Our Homeless Jesus sculpture has received quite a bit of media attention recently. Apparently the press learned that an ambulance had been dispatched to The Basilica thinking that a person was sleeping on the bench. This story did not surprise me. I have personally witnessed first responders getting out of an ambulance ready to help the person on the bench, only to realize that it was a sculpture. I watched them use their phones to take some pictures, maybe to alert their colleagues.
The artist, Timothy Schmalz intentionally created a very realistic sculpture which he hoped would push us to face the persistent problem of homelessness. As I write this letter it is -28 degrees Fahrenheit. Even in these temperatures some people will have no choice but to spend the night outside.
I know that not everyone loves our Homeless Jesus. Some people think we should not represent the resurrected Jesus in the image of a homeless person. However, by depicting Jesus as a homeless person or more importantly, being asked to see Jesus in homeless people we simply illustrate the message of Matthew 25: ““Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Others have argued that the money spent on the Homeless Jesus should have been used to alleviate the suffering of those in need. The Basilica has a very strong commitment to helping all those in need. Our approach is two-pronged: alleviation and education. Thus, on the one hand we offer direct help to those in need and we work to change systems that cause and perpetuate poverty and inequality. On the other hand we are also intent on changing people’s heart and mind so that they too might be moved to help those in need. And that is exactly what the Homeless Jesus intends to do: change people’s heart and mind.
The sculpture is not so much about the bronze Jesus it represents, but rather about the suffering person in whom we ought to recognize Jesus. Many of us are a bit more like Peter than like Mary. Peter courageously declared to Jesus that he would never leave him, and yet he denied knowing Jesus after his arrest and he ran away when Jesus was crucified. By contract without making grandiose statements, Mary, the Mother of Jesus together with Mary of Magdala and John the Beloved stayed with him. They were not able to prevent his death but they stayed with him even as he was dying on the cross.
We received Homeless Jesus last November. Since then we have seen people quietly sitting on the bench next to him with their hands placed on his pierced feet. We have found flowers and a lit candle left beside him. And just a few weeks ago as the winter was setting in, someone lovingly covered him with a red blanket. It is our hope that the Homeless Jesus will move us to similar and even greater acts of kindness not just to the sculpture but more importantly to the people it represents.