My latest column in the Christian Courier.
A large wooden crucifix stands toward the front of the crypt sanctuary in St. Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal. While the crucifix is not central within worship, it evidently receives much attention. A striking feature of the crucifix is the worn nature of Jesus’ feet — the paint is worn away and the surface smooth from the many hands that have rested there. Over the years, thousands of hands have been placed on those feet in a posture of prayerful need, of seeking the grace of God.
For those of us in the Reformed or Presbyterian tradition, this devotional attention to a crucifix will likely raise questions — questions as old as the Reformation itself. Doesn’t every artistic representation of Jesus somehow diminish him? Why not turn to the living Jesus in prayer, rather than to a lifeless statue? Aren’t these acts of prayerful devotion tied up with the idea that a human creation (a crucifix) can dispense grace?
Our tradition has been almost entirely word-centered, which means we are suspicious of visual and sculptural representations of Jesus or of God. In terms of the questions posed above, we have wondered whether such representations (idols!) distract us from the free grace of the living God. Our Reformed tradition has created only one narrow opening for such visual representations, in the specific case of those who could not read. In such cases, images (pictures) have been seen as a way to tell the story of Jesus and to share the truth of that story. This allowance for images focusses on their educational and not their devotional use.
But perhaps we can come at this from a different point of view. I’d like to do so in the light of a recent visit to the Oratory with a friend. As we moved through the main sanctuary of the Oratory, (the upper Basilica) we passed a number of large, stone carvings/representations of Jesus — the stations of the cross. As we came to each one, I would describe it for Hazel, putting it into narrative context. I did so because she has a significant visual impairment and would not otherwise know what was before her. For her part, she would put her hand out and place it on the stone representation, through touch and feel coming closer to the narrative of Jesus. With her body, becoming connected to a telling of that story.
Hazel’s hand placed on the station of the cross suggests to me that it is not so easy to pull apart the educational (ok) from the devotional (not ok) use of images and sculptures. Perhaps there is less reason to be as suspicious as we have been.
Many of us know the power of hearing the gospel stories spoken aloud to us, or the power of reading the Psalms in our personal devotions. We know that the Spirit of God accompanies us in our reading, and that the Spirit touches our hearts and lives through words heard and read.
Therefore we should ask: Is it any different when a visually impaired person places her hand on Jesus’ hand as it is given in a sculpture? Do we want to say that such a touch is not a profoundly spiritual experience, and one by which a person is drawn into the truth of Christ, crucified and risen? And if we can make such an allowance, then what might this mean in relation to those who, with their hands, have held on to the feet of the crucified Jesus in the crypt sanctuary. Perhaps this embodied encounter is one that puts women and men in touch with the narrative and life of the risen Jesus. They, after all, are wise enough to understand that the risen Lord is not bound to this representation of him — they know he is alive and free and gracious, even if he has suffered and died for them in love.
The gift of touch is a gift of God. And by it the Spirit may touch our hearts and lives.