This is the reflection I gave today as part of our churches’ recorded Good Friday service. You can see the reflection alone here on Youtube, or watch the entire service here. The text is the Passion narrative from John 18-19. The painting referred to is the Crucifixion from the Isenheim Altarpiece.
Methodism, standing firmly within the Protestant tradition of the Christian Church, is generally an aniconic denomination. That is, we do not use or rely heavily on images for our worship. Our church buildings are usually quite plain, and we generally prefer to hear the words of scripture, prayer and exposition without accompanying illustrations. Today, though, partly because of the way this service has had to be composed and delivered, we have used a number of images. Notably, the paintings of the events of the Passion that accompanied our reading from John. These were painted by the 14th Century Italian painter Duccio di Buoninsegna from Sienna. I do hope you found them helpful.
I would like to show you another image now, one that you have already seen earlier in the service, accompanying the Telemann flute duet. It comes from the Isenheim Altarpiece and was painted by the German artist Matthias Grünewald in the early sixteenth century. You should be able to see it now on your screens. There is also a link to the image in the description box below. You may well know it quite well already.
There have been innumerable depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus but this is justly one of the most famous, at least in part because of how it came into being. The crucifixion is actually part of a larger altarpiece, which includes several different scenes on a number of wings that were meant to be folded out and viewed on different holy days: the annunciation, the resurrection and scenes from the life of St Anthony. Nowadays, it is possible to wander around and see all of them at the same time in the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, France, near the German border.
This is the best-known scene from the altarpiece, though, and the one that has been most venerated and most reproduced over the years. It shows Christ on the cross, with his mother Mary collapsing into the arms of John, the beloved disciple, and another woman weeping at his feet. And on the other side, John the Baptist pointing at the suffering Jesus. The depiction of Christ, writhing in pain from the agony of the nails, is generally considered to be one of the most lifelike in medieval art.
The altarpiece was originally made for the nearby monastery of St Anthony in Isenheim, which specialised in the care of plague sufferers. Crucially for us today, the artist chose to show Jesus not only being crucified but also covered in plague-like sores. Patients lying in beds in the monastery could look up and see Christ literally sharing their afflictions. They had the plague, Christ had the plague. Their bodies were covered in sores, his body was too. What they suffered, he suffered.
Today, if we were creating another such altarpiece – perhaps for the giant new hospital that has been created in the Excel centre in London – it might show Christ on a ventilator. It could depict Jesus struggling for breath. Or Jesus isolated and alone at home, with no human company. Or Jesus mourning for lost friends and family members. Or Jesus at the end of yet another 14-hour shift in a hospital, trying to cope with an endless stream of demands. Or Jesus in a refugee camp, or a township, or any one of a thousand places round the globe, where even the most basic health facilities are unavailable. It would not be a beautiful painting but, like Grünewald’s masterpiece, an honest depiction of a suffering Messiah.
The real lesson of the long Passion reading we have just heard read, and of the entire gospels, is that there is no human emotion or experience that our God did not choose to suffer or experience too. In the gospels, we hear Jesus – God made human – experiencing joy, love, friendship, fulfilment, but also betrayal, fear, disappointment, anger, grief, exhaustion, humiliation, isolation, pain, abandonment, terror, and ultimately death.
The point of that suffering – the point of Good Friday – was not, I believe, to satisfy a wrathful deity or to provide a horror story to frighten children into being good. Rather, it was to demonstrate the absolute love and solidarity of a creator with creation. Through his Passion, Christ – God – showed his true passion, his true love, for each one of us.
In the midst of this terrible pandemic, which is causing so much suffering, loss and pain to so many, we are confronted by forces far beyond our control. We have become so used to the appearance of being the absolute masters of our lives, having seemingly unlimited choice and opportunities, that the restrictions and impact of this disease have left us all reeling. In many respects, we suddenly find ourselves in a world much more similar to that of Duccio and Grünewald, where plagues and epidemics were regular features of everyday life.
The Passion Story does not involve a superhero Jesus, impervious to pain, beating up all the bad guys, with bullets bouncing off his chest. Nor does it involve God sweeping at the last minute, saving Jesus from the cross while his tormentors look on in furious disbelief. Instead, it recognises that suffering, pain and loss are somehow essential parts of what it means to be human. And Christ chose to be part of that story.
Just as the plague victims of 500 years ago turned to the sore-ridden Christ in their suffering, seeking hope, so should we today. The good news of Good Friday is that – even if we are watching this now in isolation – we are never truly alone. Christ has chosen to walk our path before us; he has suffered our pain; he has borne our grief. He will never abandon us or leave us on our own. And just as he shares in our pain and confusion now, so we have the hope that we shall we share in his resurrection joy on Easter Sunday, through the grace and power of our God. Amen.
The photos of the altarpiece are all my own, taken when I visited Colmar in 2016.