Friday, November 25, 2011

Faaberg Altar 1 - Jesus himself

(To see the altar this post is talking about, click here.)

As I stated earlier, I looked at this view every Sunday through my childhood. We almost never missed worship. Maybe three times a year we'd have to deal with cattle that escaped their fences or a fishing trip or (rarity of rarities) vacation that ran over a Sunday. But about forty-nine Sundays a year, I was looking at Jesus on the cross, picking out designs in the altar furniture, wondering about the imagery in the stained glass. Figure I lived at home for fourteen years after I was old enough to notice these things. Figure that about half the time I was actually looking at the preacher and / or paying attention to sermons and / or had my eyes closed or was looking at a hymnal or some such. That adds up to about 343 hours of looking at these images.

Believe me, it matters. As I look back on those years, and as I was recently looking again at these pictures from an adult perspective, I remember many, many thoughts that were in my mind and heart as a child, many intuitions and understandings that are attached to these images. In the meditations I write now about these things, I use adult language, but the ideas were there in the mind of the child. For example, I would not have used the word "cosmology" at the age of twelve. But I was certainly thinking about how the world all fits together and what was true and meaningful in it.

So how did this imagery affect me?

This will take several posts, but let's start with the center of it all. Jesus on the cross is the focal point of this whole altar, of the whole sanctuary. That in itself communicated a lot to my young heart and brain. Jesus' death is the center. The cross is the focus.

It's important, too, that this portrayal of the death of Jesus is not idealized. I remember many times as a child looking at the realism. Blood leaks from the wounds in Jesus' hands and feet. The crown of thorns looks painful. There is no beatific smile on Jesus' face. His gaunt ribs and the tension in his arms, his stringy hair and matted beard look realistic. The cross is not a pleasure, it is a device for torture and execution. The suffering of Jesus is not maximized in this painting -- we don't see, for example, the gashes on Jesus' torso that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ took such pains to portray. But it is not minimized, either. It is obvious that Jesus is suffering, but the picture is not gory.

As I grew old enough to read the stories of Jesus' passion, I looked at the painting and appreciated the biblical accuracy of it. From Jesus' wounds (I noticed that this painting seized a moment in time before Jesus' death, since there was as yet no wound in his side) to the dark sky to the absence of any of his disciples -- only a couple forlorn women -- this picture rings true to the biblical accounts. I thought about the options the painter had to mess with the details, to change the story, and appreciated the fact that he had chosen not to do so. I thought about respect and reverence and truth and accuracy.

There is the merest hint of a halo on Jesus' head. The artistic glow of holiness is present in the painting, a dim reminder of Jesus' perfection, of his innocence. I remember wondering as a child if Jesus really had a halo when he was walking around Galilee, if the Roman centurion at the crucifixion would have seen it. It made me wonder what it really means to be holy, what it means to reflect the image of God with clarity and perfection.

Jesus' head hangs in weakness, perhaps in surrender. Though I don't remember putting these pieces together as a child, this image certainly prepared me to understand what Paul means in 2 Corinthians 12 when he says that God's power is made perfect in weakness. If the cross is the center (as well as the apex) of God's plan, everything else God does will ring true to what he has done in the cross. So when I struggle in my own weakness, Jesus has been there first. When I am beaten down by the world's violence, by the forces of darkness, by Caesar, Jesus knows what I am experiencing.

Perhaps most critical for my adult life -- I would never have thought to question these things as a child -- this painting communicated to me from a very early age that the crucifixion of Jesus was real. It was factual. It was historical. I know the painting doesn't prove anything, but the realism in it, its faithfulness to the biblical accounts, its refusal to idealize, prepared my mind to accept the historicity of Jesus. In the "Jesus wars" that have been waged within Christianity throughout my adult life (notably the antics of the Jesus Seminar and the likes of Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, Lutheran professor Marcus Borg and many others who have played fast and loose with the historicity of the biblical accounts) I have sided with those who see the Bible as historically believable. I have rarely been tempted to dismiss the Bible as superstitious, idealized, or out of touch with the realities of human life.

I am tempted to go on and on, because I cannot overstate the importance of this image for my own faith, for my own intellectual development, for my sense of the importance of Jesus. But let's leave it there. I encourage you to look again at the picture, to ponder it if you will, to take in the details of Jesus himself, hanging there on the cross. Imagine -- as I imagined so many times -- that he hangs there for you, that in this picture he is carrying the weight of your sins on that cross in some way that is beyond our understanding.

Shortly after I wrote the bulk of this post, I ran across a Jesus Culture song called "See His Love." The first verse goes like this:

"See His love nailed onto a cross
Perfect and blameless life given as sacrifice
See Him there all in the name of love
Broken yet glorious, all for the sake of us"

Then the Chorus starts with this line:

"This is Jesus in His glory"

So often we are tempted to see beyond the cross, to see Jesus' suffering as a necessary evil but then move on to the great glory that he earned through his death. Truth is, Jesus hanging on the cross is Jesus in his glory. He is enthroned here, where he gives himself for those who are helpless without him. Jesus, blood-spattered and dying in weakness, is the glory of God. In the same way, Mother Teresa hunched over a dying leper was the glory of God. A husband who sacrifices and serves his family is not earning some future glory, but he is in that sacrifice participating in the nature, in the glory, of God.

We do not see beyond the cross to some greater truth. Jesus' suffering is the truth. This is the self-giving love of God. This is his glory. It's the way he lives, the way he loves, throughout eternity. If you read the Old Testament carefully, you see that this is the way God has been loving Israel -- and all creation -- all along. Jesus doesn't somehow change the way God presents himself; instead Jesus reveals the unfathomable love of God that has been lavished on creation since the beginning. The cross is just the clearest revelation of God's amazing love that will stop at nothing to heal his broken, beloved creation.

No comments:

Post a Comment