A few days ago, I wrote an e-mail to one of my best friends, Rich Armstrong, about a new photograph of mine, which you see above, “The Friend Who Dies So His Friends Can Live (Golgotha and the Tomb).” I’ve known Rich for close to twenty years now, and he was one of my early guides to the world of photography. He showed me how to change lenses to avoid getting dust inside the camera body, he gave me the first public exhibition of my work, he taught me how to use different types of cameras. We went out shooting together. Maybe I shouldn’t admit it, but he cracks me up with his comical variations on some of my more poetic titles. You know, what we call “guy love” — about which my wife comments: “I’d cry all day.”
My e-mail’s subject line was “RE: Pre-Christmas Christmas Card of Sorts. ” And it occurred to me a couple of days later that it could be a post, a letter, a card to all of you, too, which I don’t think Rich will mind:
Attached is a photograph that I made recently, called “The Friend Who Dies So His Friends Can Live (Golgotha and the Tomb).” It may or may not be the first in a series of photographs whose titles will all begin with the phrase “The Friend Who.” There are several stories behind it. Telling them is part of what makes this a “card.” I don’t how much or in what ways they’ll interest you, but I hope that they will at least enough to make your reading this worth your while.
The crucifix in the photo was my Irish father-in-law’s, which he had had for many years before he died. Somewhat incongruously (but so what?), the cross and its base are made of marble from the famous quarries in Connemara. The metal body of Jesus, fittingly enough, shows some wear or damage. Marion and I stayed in my father-and-mother-in-law’s condominium in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area during the week or so before my father died, to help care for him in his illness and possibly to be there, as we were, when he died. Phil was the kindest, gentlest of souls, and, at the same time, for many years, he was the greatly-respected head of the Legal Department of Wayne County, Michigan (the greater metropolitan Detroit area.) We wound up helping my mother-in-law, Mary Edna, to deal with traumatic decisions about whether or not to call in paramedics to try to revive him at the last, and when to let Phil go. After he died and before we returned to Connecticut, she gave me Phil’s Connemara crucifix. So I have many feelings and associations connected with that central part of the photo, in addition to what I feel about Christ himself.
In addition, though, the background in the photograph is from a picture, which I took in Israel around 1999 with an Instamatic and many years later scanned, of Golgotha (which, as you probably know, means “place of a skull”) and of the open door of the tomb from which Jesus rose. One of our two guides in Israel was a distinguished Israeli archaeologist, not a Christian, who told us various stories about various archaeological finds made by Israeli, Jewish archaeologists that have seemed to corroborate the existence of places and structures, and the occurrence of events, described in the Gospels.
The Roman Catholic Church officially has “believed” that its Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is on the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. But that’s plainly wrong, since the Gospels describe the site as being just outside of the ancient city, which that site is not. Numerous people concerned with the question now believe that the place that I photographed was the place described in the Gospels. It’s just outside the boundaries of the Old City as it was demarcated at the time of the events in the Gospels. There is a hill at that place whose side strongly suggests a skull, with cave-like indentations that look like darkened eye sockets and the hole of a mouth. You don’t see that in my photo’s background much, but I certainly saw it. I’ve attached a photo from the Internet, though, in which you can see it clearly, as well as see what part of it my new photograph’s background shows.
The hill is right above a garden, where archaeologists discovered a tomb from the time of Christ that, very curiously indeed, contained no remains of any human body. As the Gospels recount, Jesus was laid in a new tomb belonging to a “rich man of Arimathea, whose name was Joseph, who also himself was Jesus’ disciple”:
He went to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered.
And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth,
And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.
Matthew 27: 57-60
In fact, what the archaeologists found in front of that empty tomb was a kind of ditch or groove dug along the base of the rock wall, into which a great circular stone, a wheel with no hole in its middle, about the height of a man, was fitted. The stone could be rolled in the groove for purposes of blocking (“sealing”) or opening the entrance to the tomb. Many people know that in the Gospel story, a stone was rolled to the tomb’s entrance, but don’t know how rather “literal” that rolling likely was. As the Gospels report, the stone “was very great” and too heavy for two grown women to budge (Luke 16: 3-4). The Gospel of John says explicitly that Golgotha and the empty tomb were at a garden (John 19: 41): “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never yet man laid.” This is also suggested by Mary’s having first mistaken the risen Jesus for “the gardener” when she came to visit the tomb after the Sabbath day that immediately followed His crucifixion and burial (John 20: 15). In my photograph, you can see at the righthand bottom corner a picture that I took of the open tomb door, although in reality it was a little further down the wall than it appears to be in my new photo. All of this was in my mind in making this photograph, and now I’ve put it into yours, too, with my best intentions.
With gratitude for the pleasures and benefits of knowing you, and wishing you the blessings of this and every other season,
Was the Alfred P. Sloan Scholar for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Obtained a Master of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was selected as a Writing Fellow in Poetry by the Program faculty. Have published poems, essays and reviews in many magazines, anthologies, reference works, and other publications, including The Nation, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Parabola, OMNI, and the exhibition catalogue for Art at the Edge of the Law at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Received a law degree from the University of Michigan, and have changed the law and created educational programs in the fields of arts law, historic preservation law, and public construction and contracting law in the State of Connecticut. My photographs have appeared in international, national, regional and state juried exhibitions, and have been selected for awards including Honorable Mentions in the Architecture, Fine Art (series), Nature (series), Open Theme (series), Portrait, and Seascape categories from the international Fine Art Photography Awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Fine Art-Other category from the International Photography Awards. Photographs of mine have been selected for exhibition or publications by or in the 2019 International Juried Exhibition of the Center for Photographic Art (Carmel, CA), 2019 International Competition of The Photo Review, the 2019 Open Exhibition of the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins CO, F-Stop Magazine, Shadow & Light Magazine, Black Box Gallery in Portland OR, Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis MN, the Darkroom Gallery in VT, PhotoPlace Gallery in VT, A Smith Gallery in TX, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and many other journals and venues. My work has also been selected for inclusion in the Flatfile Program of Artspace New Haven (CT). My photography website is at www.lawrenceruss.com .