The Art Of Lent: (Com)Passionate Sacrifice

[EDITOR’S NOTE: As our series on The Art of Lent: A Painting a Day from Ash Wednesday to Easterby Sister Wendy Beckett nears its end, Mariah Ziemer offers reflection on Good Friday under Sister Wendy’s theme of ‘Passionate Sacrifice’. For more information on Sister Wendy and this series, see our Series Launch.]

 

In the shadow of the Saint Andrews cathedral, there stands a war memorial made of cool, grey stone. I remember the day when I finally gave it my honest gaze—the gaze that I, admittedly, failed to offer every time I passed by: I was standing before the memorial with a large crowd on a crisp November morning, where we had gathered on the cobblestone street to honour the fallen individuals of the two World Wars. From this space arose three sounds that still echo in my memory: The first was the piercing clap of fired gunshots, one for each life engraved in the memorial’s stone. The second was the crowd’s deep hum of a sung hymn, a tender melody lifted to the sky. The third was the sound of silence—yes, silence. During a few respected moments, I do not recall hearing the shuffle of a coat, the sniffle of a nose, or the chirp of a distant bird (maybe creation knew to stand still, too?). Instead, the air felt charged with thoughts, memories, and prayers both sombre and sweet, their resounding pulses too deep even for the approach of their own utterances. In these moments, my eyes had glanced upwards to see a scarlet poppy pinned against a stranger’s black wool coat. It was plain, tattered, yet bold in colour against the mostly grey-scaled scene. ‘Slow down’, it seemed to say. ‘Slow down, and remember—’.

I wonder, then, why the late Scottish artist Craigie Aitchison includes a red poppy in his Crucifixion painting (2008), our painting for today’s Good Friday reflection? [1] With intense colour fields mirroring the aesthetic of Aitchison’s contemporaries (e.g., modernist painters Henri Matisse and Mark Rothko), the single poppy floats in the lower quarter of the painting in a warm, earth-toned stripe. I am curious about its significance in relation to Jesus Christ and the other images surrounding his luminous figure: a slightly curved rainbow, a hinted shape of a dove, twinkling stars, and Aitchison’s beloved pet dog. Sister Wendy Beckett notes in her commentary how this is no ordinary crucifixion painting. In other words, we are not looking at Matthias Grünewald’s early-sixteenth-century depiction of Christ in the crucifixion panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece, whose meticulously rendered body is writhing in agony above surrounding figures. [2]

Rather, Aitchison’s Christ appears isolated in an ocean of violet, blurred in flame so his features are indiscernible and ‘consumed in the intensity of his passionate sacrifice’. [3] According to Sister Wendy, ‘Aitchison is showing us not what the crucifixion looked like, but what it truly meant’. [4] Is the image of the red poppy gently nudging (or perhaps pulling) us in the direction of this deeper reality? How is it asking us to slow down and remember the event of Good Friday, as well as its significance within the entire Easter narrative?

I first want to suggest that the act of remembering inevitably holds multiple perspectives in tension. In light of this discussion, I wish to emphasise that as we extend our attention outward to look at the nature and work of Christ, we must also maintain an inward gaze, one that helps us apply Christ’s work and transformative potential within our present, personal context. Similarly, as we ‘zoom in’ to contemplate the specific narrative of Good Friday, we must also ‘zoom out’ beyond its individual framework to recall a greater narrative—namely, God’s cosmic narrative of redemption. Here, we can recognise Christ’s necessary humiliation in light of his exaltation, and vice versa. It is a space that challenges us to isolate as well as connect; I believe there is a time and place for both. Our remembering must bear witness to individual threads as they are intricately woven into the whole of the fabric.

With this in mind, let’s imagine we are hearing Jesus himself speak through Aitchison’s painting. What could he be calling us to remember? After reflecting on today’s painting, I want to illuminate three threads of thought:

  1. ‘Remember what I chose to endure for you; I groan with and for you’.

