Western art, that is the art of Europe, the European diaspora, and those reshaped by European colonialism, pretty much comes full circle when you follow it from the stick figures of the cave-dwellers at Lascaux to the stick figures on the walls of New York City by Kieth Haring. This trajectory might also take in the wild and raw work by Haring’s contemporary, Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Banksy, the heir to Haring and Basquiat, is a personal favorite of mine, and while serious attempts have been made to unmask the mysterious artist, I’m a religious person, and more that a little okay with mystery. In a world where hedge-fund gazillionaires, petro-sheiks and kleptocrats, buy up art and hide it in their private collections, there is something awesomely democratic about the art that just appears on a wall.
Who knows what my life would have been like if I’d been exposed to this revolutionary art when I was young? But I was not raised in 1970’s NYC, a context featured in Baz Luhrmann’s hit Netflix series “The Get Down,” I was raised in Southeast Virginia, no hip, no hop, and while there was a lot to love, biscuits and gravy, it wasn’t exactly a cultural hotbed. So while I recovered from childhood kidney disease, I wasn’t doing Warholesque graffiti. Instead of drawing on buildings, I was drawing buildings and national parks and battlefields, the vacations of my childhood, something I would continue to do for a couple of years until adolescence took me in some very different directions, not all things you’d want to know about your pastor. Let’s just say I was a difficult teen.
I wouldn’t come back to art for a decade, until in my 20’s, when romantic interest brought me to a watercolor class. The romance wouldn’t last, but the art would, and I’d eventually end up with a studio art degree, half of my double major. I’d come to embrace the wild freedom of oils, for after working in watercolor, oils feel like Bonnaroo on a brush.
Watercolor is hard. There is no room for a mistake, for most pigments cannot be lifted from the page. Try to paint over a mistake, and you get mud. Watercolor does not want to be controlled, so unless you cheat, it takes real effort to leave empty space in the painting.
It takes real effort to leave empty space in our daily lives as well. Never mind the clutter that surrounds each of us in a world where corporations tell us our worth as humans is measured in stuff, we can’t even leave empty space in our minds. Faced with mystery, with a lacuna of meaning, we patch and paint over and just plain old make stuff up. It is why we fall so easily for the big lie, why humans have always fallen so easily for the big lie. We fall for the loudest and most certain, even if we can smell the fraud from a mile away.
And here are these women, doing women’s work in a patriarchal age, for dead bodies were unclean, but so were female bodies, so it only made sense that they would tend to the corpse, wash it, preserve it. And then, empty tomb.
While we are on Matthew this year, I tend to prefer the original ending of Mark, where the women run off afraid and tell no one. We know that isn’t really the end, for there would be no gospel of resurrection if that is how it really ended, but Mark’s text falls off a cliff, leaves us unnerved, as it should. We watch this story in re-runs years after year and have forgotten just how unsettling it is, how shocking.
While original Mark gives us no account of post-resurrection appearances, the other three gospels only serve to confuse. Is he flesh that you can touch, or spirit that can move through walls?
We will never know for sure what it means when we say that Christ is risen, and we don’t need to. As a non-credal church, we don’t require everyone to buy into one interpretation. We wear our faith loosely, have a big tent where the only real test is a heart for love and justice, so some believe in bodily resurrection, some believe in spiritual resurrection, some probably believe he didn’t die on the cross, and some probably believe it is a fiction, albeit a beautiful one.
Here is what I believe. I believe that the followers of Jesus experienced him as still present and active in the world, even though they had seen him brutally executed. And I’m okay stopping there. I don’t need to know the identity of Banksy’s Clark Kent, and I don’t need to know what it means when we say “The Lord is Risen Indeed,” tattooed in the original Greek on my left arm.
But when push comes to shove, most of us would rather have him still in that box, for the empty tomb is a terrifying burden.
Jesus in the box and God in the building is liberating. We can go about our daily lives and not ask any hard questions. We can just get along, not make waves, buy into a value system that says some lives are worth more than others, nod with approval as our modern-day Pharisees tell us who to hate. A one-hour-a-week God, less if the weather is really good or the weather is really bad, places no demands on us.
The Jesus who says “I will be with you always”? Now that’s a problem. Even worse, “When have we seen you hungry, Jesus? When did we see you in prison?” “The least of these,” says Jesus. Utterly terrifying. Off to heaven with you, or back in the box, anything but this escapee Jesus, freed from the vaults of death,feral and loose in the world, hiding in plain site.
This Jesus is a burden. Not creepy spying Jesus, nor is this about God as a harsh accountant just waiting for you to slip up, for most of us have abandoned that construction of God, recognizing it as neither good nor holy. No, the Jesus that is with us always, that we encounter in the stranger, requires that we do something, invites us into a new life starting today, dares us to a new life starting today.
This is a Savior that will not be put on hold for school vacation week or until the busy season at work is over, is only interested in our self-care if it leads to care for the other. With us until the end of the age, indeed!
But this is also a Savior that knows what it is to be us. He walks with me isn’t a footprints in the sand cliché. He is with us, the stranger changing our tire in the rain, the co-worker covering our shift so we can take care of a sick kid, even though she is exhausted.
We would rather Jesus still be in that tomb, or safely enthroned in heaven. Come on ascension!
The tomb is empty, a challenge and a promise. I will be with you until the end of the age.
Back to Banksy. In 2013, the elusive and social justice-oriented artist did a residency in New York City, 31 works in 31 days. Work is pretty broadly defined in this case. One day, a man set up a table on the sidewalk near the Metropolitan Museum, selling art, as they do. Spray art, to be exact, at $60 per piece. Nothing sold for four hours. Few pieces sold at all. They were all Banksy originals. Two of them later sold for $214,000.
The tomb is empty. Like Banksy, Christ shows up in unexpected places, often unrecognized. We often don’t realize what is right in front of us.
May you live with a holy lacuna. God is with us.