A message from Father Nick 54

Entry into Jerusalem by Giotto

“Even to accepting death, death on a cross”

We hear those words from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians on Palm Sunday each year, and they are thought to have come from one of the earliest Christian hymns. Stage by stage, they remind us, Jesus emptied himself for us, even to the point of crucifixion. And stage by stage he has now been raised and glorified by his father.

That self-emptying has inspired great souls and fascinated poets and artists through the ages. From the beginning, with Christ’s birth, it challenges the things we take for granted. Pieter Bruegel the Elder paints its strangeness in his manger scene, “The Adoration of the Kings”, set against the troubles of his own time. Revolt in the Netherlands and brutal repression by the Spaniards who still rule Northern Europe are about to erupt. This is a world the Saviour seems to shrink from. Introducing the painting, Neil MacGregor notes its coarse and worldly setting and he adds,

“Most equivocal of all is the ugliness of all the participants except for the Virgin and the Christ Child. We seem to be looking at caricatures of fallen humanity. The soldiers, like the townsmen, have eyes only for the King’s treasures; even Joseph may be assessing their material worth. And the three kings appear not to have humbled themselves before the King of Kings: humiliated by the painter’s brush, they have been made grotesque examples of earthly pomp that requires armed battalions to keep it in power.”

Neil MacGregor, as Director of the National Gallery in 2000, was mainly responsible for its great millennium exhibition, Seeing Salvation, which also featured in a series of television programmes. He argued that for centuries Jesus’ life and death was the staple of Western European artists, and in representing the life of Christ, “they explored the fundamental experiences of every human life. Pictures about Jesus’ childhood, teachings, sufferings and death are – regardless of our beliefs – in a very real sense pictures about us.”

In his grouping of themes, he draws attention to an aspect of the Passion we rarely consider today. Mediaeval devotion sometimes raised the question of what would have been the lowest point for Christ in his suffering. The conclusion they reached was, the moment of waiting just before being crucified. This became the image of “Christ on the Cold Stone”, Jesus scourged and wearing the crown of thorns, his hands and feet bound, sitting on a stone on Calvary waiting to be nailed to the cross. It is a powerful theme in Western art and conveys a sense of utmost desolation. Above all, it reminds us that no person was ever so aware as Jesus,

Holy Week is not meant to be a morbid experience for us, and we know that his Passion leads to triumph and to joy. Nevertheless, as we unite ourselves with our Lord, we can remember again how fully he identified with us and how much his self-emptying cost him.

Christ on the cold stone, ca 1510, Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, NL