Art, Opera, and John the Baptizer

Twice in my life I have found myself lost in a great work of art and therein almost anesthetized to the great act of violence the very work itself was portraying.

This happened once while I was listening to a soprano sing an aria from the opera Salome.  Her impeccably clear soprano voice carried me beyond the painful truth of the opera into a world of disbelief.  How could something so beautiful be describing something so unthinkable?  Later I found myself scouring the internet to learn more about this amazing musical feat and learning just how important the Strauss piece is in terms of music history and theory.   I watched a webcast that literally took my breath away as the all too familiar story was brought to life, and came to a hyper-dramatic end – as often is the case in the opera – when Salome kissed the head of John the Baptizer and then bathed in his blood to signify her death at the hands of her stepfather. 

On another occasion, while visiting a friend in Malta, he suggested that I check out the many works of the artist Caravaggio, to be found in various churches near his home.  It is one experience to see these great works of art in an art gallery, in just the right setting with proper lighting and security measures in place.  It is quite another to wander off the sidewalk into a church or cathedral and to find before you these works of art that inspired many of the great Baroque artists.  Even though this trip was almost thirteen years ago, I still remember encountering Caravaggio’s depiction of the beheading of John the Baptizer.  The painting is quite large and forms the reredos, or altarpiece, of this Co-Cathedral in Malta.  There are no museum guards, and the Cathedral has gone the way of most in Europe – that is, they see more tourists than worshippers.  Given that I was the only person in the space, and no stranger to being in church, I felt that I could approach the piece…in awe and reverence of course.  Caravaggio has a few depictions of this gruesome tale from our scripture for today. This one captures the event in progress, showing the executioner with knife in hand and the artists signature in the pool of blood on the floor before the Baptist. 

In both these instances, you would think my response would have been revulsion or at least disbelief.  On the contrary, I was so caught off guard by the transcendent artistry that I was rendered almost numb and wandered away from both experiences changed, but nonetheless ready to resume the activities of my life, be it as an opera fan or aimless wanderer and art-lover. 

This past week I have found myself deeply concerned with the similarity of experience between my encounters of the beheading of John the Baptizer in our scripture for today, in art and in music, with the retaliatory violence that is plaguing our city and nation. 

The Retaliatory Violence Insight Project, a Department of Justice effort, defines retaliatory violence in the following manner.

“Retaliatory violence happens when someone feels that they have been wronged and decides to get even, to take justice into their own hands, to settle the score.”

“Retaliatory violence happens when conflict escalates to the point of harm.”

“When retaliatory violence happens, someone has committed a crime – aggravated assault, homicide, and while lives often end, as a consequence of retaliatory violence, the conflict persists. 

Herod marries his brother Philip’s wife Herodias.  John confronts Herod saying the marriage is not “lawful.”  Herodias is angry and looks for the right moment to get even with John, knowing that because Herod fears John, it would have to be crafty and cunning.  Retaliatory violence.  You hurt me – I hurt you!

Last weekend as the majority of people in this country reveled in the presence of family and friends, celebrating and honoring our freedom and those who struggled in so many ways to ensure said freedom, there were 180 deaths as a result of gun violence in our nation, with 18 of them occurring in our city.   Take that in for a moment. Eighteen people lost their lives as a result of gun violence, were right here in our backyard, in our neighbourhoods, in our city.

Now I understand that not all these deaths were a result of retaliatory violence, but many were. Research suggests that these shootings and deaths are far from random, except, of course, when the bullets stray from their intended targets and find their way to innocent bystanders, young and old alike. 

A photo in a local paper showed a blood-stained parking lot adjacent to a crime scene.  It reminded me of the way Caravaggio signed his name in the blood of the Baptizer.  This time it was the signature of the one holding the gun written in the blood of their victim.  Fifty-two children under 15 have been shot and 10 killed so far this this year. (Chicago Sun Times)

The other staggering similarity for me in both my reaction to the images of the Baptizer and the gun violence that surrounds us, is how it leaves me numb and speechless.  The holiday weekend came and went; I heard the news reports, the statistics; I saw the photos; yet it was as if I were listening to an opera or viewing a painting. I wandered back to my life and went on, changed but nonetheless ready to resume the activities of my daily life. Somehow that same detachment, or suspension of horror, that allows us to immerse ourselves in art depicting acts of violence that are remote in time or fictional is not entirely dissimilar to the detachment that too often numbs us to the very real horrors of contemporary violence, that allows us to absorb the gruesome statistics and move on with our lives.  

It is at this point in my sermon preparation that I usually struggle and pray, pleading with God to help me find a new metaphor, perhaps a song or story to help put a tidy little bow on the prose and wrap things up.  I am not sure that is going to happen this time.

Rather than a tidy ending it leaves me with the feeling that a Spiritual Director of mine once described as “Holy Anxiety.”  Holy Anxiety occurs when our ways rub up against God’s ways, with the resulting friction being called “Holy Anxiety.”  She also mentioned that this anxiety is God’s way of calling us to action.

In 2015 after yet another act of mass violence, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry spoke these words:

“We have to rebuild.  We have to move beyond praying to action, to action that moves us to make this no longer possible.  We have to rebuild our society and culture from within our spiritual foundation and then we’ll find a way to make this stuff history….God has work for us to do, God has work for this diocese to continue to do.  God has work for this Episcopal Church to do.  God has work for us to do.”

He continued with the words of advice his father gave him as he was preparing to leave for college: “He said, ‘I want you to treat every girl the way you would want somebody else to treat your sister.’ And I remember thinking, ‘You have just ruined the next four years for me.’  I had plans, I really did.  But the truth is I knew what he meant – that we are to treat everyone as if they are members of our own family.  Show them the honor, dignity, respect that you want for your own family and then go out and build a society where [everyone] is a child of God.  When we build a society like that, no child will go hungry.  When we build a society like that, [every adult and child] will be respected.  When we build a society like that, we will not have to worry about gun violence anymore.  When we build a society like that, everyone will know who the Episcopal Church is.  And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

May God who has begun this good work in us, see it through to its completion.