Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday

(Georges Rouault, Christ on the Cross, 1936)

Since Good Friday was the day I longed for even while I was away from the Church and did not believe in God, it is fitting that I get back to this blog on this most compelling day.

We went to our parish's Good Friday liturgy and veneration of the Cross. My son referred to it as "the strangest mass" he'd ever seen. I told him that was very perceptive. After explaining that it was not a mass, we talked about what had happened and what it meant, and that this liturgy was special because this day is special.

Venerating the Cross has always had a special place in my heart. There is something about that act of humility, of love, that is very physical, very tangible. This whole day is a dramatic reminder that ours is not a religion of the spirit only, but of the body, and that the two are not opposed but enmeshed.

The modern painter, Francis Bacon, was interviewed by David Sylvester, and when discussing Picasso, Bacon spoke of Picasso's "brutality of fact" (David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, p. 182). The Crucifixion is all about the brutality of fact. That is what today is about: the brutality of fact. Sin is a fact that we attempt to rationalize away in the thick fog of ego, therapy, and relativism. Sin is a fact with brutal consequences. A most inconvenient fact, to re-frame Al Gore's famous title.

The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus takes up a similar theme in his amazing book, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross:

The gnostic impulse is still very much with us. We draw back from looking long and hard into the heart of darkness; we recoil from the brute facticity of the horror; we are scandalized by the truth that we worship a crucified God. As well we should be. (p. 120)

We see crucifixes every day. They hang in our bedrooms. But we do not truly see them. We do not truly see the dark event that these sanitized versions dimly reflect.

Bacon painted a triptych, Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962). The right panel appears below:

This figure is so visceral (literally), so repugnant. It captures the emotion of what the Crucifixion actually was, actually is. The reading from Isaiah at today's liturgy points to this revulsion:

He was spurned and avoided by people, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, one of those from whom the people hide their faces, spurned, and we held him in no esteem. (Isaiah 53:3)

As Fr. Neuhaus says in the quotation above, if we understand the Crucifixion, we should be scandalized.

Bacon was inspired by the medieval crucifix of Cimabue (1272-1274):

If you invert the Cimabue painting, you get something of the broad outline of Bacon's figure. The language that Bacon uses to describe Cimabue's portrayal of Christ is significant:

You know the great Cimabue Crucifixion? I always think of that as an image - as a worm crawling down the cross. I did try to make something of the feeling which I've sometimes had from that picture of this image just moving, undulating down the cross. (The Brutality of Fact, p. 14)

Bacon's words may seem distrubing at first. After all, he is comparing the Savior to a worm crawling down the cross; how repulsive! However, Bacon's words should remind us of two types of Christ from the Old Testament. One is from the great messianic Psalm 22:

But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people. (Psalm 22:6)

The other type is from Numbers:

And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:8-9)

In the Gospel of John, Jesus explicitly links himself to the bronze serpent:

"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." (John:3:14-15)

Perhaps Bacon's Crucifixion can help us see our crucifixes in a new light, one that helps us to encounter, however tenuously, the brutality of sin. Yet, we do not remain in that brutality. We know that brutality could not defeat love. Not the sentimental love we see in greeting cards or romance novels. This is a love that has a will of steel, because it is a will wholly consonant with the will of God.

Today is a good day to reflect on the line from the "Animus Christi": "Passion of Christ, strengthen us." Strengthen us to endure the pain of Good Friday and the loneliness of Holy Saturday, as we long for the resurrected joy of Easter.

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