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(Christian Week – April 2013)

KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ Jesus wept. Not long before he set his face like flint toward Jerusalem and the cross, he wept. Why?

Surely he knew how it would all end, how he’d resurrect Lazarus, who lay nearby so cold and dead; how this miracle would foreshadow his own final triumph over the grave. Was he playing his audience? It’s a scene with at least some strangeness. Here’s another.

Last year, best-selling commercial artist Thomas Kinkade —the self-described “Painter of Light” who once said, ‘When I got saved, my art got saved with me’— died. More so, he died during a night of heavy boozing and Valium use. On Good Friday.

So the believers, at least some locals, cried “take it down,” referring to The Cross, an epic 15-by-31-foot mural that Kinkade had previously painted for the Billy Graham Library.

Why? Is Jesus’ cross not big enough to remove this sinner’s stains, his apparent failure to live up to the ideals in his work? Or might the stains give this particular painting even more meaning? Might this even have something to do with why Jesus wept?

Kinkade was our generation’s artist. It’s estimated that one in 20 homes in the United States have his work, those cottage or Victorian or Main Street scenes that gently exude serenity. Plans had been underway for his Light of the World project which would have linked his aesthetic to cultures in developing nations, starting in Africa, then Asia and India.

At the same time, in recent years Kinkade had demons that took their toll. There was the broken marriage of 30 years, and the ongoing criticism by the world of higher art that his hugely popular work was a sellout, too kitsch-like and sentimental with light for light’s sake.

Kinkade, who grew up poor and often feeling like an outsider looking in, responded that he was motivated by a yearning to make art that showed “a world without the fall.” And who doesn’t crave this, if not an innocent Eden then a blameless future world?

But Jesus wept. He wept real tears that ran down dusty cheeks and settled with salt and bitterness between his lips. They showed something was wrong. Is wrong. Sunday may be coming, but it’s still Friday. No matter how we want that holiday on the sea, we’re stuck, for now anyway, in a dilapidated world where the plaster is falling all around us.

This is why Jesus wept. He relates to our suffering. But maybe there’s more. Maybe he wept also because there’s a certain beauty in suffering, a gritty and holy beauty that’s lost on the flimsy religious crowd, those who prefer their messiahs, and art, a little more pristine.

I know of a freshman theatre student who was taught to be suspicious of art for this very reason. A colleague of mine recently shared: “When I talked with her about the notion that ‘All truth is God’s truth,’ she wept. Imagine the religious nonsense that needed to be undone?

Maybe art is, in fact, the spirit in what is a holy trinity: art, faith and mystery. If so, last Good Friday we got a cold splash of it.

Because Kinkade was never called to be an artist. Not really. He was called to be, like any of us, fully human. The irony is, when darkness fell over his death, he was made just that: more human.

This is when the Divine works. When we ourselves become the art. His art. Great art. When The Artist makes use of both light and shadow.