Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (John 19:31-42) transports me to Oscar Wilde’s Victorian era London, where one of his characters, the artist Basil Hallward, paints a beautiful portrait of a striking young man, Dorian Gray. In this macabre, gothic tale, the youthful and in some ways picture perfect Dorian falls under the influence of Lord Henry Wotton, who convinces him to pursue a life of hedonistic merry-making. Dorian Gray wishes that he could live this life of pleasure without the consequences, and his wish becomes fulfilled, or so he thinks. In some mysterious way, Dorian’s portrait becomes the symbolic representation of responsibility, with his image aging and becoming disfigured as it takes on the culpability for every immoral act he commits, while Dorian himself remains young and unblemished. In one scene, after he commits a murder, he goes to the attic where he keeps the portrait, and finds blood dripping from the canvas. You’ll have to read the novel to find out what happens, but for now, suffice it to say it is a fascinating look at themes of consequence and responsibility, pleasure and guilt, sin and atonement. That all this springs from the pen of Oscar Wilde is especially interesting, given his famous life and the guilty pleasures that led to his trial and imprisonment.
You don’t have to read far into the sacred scriptures to see that it is a fairly gothic tale of God and God’s people, a canvas that at times is dripping blood. Blood is mentioned almost five hundred times throughout scripture. Here in the crucifixion scene, a soldier comes to break Jesus’ legs and quicken his death, but finds him already dead, and pierces his side with a spear. Blood and water flow. The imagery and language of blood, so distasteful to many in our sanitized world of spirituality, is rich with meaning when you are able to step back from literal readings and see the dramatic theological street theatre taking place. Like all good Greek theatre, the action on the stage represents a drama taking place in the larger universe of the otherworld. In this larger world, the principalities and powers, the forces of evil, are alive and well and are animating and captivating the lives of people, wreaking havoc and causing destruction and oppression in the community as people are addicted to the powers in their various forms. Jesus enters the scene as a picture perfect character, straight from heaven. He, unlike Dorian Gray, is not seduced into a life of evil, though. Jesus surrenders to a call to embody the evil of the world, to be like the portrait in the attic, taking on the responsibility of all the destructive forces of the universe and the culpability for all evil and unjust acts. As the prophet Isaiah said, such a surrender, such an embodiment of the sin of the world, greatly disfigures the Suffering Servant. The drama continues, as Jesus becomes the embodiment of all this evil, and then he bleeds and dies. The lifeblood, the animating force of evil and destruction and addiction, drains away, losing all its vitality. The crucified Christ, the picture perfect portrait in the attic, thus represents the destruction of the power of sin and evil and addiction in our lives. When the soldier thrust the spear into the side of the dead savior, and the blood and water flowed, it was the final picture of the principalities and powers of evil losing all their power.
Oscar Wilde, who as a young man studied the classics and theology at Trinity College in Dublin, would late in life pen his own theological treatise while in prison. De Profundis builds on the image of Isaiah’s suffering servant and talks about how the secret of life can be found in suffering. Wilde lifted Jesus up as the rebel hero who could identify with all of the wretched people he shared the daily struggles of life with in prison. Wilde, like artist Basil Hallward in his novel, paints an incredibly moving picture of the drama of good and evil, sin and atonement, in his essay. His canvas, like that of the novel and the gospel writer, drips with blood, and sings of the new life possible as the power of destructive forces loses its grip and attraction. A hundred years before Oscar Wilde wrote this, another alumnus of Dublin’s Trinity College, Augustus Toplady, painted a similar canvas, this time in lyrics that would become one of the most beloved hymns in the English language. Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee. Let the water and the blood, from thy wounded side which flowed, be of sin the double cure, save from wrath and make me pure. In our day and age when destructive wrath seeks to worm its way into the ethos of not only our culture but our faith communities, may we claim the dramatic truth that the very lifeblood of evil has already been drained away, leaving the forces of destruction lifeless and powerless. May we cling to that portrait in the attic, that picture perfect Christ disfigured and pierced in the side, with blood and water flowing off the canvas, reminding us that we are free.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.