Jesus Takes On Our Condition as his own
In the northeast part of France there is a little town called Isenheim the home of an altarpiece painted by the German artist, Matthias Grünewald, This altar piece is about five hundred years old and is known to be Grünewald’s most famous work. The painting consists of nine panels mounted on two sets of folding wings: the outer set, and most striking consists of the depiction of the Crucifixion with Christ’s Entombment just below. When you look at the figure portrayed in paint from the mind and heart of Grünewald, you can’t help but be moved by the sight. Grünewald’s Jesus is not of a man in perfect condition, he is a man shown suffering from past and present pains.
Grünewald’s depiction of the body of Jesus shows a lifeless body on the cross. A body that has been emaciated, and covered with the vilest of abscesses. The depiction now hanging in the Isenheim church was first commissioned for a hospital when the world was suffering from the effects of the Plague.
Grünewald believed for Jesus to be relevant in the middle- ages he needed to have his body filled with the boils and ulcers that comes from such a debilitating disease such as the Plague. When those stricken by this disease saw their crucified Lord, they saw their God with the same scourges as they bore, the same disfiguration, the same pain. It was only then did they realize what the Incarnation was all about. They understood that love meant that Jesus came into this world to die. They also saw solidarity, compassion, forgiveness and unending love brought together in this one suffering figure. Finally, they saw that in their mortal anguish, they had not been left on their own.
So… Whom do you see when you gaze on Christ crucified? No, I don’t mean the figure that’s all cleaned-up the one that looks as though he is sleeping on the cross. What I really mean is– What do you see with your soul’s eye: do you see the goriest of all sights, a body beaten until the flesh and skin mingle into a crimson ribbon? Do you see a body so numb with pain that it is hardly conceivable that consciousness can remain? Do you see it?
Now look again, with the eyes of your soul. Gaze upon your crucified Savior. And now what do you see?
Do you see an old wrinkled person with the constant pain of bodily breakdown? A life once independent now reduced to dependency on others?
Do you see the person who deals daily with a disease that quietly and systematically destroys the life within them?
Do you ever see addicts, those incapable of helping themselves?
Do you see the poor?
Do you see those whose lives are deemed by other more powerful people as not productive, not as dignified, not worthy to live?
Do you see the strained relationship and the fractures of family squabbles, separation and divorce?
Do see the seeming unfairness of life, when a good person is cut down in his/her prime of life before they have a chance to show the world all they could do?
Do you see the misery on the face of those who have absolutely no hope, no reason to live?
Do you see the brutality and the inhumanity and the hate and indifference from one human being to another, day after day year after year?
Do you see all of this in the broken body of your God?
Or, don’t you see anything at all?
Strangely enough, we probably can see these sinful maladies all too clearly, as did our brothers in sisters in the sixteenth century staring at Grünewald’s Christ crucified. We are awfully connected with death and destruction. We are all too familiar with the “plagues” of our society and our own lives. But that is only half of the message. The other half is not so evident, not so clear, but shrouded in the Truth of all life, as he hung upon the cross out of love for us.
And we can thank the common hoodlum for drawing our attention to it. He was the man who hanging on a tree just like Jesus and looked past his own suffering and sin to reveal a greater truth.
No one knows his name. But if you gaze on the cross, be reminded of this fellow, because he saw not only the pangs of sin and death, but understood so well that all of us deserve the gallows, all of us deserve death. But he also saw something incredible, he saw the divinity of that man hanging next to him. The good thief, if there can be such a one, recognized that suffering, death, and all of the evils of the world, do not compare to the love that God has for his people, by sending his Son to hang on a tree and pardon us. “Jesus remember me when you come into your Kingdom” (Lk 23:24).