The hospitality of Polycarp

Jamie Howison on the truth – and cost – of liberation


have to admit that I almost hesitate to post this image of James Nesbitt’s painting “The Hospitality of Polycarp,” as it just does not begin to convey the power of the original. On a computer screen, the colour and texture of the painting are flattened and drained, while the reduced size – the original is about four feet across – badly compromises the viewer’s ability to actually see what the artist wants you to see. It is a bit like receiving a postcard of a great Impressionist painting from a friend who just has to share something of their experience of seeing the original in a gallery; the reduced reproduction can never capture the original.


Used with the artist’s permission

I saw the Nesbitt painting a while back in Victoria at the art exhibit held as part of Telling the Truth: a forum on the arts and the worshipping church; an event at which Gord Johnson and I presented two keynote addresses and led a couple of workshops. The exhibit was a kind of demonstration of the intersection of faith and art, with a number of local artists showing their work and various musicians and poets offering brief performances and readings. The church in which the exhibit was taking place had been transformed into gallery space, and on this night was buzzing with people keen to soak in the vibrant creativity of a wide cross-section of work by artists from an equally wide cross-section of church backgrounds. There was much to see and digest, but it was the face of the old man in the Nesbitt painting that kept drawing my attention. From different corners of the room, in fact, Gord and I found ourselves pulled in by this one work, which managed to create something of a still-point in the midst of a room filled with people, sound and colour.

“The Hospitality of Polycarp” was inspired by the short document “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” written shortly after the old man’s execution sometime around 155A.D. A much revered bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor, Polycarp was in his mid-80’s when he was arrested and executed in one of the long series of persecutions that besieged the Christian church over the first 300 years of its existence.

As the story is told in the ancient document, under torture a servant had betrayed Polycarp’s whereabouts to the Roman authorities and in time soldiers arrived at his door to arrest him.

“As soon as he heard them arrive, he went down and chatted with them; and everyone there was struck by his age and his calmness, and surprised that the arrest of such an old man could be so urgent. In spite of the lateness of the hour he at once ordered them to be given all the food and drink they wanted; and then asked if he might be allowed an hour to pray undisturbed. When they consented, he got to his feet and prayed; so full of the grace of God, that two whole hours went by before he could bring himself to be silent again. All who heard him were struck with awe, and many of them began to regret this expedition against a man so old and saintly.”

Marked by this same sense of regret over having to deal with Polycarp, later that night a police commissioner extends an invitation to the aged bishop to renounce his faith:

“They took him into their carriage, sat down beside him, and addressed him persuasively. “Come now,” they said, “where is the harm in just saying ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and offering the incense, and so forth, when it will save your life?”

Even in the arena, with the lions waiting to be released upon their prey, the Governor is said to have pressed him one more time:

“The Governor… went on pressing him. “Take the oath, and I will let you go,” he told him. “Revile your Christ.” Polycarp’s reply was, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me now wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

In his interpretation of the events, Nesbitt compresses the force of these various attempts to let Polycarp recant into a single scene, set at the dinner table which has been offered to the arresting soldiers. While the 2nd Century account has the aged bishop in prayer during the meal, Nesbitt places Polycarp at the table with his captors, extending to them the sort of table hospitality which Jesus models throughout the gospels. Head lifted in laughter, Nesbitt’s Polycarp embodies a deeply challenging Christian truth: he is one who can not and will not confess any other Lord than Jesus, but he is also one who cannot do other than open his table to any and all, including those who would take his life. In this there are echoes of the observations Michael Welker makes regarding the last supper:

“The Supper makes clear that Jesus’ community is jeopardized not only “from outside,” but also “from inside” – even by his disciples. Judas’ betrayal, the disciples asleep in Gethsemane, and Peter’s denial make this clear. In the situation of external and internal danger, Jesus institutes the “memorial meal” of liberation.”

The occasion for the hospitality offered by Polycarp to his captors is triggered by a betrayal by one of his own servants, and yet, as with the last supper, it becomes a meal which proclaims the deep liberation found only in Christ.

It is all there in that face; that joyous and confident aged face. As I sat in the gallery space that night, listening to the music and the readings, my gaze kept locking on to that face. Several times I felt my eyes welling up with tears, but they weren’t tears of sadness over the fate of a man some 1800 years ago. Instead, they were an inarticulate response to my own fears and failings as one who, like that old man, had dared to confess that only Jesus is Lord. How very far I yet have to go to really understand the depths of that confession. That night, Nesbitt’s painting undid the ease with which I confess my faith, and called me to a deeper searching. And that, finally, is why our communities have to encourage and support and make real space for our artists. In the words of Calvin Seerveld,

“(A)rt and literature as human activity is not simply a harmless pleasurable emotion or a cultured response to unconscious drives which is the artist’s own business: this vision takes art and literature and brings it firmly into the presence of God and an earthshaking drama where angels peer expectantly over the human shoulders to see what is coming out of the palette or typewriter.”

From James Nesbitt’s palette has come a most remarkable portrait of the truth – and cost – of liberation in Christ.

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