A gesamtkunstwerk is a work of art that makes use of all or many art forms. German Artist Joseph Beuys made this idea famous in the 20th Century through his performance art and social sculptures. Beuys’ work is deeply layered with meaning and interpretation. He wore felt and lived in a gallery with a wild coyote for eight hours a day for three days. He covered his head in honey and explained his art to a dead hare. This is odd. For those who have curiosity and patience to discover, Beuys work is incredibly profound.
The more I’ve studied art, particularly performance art, the more I think of John the Baptist as an ancient performance artist. We know from the other gospels (Matthew 3:4 and Mark 1:6) that he wore strange clothes (camel skin wrapped with a leather belt) and ate strange food (locust and wild honey). He was a bit of a spectacle. Camel’s hair is a sign of poverty and wilderness living. This is also the same getup the prophet Elijah wore. John eats a plague and drinks it down with promise. In Jewish tradition baptism symbolizes cleansing from sin and guilt. John the Baptist re-envisions baptism as a symbol of repentance resulting from an inward reality. John’s baptism points to a future baptism by Jesus who will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16). This is bold. John is performing prophetic visions of redemption and restoration.
In verse 26 John’s disciples are troubled that Jesus and his disciples are cutting in on their work and they are jealous. John reminds them that he knows his place, “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’” John rejoices that his calling is made complete in Christ. John came to prepare the way and through his work point to and exalt Christ. Through John’s provocative and faithful work, allegiances were transferred from sin to the One who is greater, who is from above, who utters the words of God and completely fulfills and expands the signs that John performed: consuming the ultimate plague and giving us the promise of life.
Considering all of this makes me wonder if my Lenten “performances” are making me diminish and Christ increase. My Lenten practices are not themselves repentance, they are bodily metaphors for a spiritual reality. When my heart is engaged and submitted to the power of the Holy Spirit, my modes of fasting can bring about spiritual resurrection.
Lauren Hofer makes art, is married to Ben, and mother to Shepherd and Rhodes. They live in Mount Rainier, MD.