But as Lent approached, I couldn’t stop thinking about this painting. Why did people hate it so much? I wondered. Maybe it’s the colors – they aren’t particularly pleasing colors, I guess? Sort of retro, a very specific style. Maybe it’s too modern – people’s dislike was simply a matter of taste. Scenes of Jesus’ passion, that gruesome story, are not a problem. It’s just too… too modern. Maybe it’s simply too big. I will give it that – it is big! Too imposing? Does it draw too much attention to this difficult story of Jesus’ suffering? The way the different scenes overlap really does add to the intensity of an already intense story. I fear we lose the impact of the story, hearing it as frequently as we do, but this painting brings that back into sharp focus.
Yes, I suppose there are lots of things about this painting that are challenging. I suppose I can see why people would not want it in plain sight.
Rev. William Willimon recounts a story from one of his parishes. As the pastor of said parish, he had asked an amateur artist to carve a processional cross for their church to use. He expected something modern and clean to match their décor. What he got was a dramatic portrayal of a bloody Christ hanging on a heavy wooden cross. Reactions were varied; many found it to be appallingly gory and depressing, or complained that it didn’t go with their colors. Christ’s or humanity’s suffering, it seemed, was not a particularly comfortable thing to have right there in their worship space. (Story printed in Christian Century March 24, 1982, p.326.)
We have entered into the season of Lent. It is not an easy season, that’s for sure. With all of its hymns in minor keys, its withholding of absolution (even as it promises that forgiveness will come), its dwelling on our sin and our need to repent… it can get awfully depressing! But it is also a most sacred time in the church year. It is a time we set aside to remember our new life in Christ, and the means by which that life comes. It usually focuses on baptism, and God’s promises to us. And it is a time when we intentionally take on the task of following in Jesus’ path, the path that leads, on Good Friday, to the cross.
And that path, I hate to tell you, is not a pleasant one. It is not an easy one. Woe to the one who is comfortable and content with the cross! I can totally understand why Willimon’s congregation disliked that bloody processional cross so much. Who wants to see that? Who wants to dwell on suffering and pain? I would rather gaze admiringly at the beautiful mosaic cross that hangs over my church’s altar, or the simple gold cross necklace my godmother gave me on my confirmation day. I guess I’d have to say that I’d rather not walk into the sanctuary each week and see the dramatic intensity of that portrayal of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion that used to hang in the hall above my office. And yet, sometimes the way of the cross, the path we follow to learn about, love, and be like Jesus, calls us into uncomfortable places.
That is part of the purpose of Lenten disciplines. I know that Matthew chapter six tells us that we shouldn’t tell everyone that we’re fasting, but for the sake of argument and accountability, I will tell you that this year, for the first time, I will be giving up meat for Lent. I LOVE meat, and most of my favorite things to cook are with meat. But I also know that buying and eating meat is a privilege of the rich, and I know that a lot of the meat we eat comes from animals who were not well-treated. I would like to better understand what it means not to eat meat. I want to feel what it’s like to be deprived of something I love, because I believe this will help me to love my neighbors who suffer from deprivation every day, and not by their choice. Will I crave a hamburger, like, tomorrow? Probably. I’ll probably hate doing this, just like some people hate that painting. But I think this is one small way that I might better understand the suffering and pain Jesus endured for my sake.
How will you be walking with Jesus toward the cross this Lent? Maybe you will give something up that you love. Maybe you will take on a new prayer practice and grow closer to Christ this way. I’m offering my congregation another way. I’m going to hang this painting in this sanctuary. When they see that painting and remember how difficult it is to like, I hope they will think about how God loves them. God loves them even though they are probably pretty difficult to like sometimes. I know I am. I hope they will think about people in their life who are also difficult to like, and about how God loves them, too. I hope they will try to love them, as God loves all of us. I hope they will pray for them, and pray that their hearts might be opened to see beauty they might have missed before. In doing this, we will do as Paul says in 2 Corinthians: “be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us walk together this difficult journey of Lent, this journey to the cross. Let us learn together what it means to be reconciled to God. Let us discover how to overlook dislike and find growth in discomfort, and finally to see what true love means, and how we might become the righteousness of God.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.