Sunday, 17 April 2011

A meditation for Holy Week from Sister Wendy Beckett

"... we preach Christ crucified."
We know very little about Pier Francesco Sacchi and very few works of his still exist. What surprises me here is that it is one of the very few paintings of St Paul that give prominence to the crucifix. The early church found it very hard to come to terms with the manner in which Jesus died. For us it has been sanitised by time. The cross is the Christian emblem. It crowns our churches, it adorns our altars, we wear it around our necks, we sign ourselves frequently.

We find it easy to forget that this death was so horrible that the Romans inflicted it only on slaves and the worst of evil doers. For centuries the church could barely bring itself to show a cross, let alone Jesus hanging on it. When the great breakthrough is made, Jesus triumphs over the cross, erect and victorious. But St Paul never allowed himself to forget the reality of his redemption: Jesus died for us and he died crucified. "I am not ashamed of the Gospel," he tells us, even though "the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." Then St Paul quotes Isaiah, "for it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.’ " St Paul understands to the full that "the wise and the clever" will never be able to understand the cross. "For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God." It was from this total sacrifice of Jesus, that made no sense except in the terms of radical love, that St Paul came to understand what love could be. Sacchi shows him gazing at the crucifix while he struggles to write about love to the Corinthians.

The words on the parchment before him read: "love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude." This is the best known passage in all the Epistles and we know how it ends: "so faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love." Through the window, we see a glimpse of the world and its people, quite indifferent to the sacrifice of Jesus and its redemptive power. But Paul is not indifferent. We can see how he yearns to bring home to us what this death means, and how he himself has his heart firmly fixed on "Jesus Christ, and Him crucified".

Sister Wendy Beckett Sister Wendy Contemplates Saint Paul in Art  Published by ST PAULS

Picture: St Paul Writing by Pier Francesco Sacchi. © The National Gallery