; in all our diversity. Whatever our class, occupation, gender, age, health or ability we seek to find our place within this body - to belong, to be accepted and valued.  Many artists and projects run by St Paul's Cathedral, for example, have created collages or mosaics taking our faces and transforming them - together - into the face of Christ. 

The cross too becomes such a marker of belonging. 

The cross is a ubiquitous symbol. Some make the sign as we proclaim the Gospel or before preaching - reminding us of the love of God before speaking/listening. We mark out or see the sign of the cross as we receive the gift of forgiveness and blessing. It is expression of the embodied reality and cost of God’s love poured out for us in Jesus Christ.

It’s a gesture made by lots of sportsmen and women when they prepare to compete: coming on to the pitch, preparing to leave the blocks, taking a penalty.

It’s an item of jewellery: a sought after fashion accessory; a bold statement of faith in workplace; a cherished birthday gift.

It’s a piece of art: an elaborate design tattooed, perhaps entwined with words of faith or a loved one’s name; or for our Coptic brothers and sisters, received at baptism; an indelible mark of being 'in Christ' as in the image below: Coptic wrist crosses

It’s a near universal symbol of Christianity: it is used in worship – in gesture and image; our churches are identified by it in layout and external signage. We literally follow the cross in our liturgy. We receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads in baptism; an invisible sign of God’s grace, God’s yes to us and of our commitment to live in love.  It has been, and in some places continues to be, a sign that is controversial, a marker of identity or power; of radical challenge or of conformity.  

We follow the cross.

It was not always a marker of Christian faith; rather it was a scandalous sign of brutal and shameful torture. The turning point came at the end of a time of intense persecution in the 4th century. People began to travel to the Holy Land to visit and pray at the places associated with Jesus’ life. Among them was Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine. She oversaw the excavation of various sites and was said to have uncovered a cross, believed to be the cross of Christ.  

That discovery, and our devotion,  stirs reflection on the breadth and depth of God’s love and forgiveness that we recall in these weeks before Christ’s passion.

Yet sometimes owning a symbol diminishes its power to transform us. A sign of death has become in Christ a sign of love and compassion. Yet we domesticate it; or use it to exclude or marginalize. It is then that we need artists and others to shock us into thinking again about its meaning.

The cross is a scandal.

During her Confessions tour Madonna performed “Live to tell” whilst hanging on a giant mirrored cross wearing a crown of thorns. Unsurprisingly she faced a strong negative reaction from religious groups.  Her performance was described as blasphemous, distasteful and heretical.   

How should we react? Is it offensive or does her performance provoke us to think about how challenging the cross is?  

Madonna’s response to such criticism was to say that her main intention was to highlight the plight of millions of children dying from poverty and hunger in Africa. 

As she performed, the death toll of victims is counted on a screen behind her; the words “in Africa 12 million children are orphaned by AIDS” are projected onto the stage. Images of children fade in and out as she sings.

Perhaps  it is only scandalous nature of the cross that can do justice to the extent of human suffering today; perhaps it is only the cross that can call us back to our humanity made in the image of God; does the cross provoke us to recall the enormity of God’s love and forgiveness of us; challenging us to respond with repentance and compassion.

As “Live to tell” comes to an end, Madonna steps down from the cross.  She kneels, removes the crown of thorns, and bows her head.  

In another ubiquitous sign, she adopts the posture of prayer.  Above her scroll quotations from Matthew 25: And God said…whatever you did for the least of these brethren. 

Whatever you did for the least of these...

How do we respond to the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the excluded, the abused and the marginalized?

God’s love is different: humble, self-giving, generous, challenging and forgiving.  

Howe is such love revealed today. To quote Madonna:

How will they hear
When will they learn
How will they know 

They will hear and learn and know when we ourselves embody the love poured out in self-giving. 

I wonder if in part, Sandys' "Christa" serves a similar function to Madonna's live performance. 

It provokes us to think about the scandal of the cross; to the scandal of human suffering.

It provokes us to think the reality of God with us: the God who humbled himself to take on our humanity, raises up our human nature. 