Even though Aitchison’s painting does not clearly articulate the gruesome realities of Jesus’s death, remembering the significance of the cross still carries echoes of the violence of this dark day. We can turn to historical and gospel accounts to recall the horrors of a first-century Roman crucifixion, leaving only our imagination to weigh its unfathomable pain: Christ’s body was beaten and torn; streams of blood ran down his forehead as the crown of thorns pressed deeper into his flesh; blood flowed from his pierced side; his lungs fought for every fading breath; his body was naked and exposed in public humiliation; he was mocked; and even when he was faultless, his mind and heart chose to carry the burden of all of humanity’s suffering. How on earth can we claim this day as ‘good’? What’s more, how could Jesus, an innocent man, possibly endure a criminal’s death with ‘enormous happiness’, in the words of Sister Wendy? Perhaps we can now catch a glimpse of the relentless love of Jesus. In faithful obedience, he remained true to the Father’s will, enduring whatever was necessary—even death on a cross—to complete his goal. [5] Despite any temptation to give up, his love for humanity persisted until ‘it was finished’. [6] The rainbow may also nod to this sense of loyalty and covenantal love. Indeed, Christ’s love is a love that fights and pursues even amidst the powers of evil and death.

Aitchison’s painting brings forth another truth: Christ endures suffering for and with us. When we experience pain, the Spirit searches our hearts and empathises with pains we cannot even begin to express. [7] The person who knows us better than we know ourselves still chooses to meet us where we are, choosing to weep with us, shout with us, or simply sit still with us in the midst of our suffering. As we groan in anticipation of a redeemed world—one without pain, brokenness, or suffering—we can take comfort in the Great Comforter who abides with us in our waiting.

  1. ‘Remember that I died for you’.

In dying for humanity, Jesus died for each of us personally. He graciously extends the invitation to believe and receive true life to every individual, showing how he is willing to engage with our personal stories. Embedded in this truth stands another: God sees the very depths of our hearts—including the darkest parts—yet God’s love does not waver. God does not neglect the reality of our sin, but God also does not turn away because of it; God’s love persists, for God is love. [8] It is as if Christ is saying, ‘I see the extent of your messy life, but I still love you the same. No matter your shortcomings, mistakes, or failures, I will never withhold my invitation. I still love you, which is why I am willing to die for you’. I love how the inclusion of Aitchison’s dog potentially alludes to this truth. However Aitchison intended the image of his dog before the cross to be interpreted, it seems profoundly important that this personal element is somehow welcomed into the presence of Christ.

  1. ‘Remember that life prevails; through me, there is hope’.

Good Friday carries the sting of death. But just as a balm is applied to a fresh wound, the sting may point to a deeper movement of healing and restoration. In this sense, Christ’s death was actually a catalyst in opening the doors for resurrection life to enter. If we look ahead to Easter Sunday, we see the entirety of this narrative with the empty tomb, where Jesus rose again, conquering death itself and giving the hope of life the final word. Thus, we must remember both the gravity of death and its ultimate defeat by life. The sting of death will eventually fade, for it has been overcome. Suffering and pain will pass. ‘Where, O death, is your victory?’ Hosea claims. ‘Where, O death, is your sting?’ [9] Praise God for this miraculous victory through Jesus Christ!

This is life first made possible by love, a love that is willing to lay down its own life for another—the greatest kind of love. [10] Aitchison’s poppy, then, may leave us with one final call of remembrance: Love has a sister whose name is Action. Like Christ, we must seek to embody passionate, self-sacrificial love, emanating its sweet fragrance of hope and life-everlasting. May we challenge ourselves to continually walk with this message pinned to our sleeves.


 

Image Credits

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiecehttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grunewald_Isenheim1.jpg.

 

Notes

[1] Sister Wendy Beckett, The Art of Lent: A Painting a Day from Ash Wednesday to Easter (London: SPCK, 2017), 90. It is worth noting this painting is one of several renowned crucifix paintings by Aitchison.

[2] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grunewald_Isenheim1.jpg.

[3] Beckett, Art of Lent, 90.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Philippians 2:8.

[6] See John 19:30.

[7] I specifically allude to creation’s groaning and the Spirit’s intimate, interceding role mentioned in Romans 8:26-27.

[8] I love how C. S. Lewis describes this idea in his chapter on ‘Divine Goodness’ in The Problem of Pain (1940). Lewis states that God’s love for man, like a man’s love for a woman, does not cease in wanting to remove infirmities, since love continually directs us towards good (as opposed to kindness, which merely wishes to alleviate suffering). But by the same token, God’s love forgives and loves in spite of the infirmities. After all, God’s love persists because it is of God’s very nature; Lewis says, ‘To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God: because He is what He is, His love must … be impeded and repelled, … and because He already loves us He must labour to make us lovable’ (pp. 39-41).

[9] See Hosea 13:14, and also 1 Corinthians 15:50-58.

[10] See John 15:12-13.

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