Enticed by the curious polyphony of Jellyroll Morton and chisel tapping Indiana limestone, I walked into Joe’s studio. Perhaps like me, Mr. Morton would have been amazed to see the crowd of figures his muse was helping Joe coax out of three huge blocks of stone. Joe was portraying Christ the King for a parish in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“What if you make a mistake?” Stone carving looked like a terribly irreversible process to me. “I don’t make mistakes,” Joe smiled, “only design changes.” Well then, I thought to myself, that explains Jellyroll. Jazz Improvisation. Take a good melody, then stretch it. Make it move. Make it sing. No mistakes, just creative alterations sending that tune where it never expected to go.
I stood between two long, horizontal rectangles and faced a tall, vertical one in the center of the triptych. The middle panel depicts Christ with large, open hands, sitting astride a donkey. Joe chose a most difficult, strictly frontal perspective in order to show them entering the city and heading straight down what might be called the Avenue of Lost Hope and Broken Dreams.
Quite a sorry lot of folk emerges from the two side panels. One could hardly say they are gathering to welcome anyone; they are just a press of dismal humanity, each overwhelmed with his or her own burden. A hand reaches through iron bars to touch the shoulder of a woman who stands erect and tight-lipped against the prison wall, her children clinging to her skirts. Two lovers steal privacy in a storm sewer. A prostitute and her child, drained of interest or expectations, stare into the street through the broken pane of their upstairs window. A bony child fingers his smooth, empty rice bowl. A teenaged runaway hunches in a cubbyhole, open to anything because nothing matters. There are still others: a knot of homeless people with glinting eyes—half wily, half wild—search for a scrap of space. A column of heads, each blindfolded or gagged or bound in some way, hem in another man stretched on a rack. Finally, Christmas nativity in dreadful reverse: a couple grieves over their dead baby, attended only by a cat, a rat, and a mangy dog.
Not one of these is company I would choose, yet there I was in the midst of them all, closing the circle. I looked across at the donkey, which seemed to mirror my reluctance and dismay. Yet that beast’s burden is the King of Kings, and Christ’s reign takes a most difficult perspective indeed: whatever you do to the least of my family, you do to me.
I looked again at the face of Joe’s Christ, turned fully and irreversibly toward all of us tragic people lining the avenue. There’s not a trace of pity in that face, and not compassion either—simply joy: sheer, radiant joy. It’s as if to say, “I am so glad to be here, so very happy I could come”—as if he were saying, “No discards, no mistakes, only design changes.”
Reprinted with the permission of the Liturgical Press, the Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota, from Divine Favor: The Art of Joseph O'Connell. Editor, Colman O'Connell. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, c1999. CSB, SJU and SJP Libraries Oversize N 6537.O265 D58 1999.