Perhaps it’s the scientist or literalist in me that finds it difficult to appreciate pictures and icons like this in the way that some of my friends do. I’ve been watching Portrait Artist of the Year recently. I tend to prefer those paintings that actually look like the subject, rather than a series of suggestive, allusive brushstrokes.
This image, ‘Jesus dies’ is not what a crucifixion actually looks like. This is not a body beaten and bruised, suffocating slowly as it tries to support its own weight, nails tearing flesh, wracked in excruciating pain. To me it looks as if Jesus is saying, rather dispassionately, with wrists bent and hands spread, “Hey. Look what they’ve done to me.” One could berate the artist for creating something that isn’t accurate. Unrealistic. Unmoving.
Yet I know, of course, that this isn’t intended to be a picture that captures the horrors of crucifixion. The artist is not trying to replicate the scene or paint a photograph. Rather, I think he wants me, the viewer, to sit with his picture for a while and to reflect on different features of the painting; to follow the various trains of thought prompted in me by the scene. How do I interpret it? How does this picture draw me towards God and prayer, love and service?
Let me note just one thing. It seems to me that the body of Jesus is out of proportion to the cross. This Roman instrument of torture and death, does not dominate. Jesus does. Even at his death. The Empire’s might, represented in this, a most brutal and cruel mode of execution, isn’t the last word. Jesus is. The authorities may have thought it was all over with Jesus’ death ... but we know differently.
In our world where empires of a different kind play out their conflicts through savage violence in Syria or Myanmar or even the streets of Salisbury, in self-interested and national-centric competition through words and trade in Europe and America, we remember that theirs is not the last word or the last action. Standing by Jesus they are, relatively speaking, small. Today’s politicians and their policies are not the decisive authority. God is.
The death of Christ, a cruel political-religious execution is not the last word or the last action. Jesus’ words, ‘It is finished’ denote the ending of his earthly life; but not the end of the story – for another day will soon dawn. Resurrection trumps crucifixion.
Lord, help us to remember when life is bleak and appears hopeless, when it seems that wickedness thrives and death is commonplace, that the final words and acts are yours and that we are held secure, bounded by their promise, confident in new-life-resurrection.