Wednesday, 22 February 2012

A meditation for Ash Wednesday

It took the Church a long time to accept the physical reality of the crucifixion. Not only was it a painful death, and those who loved Jesus shrank from its full brutality, but it was also a degrading death. No Roman citizen could be crucified (that is why when St Paul and St Peter were martyred in Rome, only St Peter was crucified; St Paul as a Roman citizen had the privilege of decapitation). At first, and reluctantly, only the bare cross was shown, without any figure. But, by the 5th and 6th centuries, the memory of what crucifixion really meant faded, and the Church acknowledged the truth. But these early icons of the crucifixion show Jesus in His majesty. He triumphs over the cross, seemingly invulnerable, despite the nails and the blood. In this powerful, damaged and very early image, the Church has advanced, at least, to an image of Jesus dead. His arms may still be stretched out, straight and powerful. His feet may still seem to rest solidly on the cross bar. His body does not slump. But His eyes are closed. That strong and beautiful face is at rest in death.

Around the dead but triumphant Jesus is the full assembly of those who were witnesses of this, the greatest event of human history. Above His head angels grieve. They not only grieve, they lift their hands in astonishment and awe. The mystery of the human rejection of their Saviour leaves them breathless. On either side of the angels would have been sun and moon: the icon is not complete it has been injured by time. Below that, equally fragmented, would have been the two thieves, one of whom accepted Jesus, one of whom died blaspheming. The look of patient love on Jesus’ face leads one to hope that both these sinners came to salvation, one while he was dying and the other in death when he saw the truth of God.

Then we come to those who stood faithfully by Him, His mother Mary and the disciple whom He loved, John. Both stand grieving and dignified, entering into His pain but also into its meaning. Finally, minuscule at the foot of the cross, are the Roman soldiers dicing for His garments. The indifference to the realities of proportion is typical of the 8th century and for centuries to come. Holy people were always shown as very large. As we can see here, Jesus dominates the picture, Mary and John are smaller but still significant, the thief, representing ordinary sinful humanity, is smaller still, while the soldiers are dwarfed. This expresses a spiritual truth, the importance in God’s sight of those in the icon. Although the soldiers, in worldly terms were all powerful, driving in the nails and raising the cross, in the light of eternity they were mere instruments. It is the other three humans who matter, in that they share in the passion and so have their part in the great Redemption.

The iconographer cannot bear to depict Jesus stripped. He is modestly clothed in a long tunic, and yet it is blood stained, and blood pours from His upper side and His pierced feet. Is it significant that the blood and water, which St John describes, seem mostly to be falling onto rock? This noble Jesus has given all. He still holds His hands outstretched, (and blood from the right hand is not wasted, it baptises the repentant thief). Yet those outstretched arms, it seems to us, long to embrace in love the indifferent soldiers who take no notice of the crucifixion. We could feel, even in this unemotional icon, that Jesus dies essentially of a broken heart.

Picture: The Crucifixion, 8th century icon. © St Catherine's Monastery at Mount Sinai, Egypt.
Text: Sister Wendy Beckett, Sister Wendy Contemplates the Iconic Jesus. © St Pauls Publishing.