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Posts Tagged "Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion":

Thought for the week: am I pointing towards God? – Taylor Carey


Throughout his writing life, one painting hung above the desk of the famous theologian Karl Barth. It was Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion, which, in its original form, made up part of the great Isenheim Altarpiece built for a monastery in Alsace. The Crucifixion is a shocking and intensely moving masterpiece. Christ’s body is pitted with lacerations and sores. His fingers are splayed in agony, whilst his ribbed chest heaves against the onslaught of his violent demise. It is impossible to contemplate Grünewald’s masterpiece without absorbing a crucial message: here is a God who speaks to the suffering, because here is a God who suffers.

But there is more to the Crucifixion than mere morbidity. Standing beneath the Cross, pointing towards his Master, is the figure of John the Baptist. This is clearly anachronistic, since John was executed, upon the orders of Herod, in 29 AD. Yet Grünewald isn’t making an historical mistake; on the contrary, Karl Barth, for one, took the interaction between Jesus and John in this painting as deeply symbolic of the basic model for Christian life, witness, and worship.

Behind the figure of John are the words given to the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30). For Barth, this disclosed an essential truth about the vocation of the Church. Christians must become ‘signs’ that point to God. We must be that ‘pointing hand’ which directs everything beyond ourselves, to the One who has already turned towards us. Only when it does this is the Church fulfilling its purpose and mission. In a quite different context, this idea can be found amongst the sayings of the Desert Fathers of fourth-century Egypt, who maintained that ‘Our life and death are with our neighbour’. Our lives must be liberated from the constraints of our own ego, to be made into signs that, like the Baptist’s pointing hand, lead our gaze to God.

But this is not just a God ‘above’, a God who is distant from earthly woe. Our gazing at God brings us into the deepest reality of this world, since that is where God is to be found, in stillness, silence, and prayer. Far from forgetting the troubles, injustices, and joys we face on a daily basis, by becoming a pointing hand, we bring a little of God’s freedom into them, and we inhabit them in a radically new way.

This week, many will participate in a prayer vigil for Gaza. Our prayers for all those in that region, whose plight can be so easily forgotten, are not simply naïve requests for a convenient celestial solution. Rather, they are responses to an urgency of suffering, made by women and men who seek to place themselves as an interface between a dire need and the constant activity of a loving and creative God. The Christian who prays about Gaza seeks to make themselves into a sign, or a pointing hand, in order to bring about a transformation of humanity, and to bring something of God’s creative freedom to bear upon situations of tragedy. They seek, in the words of a well-known prayer, to be made into ‘instruments’ of God’s peace. This undoubtedly involves facing up to the terrible depths of human sin and error, but, as Grünewald’s suffering Christ shows us, these are depths already endured and overcome by God’s love.

So, are we living up to the Baptist’s model as ‘pointers’ to God? Do we, in our daily lives, stand before the Cross, and commit ourselves to dispossession and embrace? Christ’s body might be ugly and distressing – more so with every death and bereavement in Gaza – because this is a body totally transparent to the reality and suffering of the world. And yet, like Grünewald’s masterpiece, it is also surely beautiful, because it speaks of hope, and of God’s presence here and now. And so it speaks of a world of peace, of swords beaten into ploughshares, and the Church at last singing the very music of God.

Editor’s Note

I find this piece by  Taylor very moving, as I expect our readers will too. As a footnote I add a picture of the Crucifixion hanging above Barth’s modest desk.170px-Karl_Barth_Desk



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