We are saved - healed, restored, forgiven - through the cross of Christ. The word became flesh: taking on our flesh, male and female.

And perhaps that's the real heresy: denying God's image in us, male and female. 

After much discussion with those Sandys' called the "earthly powers", "Christa" is now displayed at St John the Divine. 

The New York Times

In an interview with Nettie Reynolds in 2015, she said: I didn’t make Christa as a campaign for women’s rights or Women’s Lib as such but I have always believed in equality and I am glad that Christa is just as relevant today as it was in 1975. I didn’t make Christa just for women.  Men also suffer and that is one of the meanings of Jesus on the Cross. In the past there were matriarchs in many societies and religions, and gender was not always a factor. Today women are finding their way to take their place in the Christian church and in society in general. Most women of my generation have been stamped with the idea of Man’s superiority over Woman which is hard to throw off without seeming aggressive.  I hope that Christa continues to reveal the journey of suffering that we all have in common.

    The "Christa" continues to reveal the journey of suffering that we all have in common. Then suffering we share. 

    As we look at Sandys Christa, might we consider the impact of God’s love revealed in Jesus afresh. He is God with us, alongside us. It also says something about our humanity.  

    The pursuit of our desires can have a corrosive effect on others: we hurt them by our selfishness, lack of consideration, impatience, anger and unkind speech.  The prophets were continually reminding the people of Israel to turn things around – to but God’s love first and allow that to shape our relationships.  

    But human pride and self-sufficiency gets in the way; we have a human tendency to mess things up.  Yesterday, we remembered the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity and their companions: the account of their death reduces us to tears.

    We hear of their faithfulness and courage; their companionship and dignity. We heard of the  bodies of two young women: naked and exposed; then clothed but mortally wounded. 

    I’d never associated Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem God’s Grandeur with the crucifixion until I looked at this image.

    He begins: The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil


    Christ is crushed with us; with our humanity, the generations who have, in Hopkins poem Have trod, have trod, have trod

    Yet glory and grandeur is revealed; the world is charged; recharged with life and beauty. 

    And the final stanza: the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

    Blog: Christa or Christo, Tomato or Tomawtoe

    God’s response to our human frailty and cruelty is not to condemn the world but to bring healing and reconciling love.  

    That gift is something that we are to receive and also embody.  It subverts and deepens our understanding of reciprocity in love; it extends to us an invitation to life which is eternal.  Jesus life and death are an embodiment of God’s love with us in all the complexity, tension and fearfulness of human life. His risen life demonstrates that our human propensity to mess things up does not have the final word.

    Love wins.

    The "Christa" calls us to think afresh about the vulnerability and power of embrace: her arms outstretched. We are do likewise.

    Reaching out in compassion and speaking out for justice are acts of faithfulness to Jesus. To ignore them and pursue our own ambitions and concerns is the real heresy; denying God’s image in us and in the other. The cross calls us to be with others, not simply doing things for them and returning to our normal lives. It is costly and inspirational. 

    Does this Christa draw us back to the imagery of God mothering us: gathering us like a hen shelters her brood?

    The letter to the Philippians includes one of the earliest creedal statements or hymns to Christ. It reminds us that we are called walk in the steps of the one who did not cling to equality but humbled himself, taking the form of the servant.  It means responding to the one who came into the world not to condemn but to save – to redeem, restore, heal and transform us.

    The cross is a gesture and a piece of body art; it’s a sentimental item of jewellery and pious religious imagery; it is a statement of faith and a neutral sign of artistic beauty.  Ultimately it is a scandal: a stumbling block. 

    Christa reminds us of the scandal of the enfleshed love of God.

    How could it make sense that the God’s Son would be arrested, beaten, condemned and executed as a common criminal? 

    We have been desensitized to the shame and horror of the cross, a brutal instrument of Roman execution.  Instead of seeing the cross as a reminder of God-with-us - amidst the sufferings as well as the joy of the world, we have turned it into a harmless sign; or a symbol of ecclesial piety.

