A sermon in bronze

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2 Jun 2020

The juxtaposition of the bronze statue ‘Homeless Jesus’ outside the elegant chapel at Newman College, Melbourne University, is a call of faith.

The sculptures of Timothy Schmalz have a powerful effect. During orientation week this year at Newman College, part of the University of Melbourne, new students lined up to take photos of themselves sitting on a park bench alongside a figure that appeared to be draped in blankets.

The whole thing was made of bronze. The only way you can tell the figure is Jesus is by the holes clearly visible in his feet, signs of the pain that Jesus carried with him even after he rose from the dead.

The piece is called ‘Homeless Jesus’ and is one of dozens of versions of the sculpture, all somewhat different, to be found in a range of places around the world. You may have seen the one outside St James’ Church in Sydney or even on the streets of such cities as New York, Madrid and Dublin.

University students during orientation week are not known for their serious frame of mind. Often enough they are giddy with the prospect of the adventures that lie ahead and it is not until exams loom that they come back down to earth. So, it was not surprising to see them engaging vivaciously with the sculpture, crowding around it for group photos.

VISUAL PRAYERS

This is what Timothy Schmalz, who was born in Canada in 1969, would want. He has been making work of this kind for more than 30 years, explaining that his works are ‘visual prayers.’

Prayer is never a passive experience. It is nothing like contemplating an old work of art in the safety of a museum. Prayer invites us to get involved, boots and all, in a relationship with God. It asks us to be ourselves, even if we are a bit foolish sometimes. God responds to our heartfelt honesty. He makes room on his park bench to share with us. He never minds being in our selfies.

Schmalz has also created a number of sculptures of The Last Supper. They are found in places such as Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Indiana. Each of them is made from a type of stone in keeping with the surroundings. They all feature a table and an image of Jesus sitting in the middle, breaking bread. The only thing on the table is a cup. Around him are twelve empty stools, also made of stone. They are not precious or delicate. Indeed, they are actually a lot more robust than the stools you will find in Ikea and are clearly intended for people to choose a place to sit at the table with Jesus.

SHARING SUPPER WITH JESUS

This is a wonderful exercise for the imagination. Where would you sit? Which place would you choose? For me, the answer might be different at different times. Some days, I could imagine sitting next to Jesus like the beloved disciple, able to show affection and rest my head on his chest. Other times, I might even be sitting where Judas did, near the door, possibly confused about my decisions and desperate to justify them. Or I might be in the middle which is where I have always pictured James and John, Jesus’ most noisy friends, the ones who wanted a good position in God’s Kingdom. The night before Jesus died, I imagine they were beginning to comprehend what that might mean.

Similarly, Schmalz sculptures entitled ‘When I was hungry and thirsty’ and ‘when I was a stranger’ and ‘When I was naked’ are all confronting. They impose on your personal space, precisely as the marginalised always do, precisely as Jesus said they should.

OPENNESS TO STRANGERS

On World Migrant Sunday in 2019, Pope Francis unveiled an enormous piece in St Peter’s Square called ‘Angels Unawares.’ It shows Syrians escaping the civil war, Jews fleeing from Nazis, Poles fleeing communists and so on.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph are among them. None of them has more than they can carry. The image, in all its diversity, speaks to the core challenge of our time, namely openness to strangers. Pope Francis said that the work presents the challenge of hospitality. It is based on the words of Hebrews 13:2 ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.’

In the middle of the work, large angels’ wings appear, seemingly from nowhere. In fact, they emerge from pain.

Schmalz says that Christian sculptures are like ‘visual sermons’, speaking to people ‘24 hours a day.’ At Newman College, the image of the homeless Jesus has been placed near the gate, outside their magnificent chapel.

It is a work of faith to connect the Jesus we discover in the poor and rejected with the beauty of the stone chapel. It takes faith to connect human frailty with such an elegant chapel. Clearly, the building makes no sense at all unless we try to get closer to Jesus lying on a park bench or begging in the street or trapped in a detention centre. This means going deeper in the spirit.

IGNATIAN HUMILITY

Schmalz has remarked wryly that when he makes something out of bronze, he knows it is going to last longer than he will. This is the perspective of Ignatian humility. None of us has a home we can truly call our own.

Jesus will rest with us wherever we happen to be at the moment. He is close to the poor and to the rest of us in our poverty.

This article first appeared in Madonna Winter 2020 edition.

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