Art and the Transfiguration of Suffering: How Jesus Overcomes Evil

According to Christianity Jesus has overcome evil.  But how can this be true?  How can Jesus have decisively overcome evil when there is obviously so much of it still in the world?

In this post I aim to answer these questions with a little help from art. Consider Andy Warhol’s 1971 series on the electric chair.  These pictures in classic Warhol style take a single picture of the New York electric chair and multiply it in different colors over and over again.  This process is very interesting because in doing this Warhol has taken a horrible thing (the electric chair) and made it into a beautiful thing.  The pictures are fascinating and the repetition plus the vivid colors makes them oddly hypnotic.  By this act, an instrument of death was transformed into beautiful and thought provoking art.

In my view Jesus overcomes evil in something like the same way.  Before his death Jesus invented the ritual of the Eucharist He gave his disciples bread and wine and told them that they were his body and blood.  Then he told them to eat it.  In this act, Jesus was, of course, interpreting his own coming death as a sacrifice.  This is interesting because it isn’t natural to see an execution by torture of a human being as a sacrifice.  (In fact, the priests in the Temple took precautions to make sure that the animals being sacrificed suffered as little as possible.)  The only reason that the early Christians interpreted Jesus S death in this way was that he told them to.  Jesus himself interpreted his own death as a sacrifice.  By offering this interpretation Jesus transformed the meaning of his own death in much the way that Warhol did when he put images of the electric chair in an art museum.

When Jesus rose from the dead he confirmed the sacrificial interpretation of his death.  Authentic sacrifice is not pointless suffering, but suffering which brings about a reconciliation.  So his resurrection shows (among other things) that Jesus was in fact fully reconciled with God.  This reconciliation with God then brought about a new state of existence (because our normal state of existence is a state of separation from God.)  In this way Jesus overcame the pointless evil of his death by transfiguring it into a blessing.  This transfiguration occurred by interpreting his death as a sacrifice that brings reconciliation with the awesome mystery of God.

So Jesus’s suffering was transformed from pointless evil to glorious sacrifice much in the way that the image of the electric chair was changed from grim agent of death to thought provoking art.

But what does this have to do with the rest of us? This is where the ritual comes in. Before he died Jesus offered us the opportunity to participate in his suffering by consuming the Eucharist.  When we participate in Jesus’s suffering in this way our own suffering can be transfigured in just the way that Jesus was.  Instead of being pointless suffering it can become glorious sacrifice that ultimately ends with reconciliation.  In this way Jesus’s death overcomes evil not by eliminating it, but by transfiguring it.