    Often Christians have misguided belief that we “own” it – and try to protect it at all costs. However, our ownership of the symbol can be distorted in judgment and condemnation of others.  Perhaps Madonna provocative performance focuses our attention on some of the very things Christ was most concerned about; even if she does offend our sense of propriety.

    We need to be shocked into being reminded that the cross is a sign of the extent of God’s love for us – giving life for us; that we are to hold on to that as a challenge as we remember all those who suffer and the hurt we cause.  

    On a global scale it shapes our response to injustice, persecution and violence; at a local level it shapes our response to one another - those we mock or judge; those we undermine or envy.  God’s love is different: humble, self-giving, generous, challenging and forgiving.  But, to quote Madonna:

    How will they hear
    When will they learn
    How will they know 

    We like James and John are asked: can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with? Do we respond with the reckless abandon of those brothers? With the boldness of Peter? Or faithful grief-stricken waiting of Mary Magdalene?

    How will they hear
    When will they learn
    How will they know

    They will hear and learn and know when we ourselves embody the love poured out in self-giving. What might that look like for you and me as we continue our lenten pilgrimage?

    Let us pray.

    © Julie Gittoes 2018

    Sunday, 4 March 2018

    Lady Bird

    This is the text of a sermon preached at Evensong at Guildford Cathedral on Sunday, 4th March. This evening also sees the 90th Academy Awards - and of all the films I've seen in the last month Lady Bird was particularly poignant and engaging. In part, it was its very ordinariness which elevated it beyond the usual saccharine coming of age movies. 

    However, this year's Oscars are also set against the backdrop of the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaign and in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite movement.  It is only when those with power and privilege use their leverage that a culture changes - on and off screen. Being the best in whatever field can’t be divorced from being more socially conscious (Oscars so Right).

    Perhaps that’s what the former actor and UN ambassador, Meghan Markle had in mind when she spoke at The Royal Foundation event last week: shifting the focus from wedding planning, she articulated the need to listen to and support the voices of women; to enable their empowerment.  

    The readings were: Exodus 5:1-6:1 and Philippians 3:4b-14

    I want you to be the best version of yourself.

    Words of a mother longing to see her daughter, Christine, flourish: to see her become who she is; to negotiate the bewildering and seemingly contradictory impulses of adolescence; to enable her to shape her freedom well.  A freedom expressed in Christine’s determination to give herself her own given name: “Lady Bird”.

    Be the best version of yourself  is a liberating and challenging imperative. It’s struggle which echoes in spoken and unspoken ways, throughout the film Lady Bird - one of this year’s contenders for the Academy Award for Best Picture. 

    From the152.4 metres of Academy red carpet to the 12, 000 glasses of champagne, the glamour of the Oscars seems to be marked by excess.  Now, in its 90th year,  an awards ceremony celebrating artistic and technical skill is having to confront issues of whiteness and race; gender and sexual assault.  

    Campaigns and protests call our attention to abuse and exclusion. We are learning to recognise, name and challenge the misuse of power by some to curtail the freedom of others.  

    We know what falls short of the best version of human relationships and behaviour.  The hashtags, black dresses and compelling speeches have to followed up with action. 

    It’s not just a ‘Hollywood’ problem: there’s a way to go for us to be the best version of ourselves, our church, our society.

    It’s not just a gender problem either: as this evening’s readings remind us, the struggle for freedom - for freedom as God intends it - is an ongoing challenge for people of faith.   

    In a single chapter from the book of Exodus, which begins with that great plea “let my people go” we see the grossness of the abuse of power. On the lips of Pharaoh we hear the denial of God and the enslavement of God’s people. 

    The full weight of the Egyptian system is deployed to lay heavier work on them. Supervisors scatter them to gather straw; task masters demand the same rate of production. 

    Lazy, lazy, lazy is the scathing refrain of oppressors who overburden. There is no freedom in such coercion - not for the mistreated nor the officials. 

    Bullying is dehumanising. 

    Everyone becomes a lesser version of themselves. Pharaoh dismisses the protest; the people turn against Moses; Moses rails against God. 

