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Holy Week

Two thousand years later, where have all the disciples gone?


We all know Jesus Christ well, whether we believe in him or not. Only God could have predicted the variety of forms this child and man, messiah and murder victim, would assume in our minds and art in his first 2,000 years. Because he was larger than life, there was room for us all to make him in our likeness, with something to spare. And we did his memory proud, from early Good Shepherd to Byzantine Pantokrator, from Andrei Rublev’s intense icons to a laid-back blond dude for the cool, secular 20th century.

But now that he’s 2,000, what is he up to? With whom is he hanging out? What does he look like?

NCR’s Jesus 2000 competition demonstrated that, artistically at least, Jesus remains alive and well and all over the place. He has a big, black, Middle-East beard and then again a smooth, cocky face. He’s still bloody on a cross, still knocking on your door, still sporting an occasional halo; but he’s also out there sawing down his own cross with a chain saw. He’s a clown, a card, a carpenter; he’s on TV and on death row and dancing with an Arab in the streets of Jerusalem. Such were just a few of the visions of the Jesus 2000 artists who dared to be different.

We used to say this story was ever ancient, ever new, and it still is.

We’ll never know what self-portrait Jesus would have done, or what aspect of his own life and teaching he would have highlighted if someone had handed him paints and a brush. Left to their own private inspiration, artists have wandered all across the artistic spectrum. In doing so they reflect their time and culture.

One work that strikingly reflects this adjustment to time and culture is “The Light of Conscience,” by Jorge Alexandre Rodriguez of Brazil. One of the dozens of foreign artists who entered the competition, Rodriguez was born in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1966. His work can be found in private collections in Argentina, Portugal, Spain, England, Belgium and throughout Brazil.

“The Light of Conscience” was chosen among the top 10 works by NCR’s three-judge panel. The artist’s response when he heard this was, “I asked God for orientation, and he gave me a reward. I’m a blessed man.”

In “The Light of Conscience,” Jesus is alone at a long table. It is one of the saddest pictures I ever saw.

Recall what happened. The evening before he was arrested, Jesus had a final meal with his disciples. It is variously described in the New Testament, but with little specificity. Catholics believe the Eucharist was instituted on that occasion. Christ allegedly uttered some of his more memorable lines that evening, such as the admonition to love one another. As the years passed the occasion loomed ever larger in the Christian psyche. Artists of every stripe rendered it for their era.

The most famous is “The Last Supper” of Leonardo da Vinci. Jesus sits halfway down the long table, the 12 apostles deployed on either side. They are all animated and involved, each a story within the big story. This is one of the masterpieces of Western art, and the model for many others -- Last Supper art is a cottage industry in Catholicism.

It was always a group of men in the picture. This reflected the no-women-allowed teaching that developed in the early church, dominated by men as the entire culture then was. Eventually, however, questions arose. Who said only the 12 male apostles were with Jesus that evening? The scriptures said disciples, which could include women. It would be crazy to think there were no women there, even if all they were doing was serving the coffee and donuts. Today it would be acceptable, if not obligatory, to put women in the picture.

A recent “Last Supper,” by Polish artist Bohdan Piasecki, added six women and two children to the 12 male apostles. This caused a stir on both sides of the Atlantic and was NCR’s cover picture for April 2, 1999.

Now with the new millennium comes a dramatic new rendering of the Last Supper. In the Rodriguez painting there is no one else at the table with Jesus. Neither women, nor men. Neither bonhomie, nor solemnity.

Have they all left him? And if they have, where have they gone?

This Jesus persona is not a startlingly original image, not hip or even contemporary but the same old Jesus with long hair and beard and, it seems, the traditional garment -- all of which are suddenly beside the point. The point is he’s alone at the table after 2,000 years of everyone wanting to gather around him.

That was Christendom gathered at the Lord’s table those many centuries. Typical Christianity, dominated by men. Boisterous and busy, sticking close to Jesus but engaged with each other, bickering or colluding, at the same time full of wonder and apprehension. For billions of believing people dead and alive that meal was a key moment in human history.

And now, as the new millennium dawns, look how quiet and lonely the table is.

We have just emerged from a stark century, harsh with war and materialism and a dearth of old-fashioned virtues. Amid material plenty we have experienced psychic and spiritual poverty. Our art, perhaps the most telling manifestation of the spirit, has become minimalist and emotionally barren. It is the post-Christian era, many say. Hope has been replaced by a hectic trust in progress, which is lean and mean and leaves people behind.

“The Light of Conscience” is a sign of such times.

It’s as if, 2,000 years later, the crowds have gone home. The poignant truth is that the Christianity that gave us so many Last Suppers has left as a legacy many empty churches. Two thousand years later, it’s thankless as ever to be a savior. Sure, there is light around this messiah, what Jesus 2000 arbiter Sr. Wendy Beckett called a “golden radiance,” but as the new millennium turned, people’s attention was on the bright lights in big cities.

“Will you also go away?” Jesus once said to his close companions when things were going badly. Perhaps, the picture seems to suggest, we took him at his word.

There is another way to look at it -- as a challenge to our time. Jesus is back at the table around which it all started, alone again and waiting to see who will join him for another millennium.

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2000