Contemporary view of Passion

First seen at Convention, Stations of the Cross tours country
February 29, 2004

"THE FIRST STATION of the Cross: Jesus is Condemned to Die." Thomas Faulkner said these words as if leading a Good Friday liturgy for a small congregation in one of the vast, old New York churches he served for many years.

But this time he was leading visitors through his Stations of the Cross, a contemporary sculptural exhibit in the meditation chapel that was created for General Convention last summer.

Walking the Way of the Cross , a reflection on Jesus' Passion and Death, has new life. This Ash Wednesday, the 14 stations were installed at St. Mark's Cathedral in Minneapolis. There, Faulkner, who has maintained a dual vocation as Episcopal priest and sculptor since his ordination in 1974, was to lead a series of sculptural Lenten meditations and a youth event. The exhibit will then be available to other dioceses.

Words like "powerful," "jarring" and "disturbing" describe Faulkner's confrontation with the cross. Last summer, people walked in from the crowded, noisy Minneapolis Convention Center hall and fell silent.

Flanking the first station was a Greek chorus of TV sets purchased at a local junk store. The video flashed ghostly wavering lines and late-night test pattern stars and bars and the audio broadcast "Crucify him!" in 20 languages.

The TV sets faced a square-legged jury box. Inside was a podium. Hanging from it were several starched white corporals, price tags still on them, scorched badly by an ancient iron propped on top. Bad news ahead.

Influenced by 9/11

Walking through the exhibit, Faulkner explains his work in liturgical language as if reciting the Good Friday service. The exhibit is the working out of his experience as Red Cross officer at the Ground Zero morgue following Sept. 11, 2001. His first call was at 2 a.m., a request to bless the remains of a fireman whose body was pulled from the carnage. Blessing human remains, conducting memorial services and providing a prayerful presence and supervision for 60 chaplains at the terrorist targets consumed the next eight months.

In the "Cross is Laid on Simon of Cyrene," a child's toy fire engine smashed by a large rock, represents the shattering of our safe, secure world. In "A Woman Wipes the Face of Jesus," a dark, massive block and tackle holds a delicate silk handkerchief. Below it, in a gray funereal urn, much like the one that opens the Mystery television series, is an iridescent blue butterfly.

The contrasts: massive, indifferent, powerful institutions vs. the gesture of comforting the Dying One. Both lead to the electric blue fragile creature. Pain and death will not go away, but compassion and beauty point to an Easter world.

"Jesus Falls for a Second Time" is set on three rectangular platforms filled with black and white marble squares seen in the foyers of a thousand Central European buildings. This one is in Sarajevo, a classic regional cultural center, savagely destroyed by war.

Seven golem-like figures, the mythical Jewish liminal figures that skirt between the worlds of life and death, form a circle. Black umbrellas are bent over their faces: to protect against the elements or to hide their true identity? The art raises a question but provides no answer. Inside each umbrella, a low light reflects a cross any way you turn.

In the middle, increasingly crowded by the dark forms, is a beautiful wooden giraffe, neck above the umbrellas.

The giraffe is "one of my most beloved animals," Faulkner reflects. "Slow-moving, vulnerable, the giraffe is a sweet-breathed gentle herbivore, totally dependent. When the once-thriving community of Sarajevo was dying, they put off as long as they could killing the animals at the zoo, but when people began to starve, they slaughtered the animals for food. Finally the giraffe was slain."

‘Contemporary interpretation'

Faulkner says the exhibit came to fruition as a result of meetings between Episcopal Church and the Visual Arts members and the Rev. Rosemari Sullivan, executive secretary of General Convention, who discussed with the artists opportunities to share their work at the convention.

"We agreed to provide images to project on a giant screen before each morning's Eucharist, but due to logistics and cost, we could not mount an exhibit from various artists in the meditation chapel," Faulkner says.

"I decided then to raise the money needed to provide a contemporary interpretation of the 14 stations," he says. "This grew out of sculptural meditations I had been creating for several years in New York and a desire to respond through my faith and art to my eight months working at Ground Zero."

One of the most discussed stations at convention was "Jesus is Stripped of His Garments." The setting was a large black-andwhite photomural of the cemetery at Little Big Horn. Behind it, endless plains; in front, a pile of cheap white shirts with bullet holes in them. Small paper flags of different nations rested on each shirt, suggesting the disfigured victims of violence from almost any country that are briefly seen on the nightly news.

Fourteen such images flowed from one to another in the small chapel space. Some people came once, others returned several times. A few wrote angry comments in the visitor's book. Others left moved — and in tears.

Some images left an immediate impact, but Faulkner's explanations helped others to become better understood. His art is topical; one person observed that it "preaches for a conversion," in Wesleyan language.

The Rev. Thomas D. Fuller conducts retreats, conferences, and quiet days for parishes, dioceses and educational institutions. Walking the Way of the Cross is available for exhibit. Contact Faulkner at 212-288-2784, at metrohope@ mac.com or at 131 E 66th St., New York, NY 10021.

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