Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Streets & Statues

Hi I decided to write the following as a separate post, simply because the previous was getting too long, and this is really about a different topic.

This is Christmas time, in case you hadn’t realised, and given the heat here I easily could forget. It’s really difficult in some ways to feel Christmassy when you’re sweating and especially when you hear of all the snow back home. Though a friend of mine reminded me the other day that Jesus was actually born in a climate somewhat similar to the desert I am presently living in. It strikes home how little much of the hype about Christmas actually has to do with the reality of Christ’s birth. Anyway during this time we remember Christ and specifically his birth. But as I think of this I remember something I was confronted with last week in Arequipa which has been on my mind ever since. I mentioned previously visiting the ‘Santa Catalina’ (St Catherine of Siena) monastery. It is famous for apparently being the only monastery in the world to be a citadel, essentially a city within the city of Arequipa, with a number of streets named after Spanish cities.
It even had its own cemetry which is no longer used, behind the doors in the distance in this picture.
There still exist a small number of nuns in a little section of the citadel, but the rest has been opened up as a tourist attraction. They live behind these doors.
It is a beautiful place to visit, with old Spanish architecture built mostly out of a white volcanic rock. Anyway what struck me was one statue in particular, out of the many in different locations around the monastery. It was an statue of Christ crafted a in the 16th or 17th century; I can’t remember the exact date the guide said it was made.
What did strike me were some of the details she shared about it. She explained that the hair on its head is real human hair, that the teeth in its mouth are real teeth-the milk teeth of one or many children, and the finger nails are real human nails taken from the cadavers of deceased people. I was intrigued by the black finger tips which are not the result of the finger nails, but were painted that way to represent the flesh dying as Christ died. The guide also pointed out that if I stooped down and looked in the mouth I would be able to see a small mirror placed in the roof of the mouth to give the appearance of saliva and increase the life-likeness of the statue.
I have seen many statues and icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary and various saints, but I have to admit that this one really repulsed me on a number of counts.
First the use of human body parts to increase the realistic appearance of the statue (though this is not unique to this statue). Secondly the fascination with Jesus’ death and not a balanced view of his life including: his birth, ministry and resurrection- reminding me of the importance of celebrating the true reason for Christmas. Thirdly the efforts and lengths to which some people have gone, and still go to, to create statues which end up essentially as idols; creations of man which do not represent the truth about God. I realise there is a difference between idols of other gods and the supposed statues of Christ, yet these still fail to present a truely balanced representation of Jesus.

It made me think how men seem to have had an urge, since the earliest civilisations, to create images of their gods, or to be their gods, and how this urge historically infiltrated the church and resulted in the many representations of Christ and other Christian personages which get paraded though streets and up mountains in various parts of the world. I’ve heard many people say that in every major heresy, throughout the history of the church, there is always an element of truth. And I have to admit that there is an element of truth behind even this effigy; Christ did die and I would not wish to deny that, for if I did I would no longer be a Christian. But how do we get from a Biblical truth to a manmade creation, admittedly of great effort and expense, which people bowed before and has now become a item on display for tourists. I don’t know if I feel more sad, annoyed or repulsed... or perhaps a mixture of them all.

It is beyond the scope of this blog to say much more about whether statues and icons of Christ are in fact idols or legitimate representations of instances of His incarnation. I think it’s evident that I believe that in one way or another they have become more than what they were intended to be, and therefore would not favour them. I realise however, there are those who would disagree. So therefore let me propose what I consider to be a more suitable, and crucially Biblically mandated, alternative.
In the gospel of Luke chapter 22 Jesus has been celebrating the Last Supper and note that in verse 19 He commands the disciples, and therefore us His followers, to “do this in remembrance of me” (also 1 Corinthians 11:25). I have often wondered why Christ chose to be remembered in this manner. Obviously we can remember Him in any given moment in any given place, but in terms of ritual and worship why did he instruct us to remember him in this manner? Well there are many reasons but the following are a few which relate to this discussion. Firstly He chose to be remembered symbolically and not pictorially- in the sense of a picture or physical image of Him which a statue essentially is. Why? I think it’s because it allows us to get a balanced representation. When something is represented as a picture, like a statue, the physical appearance dominates our mind and our understanding. And in many cases this is good, as they say a picture says a thousand words. But in this case it says a thousand words the most of which are those the sculptor wants to say and have portrayed.
When something is portrayed symbolically the symbols themselves no longer dominate our minds (in the same way that a picture does) but rather the meaning we ascribe to the symbol. And what meaning do we ascribe to the symbol? Well we know that the Lord’s Supper should never be separated from the sharing or preaching of the Bible or the Word of God, therefore it is what the Bible says that gives meaning to the symbols. In one sense what the Bible as a whole teaches about Christ can be symbolised, but specifically what Jesus himself declared the bread and the wine to represent: His body and His blood. In other words by joining the sharing of the Word of God we allow God to speak symbolically through the elements what He would have us understand; and in celebrating the Lord’s Supper we do not remember solely his death but his life and crucially his resurrection. In a picture we see only one point in time, but when we remember symbolically we can simultaneously remember various points in time and achieve the balanced view or understanding I believe we were intended to have.

If I have lost you already I apologise, but in short what I am trying to say is that we do not need to make statues, pictures and icons to remember our Lord. They may have some limited use, for example in Bible picture books for children or nativity scenes. But when we come to a highly elaborate statue with human hair, teeth and finger nails we undoubtedly do more harm than good. Rather than this, we should seek to remember Christ in his own appointed way: through the Bible, our hearts and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

This Christmas I hope we will all remember the whole truth about the life of Christ and especially that he no longer hangs dying on a cross, but lives interceding for us as our all sufficient Saviour.
Merry Christmas,

1 comment:

Gordon Darragh said...

Alistair, thanks for your thoughts on that statue. It has had a similar impact on me every time I have visited that part of Santa Catalina. In your blog you have followed the Apostle Paul's model in Acts 17 and I did appreciate the way you set out your own views whilst acknowledging that many people will differ from you. As well as respecting others you have pointed to a more biblical approach - and I trust that you have many opportunities to engage with truth-seekers online and in person.
Trust you have a happy and refreshing Christmas!