11 April 2009

The Crux of the Matter

Good Friday/ 10th April 2009

Paul wrote to the Corinthian Church: “For the message about the cross, is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1: 18).” The wisdom contained in this “foolishness” is immeasurable and inscrutable.

Remember, the cross was originally not a religious icon, “but the ultimate deterrent to those who would challenge the sovereignty of Rome.”[1] It was a horrific symbol of destructive power and violence. Execution by crucifixion was chilling and inhumane. Even the great Roman statesman and philosopher, Cicero (106-43 B.C.), writing in 63 B .C., argued that it should be outlawed: “If we are to be threatened with death, then we want to die in freedom; let the executioner, the shrouding of the head, and the very name of the cross be banished from the body and life of Roman citizens, from their thoughts, eyes, and ears!”[2] For Jews, it was equally disturbing, a shocking offense. A body should never be treated that way and a naked body should never be exposed in that way for all the public to see.

The fact that Paul would come to see the cross – given it’s political, cultural meanings and religious offense – as conveying a message of grace, a word about the saving power of God, is itself a sign of the transforming power at work here, in the way this symbol of death was transformed into an extraordinary symbol of life.

The actual symbol of the cross doesn’t become associated with Christianity until after Emperor Constantine (c.272-337) makes Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 A.D (Edict of Milan). Prior to then Christians preferred other symbols to the cross. Down in the catacombs outside Rome you the symbols of the fish, the dove, an anchor, the good shepherd, the peacock, the Chi-Rho (the first two Greek letters for Christos, Christ).

The cross for Paul and the early church was an event, a word-event, which conveyed a message, a truth that revealed something about the nature and way of God. The cross tells us something about who God is because God was there on the cross through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. The cross tells us something about the power of God to transform and save, that new life can and does emerge from suffering and death.

Ever since that fateful day disciples have tried to find the words, the images, the means to fathom the meaning of what took place on Calvary. We always come up short, our language inadequate. But still we are compelled to try, with words, or music, or images.

When I was a sophomore at Rutgers College, I took a theology class (without really understanding theology!). I had to pick a theologian, select a title, read the text, and then present a report back to the class. That was my first introduction to the great Swiss, Reformed theologian, Karl Barth (1886-1968) – I didn’t realize at that moment just how great he really was and how much the reading of that text would change my life. In his book The Word of God and the of Man (Das Wort Gottes und die Theologie, 1928), he made several oblique references to a painting that attracted my interest, a depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion. I went looking for a copy of the painting and found one. In the foreground, to Jesus’ left is the figure of John the Baptist with an out-stretched, crooked finger pointing the way to him. The words, “He must increase and I must decrease,” in Latin, are inscribed behind him. John wasn’t at the crucifixion, of course. Barth saw John’s stance there as a model for the preacher and it came to shape my understanding of preaching, of always pointing the way to him. I made a copy of the painting, folded it, and tucked it away in my copy of the book. I later learned that Barth had a copy of this painting over his desk in Basel, at the desk where he wrote the Church Dogmatics, one of the most profound, theological works in the history of the church. It was written, literally, under the influence of that painting, of Christ on the cross.

Twenty-four years later, last June, as part of my sabbatical, I went on a pilgrimage to see this painting with my own eyes. The painting by the German Renaissance painter, Mathias Grünewald (c.1470-1528), was completed sometime before 1516 . Today, it’s known as the Isenheim Altarpiece or Retable, and is on display at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, in eastern France. The altarpiece is a large triptych (three wooden panels) that opens up to multiple panels with scenes from Jesus’ life that then opens up further to a marble altar honoring the life of early desert mystic, St. Anthony of Egypt (born middle of the third century, died 356/7). It’s when the altarpiece is closed that you see the crucifixion scene. The altarpiece was commissioned by the brothers of the St. Anthony monastery and hospice located about twenty-five kilometers from Colmar. The hospice was a refuge for very sick men who suffered from the incurable disease called ergotism, caused by a fungus that can grow on grains of rye. It was also known as St. Anthony’s Fire. The pain – more like painful fire throughout your body – was excruciating. The men in this monastery were also treated for syphilis. The altarpiece was situated in the refectory of the monastery so that when they gathered to eat, they could take solace from the painting.[3]

Why solace? Because Grünewald did something that was extremely rare (actually unheard of in theological circles and the art world). When you approach the painting you notice something exceptional, unlike any other rendering of the crucifixion I’ve ever seen. Jesus’ body is covered with black spots, sores, and blisters. He has ergotism too (and perhaps syphilis). It’s shocking for us to hear and consider this, but imagine what it was like in the early 16th century? His suffering is their suffering, their suffering is his. Christ understands their pain, not from a historical distance; he’s in their pain and suffering. We know very little about Grünewald, but it’s clear that he’s projecting upon that image his own pain and suffering. He clearly sees Christ as one who identifies so completely with human suffering and can never be aloof from it. Christ doesn’t remove the suffering or offer healing, but is known in human suffering and pain. The painting conveys that life and hope can be found through contemplation of how our pain is known by him and in our pain we are not alone. By connecting their suffering with his suffering a kind of transformation can take place; a kind of healing power is present. It is possible to find the Risen Christ there.

All of this doesn’t sound rational, I’m sure, because it’s not. It’s the kind of truth that can only be found in paradox – which is what Paul came to know about the cross, it’s a wisdom found in foolishness, the power of God known in weakness, a stumbling block, and offense.

This painting is offensive and grotesque, arresting and shocking. I spent one afternoon and one morning before it. You can get up very close to it. Grünewald’s realism takes your breath away. But the realism is healing. “Nothing known to the human race is unknown to the Christ figure painted on the altarpiece cross.”[4] One art critic and essayist has said, Grünewald’s “pestiferous Christ would have offended the taste of the [royal]courts;” it still offends the respectable and conventional, but he goes on to make this critical point, “[this Christ] could only be understood by the sick, the unhappy and the monks, by the suffering members of Christ.”[5]

Friends, it’s the sick,

the unhappy,

the suffering members of Christ,

the lost,

the broken,

the abused,

the lonely,

the forsaken and forgotten,

the hopeless and loveless,

the dying,

who see in Christ and his cross his power and his presence.

Otherwise the cross remains the most violent of symbols and every expression of suffering and pain, meaninglessness and unbearable. It doesn’t make any sense without knowing that our pain and is also his pain; his pain is also our pain. He understands. And through that this sweet communion, this sharing of pain, by the power and grace of God, something new will emerge. Perhaps it’s why we can, with integrity, call this Friday good.

[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 383.

[2] Cited in Myers, 383.

[3] See Eugene Monick, Evil, Sexuality, and Disease in Grunewald’s Body of Christ. Foreword by David L. Miller (Dallas, TX: Spring Publications 1993). This is psychological analysis of the painting from a Jungian perspective.

[4] Comment by Monick, 20. Monick suggests that the “curious power of the Isenheim seems to be growing, the more so, I believe, as conventional Christianity fades in its ability to touch the depths of unconsciousness in an increasingly numbed and exhausted Western society.” 6.

[5] J. -K. Huysmans (1848-1907), cited in Monick, 64.

No comments: