Sunday, April 02, 2017

Sharing in the Terrible Sufferings of Christ

Matthew 21.1-11
Giotto di Bondone was a medieval artist and architect who lived in the city of Florence at the end of the Thirteenth Century and the beginning of the Fourteenth. He was the son of a farmer and he was looking after his father’s sheep when a famous artist admired some drawings he’d made to pass the time. Tradition has it that he was drawing pictures on rocks in the fields because paper was so expensive at the time.
Florence was a turbulent place to live. Giotto painted a famous portrait of the poet Dante, but Dante was then driven into exile. However, none of this is reflected in his picture of the Entry into Jerusalem, which doesn’t look the least bit like a demonstration. It’s a peaceful religious procession led by a priest like Jesus, his hand raised in blessing for the people of Jerusalem, some of whom are bowing to greet him. One has got down to place his cloak in the road. The crowd behind Jesus is made up of dignified saintly types and Jesus himself is the very image of calm and serenity. The most exciting thing happening in the picture is that someone has shinned up a tree to cut down a palm branch.
Contrast Giotto’s picture with the one painted by Anthony van Dyke who lived in the first half of the seventeenth Century and died just before the English Civil War. One of his most famous paintings was a portrait of King Charles I but his picture 'Entry of Christ into Jerusalem' is one of his earliest works, painted when he was just 18. It depicts a more ambivalent scene than Giotto’s stately entry into Jerusalem. Some of the onlookers look anxious, others doubtful, one seems positively annoyed. The crowd following Jesus are ordinary people, not saints or holy men, and none of the onlookers are especially posh. The man in the foreground, holding a palm, is very muscular and only half dressed, clearly a working man accustomed to taking off his cloak to keep cool. The crowd looks more like a delegation of workers going to meet the bosses than a religious procession, and Jesus himself looks sad and apprehensive. There are no women in van Dyke’s picture, either, as though a procession so rough and tumble as this is no place for them to be, whereas there are lots of women in Giotto’s crowd.
The other striking thing about the pictures is the absence of children. When both artists were working more than half the population would have been 18 or under, like van Dyke himself, and there would have been been even more young people around in the time of Jesus. Yet where are they in the pictures? There are some short people in Giotto’s picture, possibly because the artist himself was reputed to be very short, but if they’re supposed to be young people they’re on the very cusp of adulthood. It seems that both men applied a ‘Nine O’clock Watershed’ to their depiction of Holy Week. It was a subject for adults only.
So how should we respond to the pictures? First, I think, by affirming that Holy Week is in fact a story for people of all ages. Children are not exempt from life’s disasters and tragedies. Sadly there is no ‘Nine O’clock Watershed’ in real life. The terrible suffering of Jesus offers comfort to all of us because it holds out the promise that, whatever happens in our own lives, he has some inkling of what it must be like to endure it. He’s there for us, to hold our hand and to help us find a way through, as  he found a way through from Good Friday to Easter Day.
Second, I think we can affirm the central place of women in the Easter story. They were definitely there; Giotto is right. And they were in the crowd following Jesus, as well as in the crowd that welcomed him into the city. Van Dyke is wrong to depict the disciples as exclusively male.
In fact, Jesus embraced stereotypically feminine strategies for coping with life. He chose to serve, not to be served, and in his confrontation with the authorities he didn’t respond aggressively, but submissively. He chose to embrace suffering, not because he considered it to be good to suffer for its own sake, but as the best hope of bringing about positive and lasting  change.
Finally, I think both artists give only a partial picture of what it was like when Jesus entered Jerusalem. Giotto depicts Jesus solemnly coming to bless  the city he had wept over and holding out the possibility of  reconciliation with God. Van Dyke offers us a more ambivalent image, where Jesus seems resigned to rejection and apprehensive of the fate that awaits him.
We could conclude that one artist helps us glimpse more of the divine side of Jesus’ nature and the other shows us more of his human side. Except that I’m not sure the difference is quite so clear-cut.
Is the human side of Jesus still keen to bless the waiting crowd even though he fears that they may turn against him? In van Dyke’s picture, despite the anxiety and apprehension written plainly on Jesus’ face, he still reaches out to the crowd in greeting. And does God share Jesus’ apprehension about the terrible suffering that lies ahead, or is he confident of Jesus’ ultimate victory on Easter Day, or does he feel - like us when we face suffering - a mixture of emotions?

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