    But Time’s Up.  God says: he will let them go. 

    He will call his people into freedom: they will embark on a journey of discovering more and more about God’s ways; grappling with what it means to obey God’s commandments of love; using their freedom to protect the widow, the orphan, the stranger.

    I want you to be the best version of yourself

    Part of our Lenten discipline that we can ponder anew God’s call to freedom: a call which is itself a gift of creation; indeed a risk of God’s love towards us.  A gift that is good - making every act of generosity and every gesture of compassion something precious.  A gift, used wisely, which liberates others. 

    This gift of freedom is fraught with risk: it is so much easier to do what we want; to focus on our hurt, and to hurt others; to hide behind our own opinion or status; to avoid the cost of consensus; to demand of others the additional burden of collecting the proverbial straw.

    And yet, as we have seen over recent days, adverse weather can reveal the best version of our society. As Newcastle Cathedral opened its doors to rough sleepers; as volunteers gave away hats, sleeping bags and hot water bottles; as St Mungo’s worked with Bristol Council to co-ordinate emergency provision. 

    I want you to be the best version of yourself. 

    You. Me. God’s people. God’s world.

    This enlarged vision has small beginnings. And it’s where Lady Bird offers us some clues.  The New York Times describes it as “Big Screen Perfection”: and it achieves this not by being an escapist spectacle; but by paying attention to the little things.

    This is perhaps one of director Greta Gerwig’s greatest gifts. She knows her characters and the town of Sacramento very well. As a critic puts it:  ‘Her affection envelops them like a secular form of grace: not uncritically, but unconditionally’.

    Lady Bird seeks to be the best version of herself - raging against perceived injustices and enthusing over new possibilities. Her emotional and spiritual flourishing is tinged with the idealism and hypocrisy, selfishness and generosity that we know all too well.  She like us, is met by the patient intimacy of love which is not uncritical, but unconditional. 

    We see that love in human form: parent, teacher, friend, priest, sibling; and the joyous nun who gently points out to her that love and paying attention are perhaps the same thing.  

    If Gerwig’s human affection acts as a secular grace, how much more does God’s grace enfold, challenge, sustain and strengthen us? How much more does that gift bless our freedom - shaping the best version of who we are?

    It is this gift of grace that Paul writes about to the Christian community Philippi. He writes about freedom whilst under house arrest.  His words focus intensely on the joyful liberty he finds in Christ.

    He greets the Philippians as faithful and generous people; he prays for them that they might grow in faith; that their lives might be shaped by the breadth and depth of God’s love for them.  He shares news with them; offers them advice and encouragement. 

    He reminds them that the basis of their freedom is in the self-emptying love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. He did not cling to equality with God; but took the form of a servant. Our freedom is in the one who in his own suffering and death not only shared a lived human experience; but freed us from their power. 

    In him we are reconciled to God. In the world of social media campaigns #LoveWins #TimesUp on all that distorts God’s image in us.

    No wonder that Paul is able to sit so lightly to his inherited privileges: his observance of the law, his purity of descent, his membership of the elite and even to confess his own zeal in persecuting others.  Salvation - life, healing, freedom, forgiveness and joy - is by faith; it is not faith plus human achievements, good works or power. 

    It is by grace alone that we have this freedom to be the best version of who we are in Christ.  The challenge Paul lays before the Philippians and before us is to live out of this new reality.   Having encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus in Scripture, prayer, fellowship, teaching, acts of compassion, we are called to live differently. 

    In the power of the Spirit,  we are to be the best version of ourselves, individually and together. The power of the resurrection is to be made known in our lives; in these bodies. 

    Breath by breath our God given freedom can empower others - celebrating them, valuing them, challenging them, listening to them. 

    Moment by moment, that grace is at work in us as we freely give; freely love; freely listen; freely speak out. 

    Let us pray for grace to keep Lent faithfully: by self-examination, repentance, prayer, self-denial, mediating on God’s holy word and intentional acts of kindness, may we be the best version of God’s people. 

    © Julie Gittoes 2018