“And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and after three days rise again.” Mark 8:31
I didn’t grow up with Good Friday. Literally. Part of the backwash in some segments of the Reformation was avoiding the Christian Year, and in my church we didn’t observe Holy Week or even Good Friday. Or Ash Wednesday or Advent or Epiphany, etc. And I didn’t know what a Maundy was. The cross was preached well and sometimes graphically, but we didn’t observe Good Friday.
During seminary, in my worship studies, I learned about the rhythm of Holy Week and came to deeply appreciate the need for observing certain days. Interestingly, in my first churches I instituted some observations of Holy week. In later churches those practices were already in place by the time I arrived. The lesson? Give Baptists enough time, in this case about 400 years, and we can change. We had a committee do the study and draft a report.
What I lost in those early years was vitally important. In regard to Holy Week, without pausing to consider Jesus’ suffering, all we really did was celebrate His resurrection. Again, we knew the facts of the cross, and Jesus’ sacrificial death was certainly proclaimed. But such an event deserves more attention than we gave it.
The focus in the gospels is precisely the opposite. The verse for this week’s Gracewaves is the first prediction Jesus made of His death and resurrection, and it comes about midway in the Gospel of Mark. Mark records three such predictions, each one increasingly graphic (see Mark 9:31 and 10:33-34). Jesus intensely taught the disciples about His death knowing they would be reluctant to hear it. They were. This scene is where Peter rebuked Jesus for even suggesting such a thing. So, it seems, all disciples tend to rush past the uncomfortable details of Jesus’ death.
Again, not so in the gospels. All four pause for the last week of His life. Narrative time slows down. Details emerge. They focused on His death, and frankly recorded relatively few of His post-resurrection appearances. In the very arrangement of the Gospels we see God’s intention for us to pause, watch, and reflect. Yet we are reluctant to think about His suffering.
Take a moment to google Caravaggio’s Entombment (or as I’ve also seen it called The Deposition). The scene depicts several disciples taking Jesus’ body and laying it on the shelf in his tomb. Typical of his style, Caravaggio uses light and shadow to highlight the anguish of the disciples and the lifeless body of Jesus.
Now look carefully at Jesus’ body. What do you notice? No blood. No wounds on the feet or head. Perhaps a slight mark on His right hand. The wound on His side is visible, but it looks as if it has been cleaned. Again, there is no blood around it. The body is well-muscled, rather athletic. He looks as if He fell gently asleep.
I’ve wondered for many years, since I first saw the painting hanging in a colleague’s office, if Caravaggio was trying to make a point. Was he trying to sanitize the scene? Perhaps unconsciously he was reflecting the kind of reluctance I’ve noted.
I even contacted James Clifton, a friend of nearly half a century (good heavens, the sound of that). He’s the Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Painting, Museum of Fine Arts, in Houston. My rudimentary observations and questions were, I’m sure, the equivalent of asking a Swiss watch maker why he doesn’t always put numbers on the dial, but he was gracious and generous with his time and thoughts.
Though Dr. Clifton warned against gross generalizations he did allow that Italian works, of which Caravaggio is a prime example, tended to idealize Christ and other religious figures, while northern European works focused more on His human fragility. Was Caravaggio consciously projecting a personal theology? Hard to say. What he does do, however, with the portrait he produced is open the door for the questions I posed.
And that is where I think we can relate to Caravaggio. I doubt any of my dear readers do not know the facts of Holy Week, but what kind of portrait of devotion are we painting with our lives? Did my Jesus suffer and die? Is there blood from cuts, gashes, and punctures? Are there bruises? Or do I prefer a more antiseptic portrait that obscures the suffering? An easier Jesus.
I recall an incident from my years in New Orleans. For reasons I can no longer recall I was on a sidewalk next to a cabbie and noticed a small figurine attached to his dashboard. Now remember I was raised in thoroughly Protestant Lexington, Kentucky and at that time was still very unfamiliar with south Louisiana traditions. I asked him about the object and he replied, “It’s just a little plastic Jesus to make me feel better.”
I’m not trying to impugn his theology. I get the idea of having religious symbols as reminders. But it gave me pause to think about how I regard Jesus. Do I keep him around just to make me feel better? Much of the time…probably. I don’t spend much time thinking about my complicity in the cross.
But I must. We really must. We have to pause and think about the fact that He died a horribly cruel and brutal death. In the words of the prophet, we would not want to look upon Him. We have to slow down, like the gospels, and move carefully through the days of Holy Week. We need to think about the weighty meaning of the little three-letter Greek word dei, that is usually translated as “it was necessary.” It was necessary for Jesus to die for my sins. Somehow, in ways no atonement theory can fully describe, Jesus had to die so that I might have eternal life.
When I pause during this week, one of my prayers should be: “I’m so sorry You had to die, but I am so thankful You did.” I believe Jesus’ response would be that He was glad to give His life for me. But what must I do now? How should I live? What will the portrait of my life look like?
One of my favorite Holy Week hymns is When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. To survey means to ponder. Slowly. Carefully. We’re not to glance at the cross, and we’re certainly not to rush by it. We survey it and see that “love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” My soul, my life, my all. Jesus cannot be an addendum to my well-ordered life. He must be central. Good Friday reminds us of that.
Dr. Terry Ellis
April 9, 2017