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Lent, COVID-19 & the Beatitudes on Haywood Street

An unlikely tale of worldbuilding at the Haywood St. Congregation, Asheville, North Carolina

Image: Haywood Street Beatitudes by Christopher Holt, 2019, Courtesy of the artist, © 2019 Christopher Holt; Photograph: John Warner

Matthew 5:3-12

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Perhaps it’s just a curiosity that while the Coronavirus COVID-19 was first discovered in December 2019, it didn’t noticeably impact my community until Lent began on Ash Wednesday, February 26th. Yet just one month later, Raleigh-Durham has been radically reorganized into a strange new world in which social distancing and self-quarantine are the new normal.

While the pragmatics of these implicit and explicit rules are necessary to slow this pandemic and mindful observance can be an act “to love thy neighbor,” a second virus, fear, has infected as much if not far more people than the disease itself.

Around the world, happiness is pursued and seemingly gained with wealth, health, fame, romance, respect, power and even from the cold comfort found in addictions. At heart, these commodities of “happiness” serves a distorted sense of pride, a pride to control, a pride bent towards fear and shame partnered with that unwanted knowing that we are not in control: That we are not God.

We are living in a disoriented world in which many are recalibrating their lives in an increasingly lonely and hostile environment. Yet Lent, the 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, the celebration of Jesus Christ’s Resurrection, is a time dedicated to repentance and fasting. We lament and repent for the brokenness of this world and darkness in our own hearts.

Micah 6:8 “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

But even as we mourn and humble ourselves before God, Lent reminds Christians the uniqueness of our faith, that we hold grief and joy, justice and mercy, together. That there is a greater worldbuilding vision than fear, a truly divine disorientation that has withstood the test of time, fear-based economies and cultures and countless kingdoms since it was unveiled 2,000 years ago.

Fear not for I have overcome this world.” The words of Jesus Christ in The Gospel of John 16:33.

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7) presents Jesus’s core teachings known as the Beatitudes, the truth of what it means to be “blessed” and happy. The Greek word, makarios, used here for blessed, means the greatest sense of joy independent of circumstances. This deep and abiding joy is the byproduct of the virtues within Jesus’s everlasting world order known as the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew 5:3-12.

Jesus has led His disciples up a mountain to show that He’s giving them a new beatific vision, a complete break from the realistic rules for survival that they’ve seen all their lives. With God’s eye view, Jesus explains to His followers what’s necessary to belong to His world, the Kingdom of Heaven:

Blessed (happy) are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus begins with “blessed are the poor in spirit” which can also be restated to mean those without self-regard (ego-based pride). The ones who do not seek their own good but only seek to serve others. While many give generously or volunteer out of their sense of self-esteem (I’m a good person), the poor in spirit lack all self-regard. In the Garden of Eden, the first crime committed against God was an act of pride. There, the first man and woman declared by their actions that they would decide what was good and evil, not God. Today, we speak of contemporary western culture with our social norms as “modern” but the first man and woman could just as easily be described as modern, liberated and independent: they determined for themselves good and evil.

But in the worldbuilding Beatitudes, “the poor in spirit” is the paradigm for the expression of all the Beatitudes: those who morn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted because of their commitment to truth, to God. What’s key to the Kingdom of Heaven is this: If you are truly are humble, you will also hunger and thirst for righteousness, be merciful, be pure in heart, be a peacemaker and, at some point, be persecuted or rejected by others because of your faithfulness to God. And that’s a blessing and a joy according to God.

When I think of “worldbuilding,” in the sense of artistic imagination, the best advice I’ve been given was to look at the world outside my window and play with it. How would an artist describe authentic humility, sacrifice, and service? What media or medium would you use to display the Kingdom of Heaven?

Worldbuilding and the Haywood Street Beatitudes fresco

Christopher Holt’s Haywood Street Beatitudes in progress, 2019, Courtesy of the artist, © 2019 Christopher Holt; Photograph: John Warner

While the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA), is closed until further notice, it is hosting in its Spring exhibition: Christopher Holt: Contemporary Frescoes/Faith and Community (March 7, 2020-July 26, 2020). The exhibition highlights the drawings, studies and process of the Haywood Street Beatitudes fresco in Asheville, N.C. by the artist Christopher Holt in 2019.

Christopher Holt met the Rev. Brian Combs, founder of the Haywood Street congregation about ten years ago. The Haywood Street hosts The Downtown Welcome Table which provides over a thousand meals every week. According to its mission, the goal is not to be a glorified soup kitchen but “to be a crossroads of diverse community, a gathering of disparate folks, a fork and spoon invitation to prince and pauper alike.”

Holt was drawn to the people at Haywood Street and began to attend services and community meals with his sketchbook. He studied true fresco (also known as pure fresco) under Benjamin F. Long, a well-known artist who helped revive fresco painting in western North Carolina.

Fresco, Italian for “Fresh,” is a highly technical and precise painting process on wet plaster and part of the wall itself. Although it is a type of mural, a fresco is completely unlike a mural that has superficial paint or chalk applied.

While fresco has existed since the Bronze Age, fresco is rare compared to other painting techniques because it is extremely technical, physical and tedious and expensive work. As a result, mainly government and religious buildings contain fresco.

Yet fresco’s capacity to endure time and disaster far surpasses most other art forms. For example, when Mount Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii in 79 CE, frescos were the main artworks recovered. Also, if you compare contemporary works such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling (a fresco) with Leonardo da Vinci’s mural of The Last Super , you would see Leonardo’s painting, once beautiful, is a technical ruin while the Sistine Chapel ceiling remains much the same.

As Holt assisted Long with his frescos and attended Haywood Street, the power of fresco’s social power impacted Holt. Holt proposed the idea to the Haywood Street board in 2016 and over the next few years, the project began to take root with the support of a dedicated arts committee and generous community support.

With the help of a highly skilled and organized team consisting of Caleb Clark, Jill Hooper and John Dempsey III and Anselme Long, Holt’s fresco of the Haywood Street community was completed in September 2019.

All of Holt’s models belong to the Haywood Street community. Some are volunteers, some are homeless or formerly homeless who now serve the various Haywood Street ministries. With diverse backgrounds, but united in the ministry’s mission, the Haywood Street models form a timeless “Heavenly vision” of the “blessed” in western North Carolina.

In a talk for the NCMA docents in February, Holt shared that the theme of the Beatitudes, “a sense of love without holding back,” resonated with everyone regardless of religious conviction. Holt felt that the Beatitudes inspired Haywood Street and can inspire us to become the people that we want to be and that is modeled on Haywood Street.

To learn more about the fresco, Haywood Street models, meanings and metaphors in the fresco and the fresco team, visit the Haywood Street fresco here.

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