Then he took the body down from the cross Luke chapter 23 verse 53
In most of our anglican churches the body of Jesus has been taken down from the cross. The crosses on our altars, in our processions and around our necks are nearly always empty – in our tradition – gold or shining brass, inlaid with precious jewels or ornate glass replace the rough hewn wood and the crucified Jesus.
Anglicans rightly want to celebrate Easter day. In our churches we want to be reminded that we are an Easter people, that we believe in the resurrection. Our crosses are signs of hope and victory. We have taken the body down from the cross.
Even those crucifixes which still portray Jesus, like the great icon crucifix we lay on the floor of the chapel for Morning and Evening Prayer portray Jesus on the cross in glory – our great high priest – Christ the King.
But today – Good Friday afternoon – the body of Jesus is still there. Jesus hangs upon the cross for all to see – a sign of horror, a sign of pain, and an uncomfortable sign.
The crucifixion scene printed on your bulletin is the famous Issenheim altarpiece painted in 1512 by Matthias Grunwald. On it Jesus is contorted and in agony. His fingers stretch out grotesquely. His body is long and emaciated, cadavrous and green, he is covered in sores. He writhes in pain.
This is no resurrection Jesus, no Christ the King reigning in glory- this is a crucified God – larger than life, and in eternal agony. In 1512 Grunwald’s crucifixion was indeed intended to shock. This is no easy work of art portraying an easy Jesus – this crucifixion is meant to challenge us, disturb us, silence us.
The altarpiece was commissioned and painted for St Anthony’s monastery in Issenheim, near modern day Colmar in Alsace. St. Anthony’s was what we would call today a hospice. It was the place where people who suffered from St Anthony’s fire went to die in agony. St Anthony’s fire is a violent allergic reaction to a fungus called ergot which is eaten in rye bread. It causes the flesh to putrefy and die, it causes the gangrenous limbs to fall off while the sufferer is still alive, or be cut off in crude amputations, or simply torn off because of the burning pain. Death is slow, painful and certain.
As the men afflicted with St Anthony’s fire lay writhing in their beds in the Chapel in Issenheim, their bodies gangrenous, putrefying and burning with pain, they looked up and saw the gangrenous, putrefying, agonised body of Christ on the Cross, and they drew comfort. For they knew that they were a Good Friday people and they gazed on their Good Friday God.
In their world, a world view which taught them that their agonising disease was the price of sin – whether their sin or the sins of the world – they gazed on Jesus and they understood that Jesus bore their sins – that he was still bearing their sins – that all sin with all its terrible and excruciating consequences of pain and distortion was not being ignored by a God far away. In Christ, the Word had become real flesh, human flesh, grotesque flesh – not some kind of fictional or angelic flesh.
Thankfully ergotism – the modern name for St Anthony’s fire – can be treated by a complex mixture of drugs and it is very rare today. People no longer have to look onto Matthias Grunwald’s crucifixion and see their own sores and burning skin. Except, of course, we do.
Although medical science continues to make extraordinary advances in health care and treatment, in the management of pain and disease … no-one, not one of us, not even Jesus the Word made real flesh – is invincible. As we gaze upon the crucified Jesus – the contorted Jesus upon the cross – we are reminded all too graphically how vulnerable our humanity is – how vulnerable is our own health, both mental and physical. How vulnerable is our society and our world – how fragile all humanity is. How pain, and sorrow and tragedy can explode around us in an instant. No amount of money or knowledge or government or force or anything else in all creation can ever protect us. We are all, from the greatest of us to the least, from the richest to the poorest, from the most powerful to the weakest – always on the edge – always vulnerable in this most vulnerable of worlds in which we live.
And it is this world which God came to share. Our existential human vulnerability – which daily faces storms and disasters, violence and terror, sudden diagnosis and pain, fragile relationships and betrayals. This Christian God is a God who does not hold on tightly to the power and comfort and knowledge of being God, but is a God who gave up everything so that God could truly be God with us.
And so our Good Friday God is not just God who watches us from afar off and feels sorry for us or compassionate over us, or who promises mercy or forgiveness or even justice for what we do down here. Our extraordinary and logically impossible belief that Jesus is truly God incarnate, Very God of Very God, the Word made Flesh, takes the whole concept of God into a new realm – God of fear and unknowing, God of disease and suffering, God of violence and pain and stripping bare. God who is no longer able to control anything by word, or deed, or money, or seduction, or power. God on the cross.
We can look at his gangrenous body, his gaping wounds and weeping sores, his agonised features and contorted hands and we can say : Now I understand, now I know what the apostle meant when he wrote that nothing : neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
There is no disease or pain I can suffer, no news I can hear or treatment I can endure, which will ever separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
There is no sin of thought or word or deed, nothing I can do and nothing I can fail to do which will ever separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
For even should I go down into the very depths of Hell itself and make my dwelling place there, then even there I cannot flee from your presence.
Yes the empty cross on Easter Day is our victory, and we will celebrate it with shouts of joy – but the Good Friday crucifix before which we kneel is our salvation.