Monday, June 30, 2008

Battered Jesus

"C'mon Max, it's only Jesus!" I assured, tugging on the leash.

Max the doberman paused, cringed, and sat on the sidewalk in front of the boarded up corner house that had been abandoned nearly a year ago, refusing to walk any further. A low, nervous, growl rumbled in his throat as he turned and started to head in the opposite direction.

"Jeez, it's just a lawn ornament! Let's go! You are such a wuss!" I scolded, pulling him around the corner. His claws scraped the cement like a teacher's nails dragging across a chalkboard.

It had been quite a while since Max and I took this particular route on our daily treks up, down, and around the tree-lined blocks of Cleveland Heights. But still, I was a little surprised that my "guard dog" was suddenly afraid of a statue. Determined to re-establish my authority as "Leader of the Pack", I walked up to the life size concrete figure of Christ and the Sacred Heart.

Cautiously, Max followed.

It was my turn to stop and stare... Now I could see why he was so disturbed.

Once splendidly painted with intense comic book colors, the Jesus at the corner of Elmwood and Erieveiw has been a landmark to a generation of locals in this quiet neighborhood that straddles the border of Cleveland Heights and South Euclid. Placed just a few yards from the sidewalk, the face of the statue, which resembles an over-sized plastic religious action figure or perhaps the Savior from a graphic novel for young Christians, commands the pedestrian to look at his suffering heart, encircled by the symbolic thorns of mankind's sins.

Concrete statuary has a relatively short lifespan, and the Elmwood Jesus proved no exception.
The bright coat of acrylic paint is flaking off in large scaly hunks, like skin falling off of a leper, exposing dark mottled splotches of grey concrete. The head of the statue was broken off at the neck and clumsily reattached with about half a roll of packing tape, which is now peeling off the front of the figure, but continues to hold tight across the back where the tape forms a large woven mat of once-sticky plastic.

"Wow" I thought, "He looks like he is suffering from a whole lot more than sin. The Elmwood Jesus has been wounded and neglected to boot."

As Max and I continued down the block, I couldn't keep my mind off the battered statue. The distress and damage had imbued a poignancy to the garish lawn decor which, in a strange way, elevated it from the realm of tackiness it had previously shared with paintings on black velvet and dashboard figurines. You see, the difference between art and ornament is that art makes you think.

This Jesus was making me think.

I could see in the crumbling Christ similarities to my own relationship with the church of my childhood. No longer the bright and shiny pinnacle of perfection, the Catholic church has been taking quite a beating in both the public realm and in my own personal experience. Corruption, hypocrisy, crime, and scandal continue to degrade the institution. Like the statue, the core of my religious faith remains standing, a few stubborn patches struggle to hold it together. Can it be repaired? Should it be replaced? Neglected, will it eventually disappear?

Yes, the Elmwood Jesus certainly raised a lot of questions that morning, and compelled me to start looking for some answers. Transformed by the ravages of weather and time, I would say the once gaudy religious yard tchotchke has now become a work of art.

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