Remember Those Gone to Dust
A few months ago Bilhenry Walker mentioned to me a new sculpture he created, Urban Pieta. I knew it belonged in our sanctuary. He agreed to share it with us for the Season of Lent.
Bilhenry started focusing on the issue of crime and violence in his art work a few years ago. Some of you may remember his earlier series, “Dead Man.” The series depicted crime scene drawings turned into sculptures. He lifted the shape off the ground and placed it vertical, adding a motor so that the sculpture slowly turned. He wanted the movement to remind us of the life lost when the person died.
Reactions varied when the series came to our church. Many in our congregation, seeing the sculptures, did not see the chalk outlines. Instead the figures looked like they were dancing, running, an exuberant celebration instead of a dying pose. We saw life but not death. And probably this happened because chalk outlines and crime scenes are largely outside of our personal experience. Elsewhere in our city, people saw the Dead Man series and got instantly what a body outlined in that shape meant.
Urban Pieta continues Bilhenry’s determination to call attention to violence. But where the Dead Man series were based on fictional crime scenes, this one comes from an actual event, a murder on the corner of Atkinson and 11th on May 18th last year. Leaders in the city, despairing of the murder of too many people, had declared that day a Ceasefire Sabbath. Here at Plymouth we celebrated Pentecost with the confirmation of our youth. And on the corner of 11th and Atkinson a group of friends gathered to talk outside the corner liquor store. A man stepped out from an allay armed with an assault weapon; he fired indiscriminately, hitting three of the men.
An assistant of Bilhenry’s, who we will call Terrell, was among the men standing at the corner. Terrell, not wounded in the incident, held one of the men who was shot as he died. Urban Pieta captures that awful moment on the Ceasefire Sabbath.
And yet, it captures something else too, because the sculpture so clearly echoes the long tradition of depicting Mary, the Mother of Jesus, cradling her son after he died on the cross. It’s a moment never described in scripture, not one gospel mentions Mary holding Jesus after he died. And yet, we know it had to have happened; Mary had to have cradled Jesus.
Not all pietas depict Mary and Jesus. Some show God the Father holding Jesus. Michelangelo, who sculpted the most famous Pieta also made one of Joseph of Arimathea holding Jesus’ body.
These pietas are often emotionally gripping - we can feel the emotion of the person holding the deceased - but also spiritually arresting. We talk so much in our faith of the life of Jesus and then we skip over to the resurrection of Jesus, but the pieta concentrates our attention on the Son of God as a real person now dead. To me it’s a message: through Jesus God fully experienced every aspect of being human, even the brokenness of death. Later in this service, when we remember that we too shall die, we do so in the name of God who knows what it means to die.
But even more than what a pieta tells us about God, the image exemplifies something about our spiritual lives. For the power and depth of feeling is not in Jesus but with Mary; it’s her pain we feel. And in the Urban Pieta, we feel the pain of Terrell holding his friend.
Some Christians refer to Mary as the first disciple; certainly her life can often be taken as a model of what it means to be a disciple. And in the pieta we see Mary as a disciple facing the pain and loss around her. It’s not just that God through Jesus faced the reality of death, but that Mary faced it too.
What would it mean for us, as disciples, to face the pain and brokenness in our city? What would it mean to live like Terrell, holding on to someone slipping away? Since the beginning of this year 19 people were killed in the City of Milwaukee, from baby Laderreo Toliver-Buckett to young adults like Jahara Kennedy to grandparents like Moses Garcia to even the young man who died last night from gunshot wounds, Ryan Rompre. What would it mean for us to hold their stories, the pain of their loss, the tragedy of their deaths, close to our hearts this lent? What would it mean if we held these losses close to our hearts just as surely as their loved ones do? To not just remember we are dust but to remember all those gone to dust?
Sitting in the sanctuary with Urban Pieta this afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice the way we see through the sculpture. At first, in a streak of perfectionism, I didn’t like how the sculpture seemed to disappear a bit into the woodwork behind it. But as I looked at the tracery of these figures another thought occurred to me. The black lines started to remind me of the tracery of our stained glass windows. Our windows are held together by lines of metal providing the basic outline of the figures.
Urban Pieta is a complete artwork. But seeing it as a tracery invited me to think of how our lives might extend it in new ways. Could our remembrance of the dead help fill in the tracery with grace? Could our work on forgiveness fill it with a different kind of light? Could our witness to the love of God make it glow as our windows do on a sunny day? Maybe this is how we need to respond to the news of 19 deaths in the City of Milwaukee.
This night may God place a mark in our hearts as real as the mark on our foreheads so that we remember the deceased, practice forgiveness, and witness to love in order to change lives in our city.
Amen and Amen.