Jesus can speak for himself

by Mark Safstrom

In the long tradition of altar paintings, the various moments of Christ’s life have been treated in every way imaginable, ranging from the triumphal, to the terrifying, to the poignant. One of my favorites is the version of “Descent from the Cross” painted by Rembrandt in 1634, now at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. A pitch-black sky weighs heavy on the friends of Jesus as they gather to take him down from the cross. Mary is on the verge of fainting from horror. At the center is a team of seven people working from three ladders to lower the body to the ground, where lavish grave clothes have been prepared. There is only one lamp on hand, which is perfectly positioned to illuminate the main subject, the one man who has the strongest hold on the body, and who is embracing it as tightly as if he were cradling a sweet-smelling infant, rather than a pale corpse.

Those who resonate with Rembrandt’s paintings of biblical motifs often cite a number of reasons, such as his skillful display of empathy with the characters, or his dramatic use of lighting to focus attention or symbolize emotion. Rembrandt used himself as the model for the main subject here, thus adding another layer of interpretation. The painting seems to ask and answer the question: what would the friends of Jesus do following a tragedy like this? One apparent answer is that they would show up to take care of business, rather than hide in fear, or that they would draw close and embrace their savior, despite the unpleasantness that might follow. Rembrandt’s inclusion of himself in the portrait makes this a provocative question to the viewer: Would you embrace Christ’s body like this man does?

Though I have identified this painting as a favorite, I have mixed feelings about the notion of an embraceable Jesus. For starters, one might get the idea that Jesus needs to be defended. Many of us who are followers of Jesus sometimes get confused when we impulsively defend the sins of the church and its institutions and members, and in doing so, mistakenly think we are also defending Jesus. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus chose dangerous paths and defied all attempts to keep him safe. He also distanced himself from the religious institutions that tried to contain him or speak for him. By contrast, it was Jesus who wept when he realized that Jerusalem would stubbornly resist being “gathered under his wings.” It is Jesus who is the defender, and to the extent that he allows himself to be embraced and known by us, this is for our sake and for our defense against the heavy darkness.

Two things strike me about the painting. The first is that the friends of Jesus should know what it means to have empathy, to identify with their savior and with the community gathered around him. Jesus is the unifying factor. The second is that Jesus can speak for and take care of himself. That’s the beauty of the Gospel, that it is durable enough to be entrusted to messengers who constantly bungle its delivery, and yet it remains operative and able to save. It is our privilege to be able to embrace Jesus, at the same time as it is our challenge not to get in his way.

A theme that runs through several articles in this issue is precisely this idea of Jesus as a unifying factor between otherwise distinct and disparate communities. Phil Staurseth’s meditation identifies the communal dynamic at work in the Holy Trinity, and hints that this has implications for our life together. In the post-Christian contexts in which many of us live, there are new challenges, as well as new approaches for building Christian community. As missionaries serving in Belgium, Barb and Steve Swanson have found that contemporary Europeans are far more responsive to discussing Jesus than they are interested in discussing religion. In this season of centennial remembrances for the First World War, Jay Phelan reflects on the long-term consequences of that war on the religious landscape around the world. Christian Collins Winn reports on the changing nature of the worldwide ecumenical movement, as evidenced in the recent gatherings of the World Council of Churches. Both authors note how the decentralization of Christianity and the declining role of European churches has been accompanied by the expansion of the church in Africa and Asia. Though the task of maintaining fruitful dialogue in these contexts may be overwhelming, it is an assurance to be able to look in hopeful anticipation to see what Jesus will do, which is Dwight Nelson’s challenge for us. The journey we’re on, with all of its harrowing moments, belongs to Jesus, and it is he who leads, speaks for and defends us, not the other way around.

Guds frid – God’s peace.

Mark Safstrom is Chief Editor of Pietisten, and teaches Swedish language and Scandinavian literature at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

See all articles by Mark Safstrom