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For Your Weekend: Don’t Look Away

Laura Phelps

Dig Deeper into Sunday’s Gospel: Read John 3:1421

It was how he held his fingers that got me. I have seen many images of our crucified Savior, but this one differed. It grabbed me because, unlike the familiar, sanitized versions I have grown accustomed to, this one did something to me. It made me uncomfortable. 

The artist Matthias Grünewald painted The Crucifixion of Christ[1] as a panel for the Isenheim Altarpiece in the hospital chapel of St. Anthony’s monastery.[2] Ergotism was an excruciating and fatal skin disease, and it was in a monastery hospital that specialized in treating this disease that Grünewald’s painting was displayed. If you haven’t seen it, I warn you: it is not easy to look at. The Christ figure is covered from head to toe with the same sores as the patients; as if from out of the paint, He is whispering, "I share how you feel; I am suffering the same." But what caught my attention and held my gaze were not the sores but His fingers. Stretched and contorted, writhing in pain, it was the first time I looked at the crucifixion and felt His agony. Like a car wreck on the side of the highway, I didn’t want to look, yet I couldn’t resist slowing down and staring anyway. 

The gospel we will hear for the fourth Sunday of Lent comes from the third chapter in the book of John, and it had me revisiting this image. We find ourselves dropped in the middle of a nighttime conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Beginning at verse fourteen, we hear Jesus say: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14). What we know as a foreshadowing of Jesus’s sacrifice, Nicodemus would have understood as an Old Testament reference to the Israelites. In response to their impatience, ingratitude, and complaints in the wilderness, “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many sons of Israel died” (Numbers 21:6). Recognizing their sin and disobedience, they begged Moses to pray that God take away the serpents. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it up as a sign; and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8). And as the story goes, when they were bitten, so long as they gazed upon the image, they were to live.

And so it goes with us and the crucifix. Bitten by sin, the cross beckons us to gaze in faith upon our tormented and beaten Lord, remembering that while sin once threatened to kill, Jesus has come to save. And how did He save us? By taking on all of our sins and shedding all of His blood. And we don’t want to gaze on that, do we? We don’t want to think about the effects of our sin, the blood-soaked wood, or his grieving Mother standing beneath it. It’s too gory, too upsetting, too much. We prefer the risen Jesus. He’s much easier to look at, so comfortable, positive, and happy. There’s only one problem with this. In the words of Fr. David Stavarvz, “The resurrection is not possible without the crucifixion.”[3] To get to Easter, we must first pass through the cross, and the last time I checked, we were still on the Lenten journey. Contrary to what our grocery aisles tell us, Lent is not about baskets and bunnies. It’s about the necessity of the crucifixion.

When was the last time you gazed upon the horror of Christ crucified? Or are you too afraid to look?

While listening to a podcast, I heard that a woman found herself abhorrent about the violence in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.[4] It was too traumatic. More recently, I learned from a catechist that the parents of her students asked her to tone down the details of the crucifixion. It was too disturbing. When nearly every one of our movies and video games today has excessive violence, I find this interesting, and you should, too. What is it about the reality of Jesus on the cross that makes us want to look away?

When Moses lifted the bronze serpent, the people knew that unless they looked up at it, they would not live. The very thing that caused them death was now their saving remedy. But they had to look at it. And what about us? What are our fiery serpents? What bites at us, wanting us dead? And more importantly, to what do we look at in hopes of being healed?

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16–17).

The remedy to all that ails us, all our hurt, disappointment, sorrow, and pain, is not a “what” but a “who.” The Roman soldiers might have nailed Jesus to the cross, but it was for the love of us that He chose to remain there. It was unimaginable pain, over-the-top torture, shocking, and evil; perhaps this is why we don’t want to look. Maybe the vulnerability of our innocent Lord and the agony He suffered for our sins is too much to bear. Perhaps this is why we turn to shopping, alcohol, food, or Netflix for a cure instead of Him. It’s just easier. It’s more comfortable. It makes us happy for a moment. When we are tempted to embrace an airbrushed image of the cross, we must remember that we don’t preach a comfortable faith; in the words of Saint Paul, “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). What the world views as an instrument of torture, we embrace as an instrument of love.

I am oddly comforted as I continue to gaze upon Grünewald’s Crucifixion. I pray this Lent will reveal the uncomfortable truth to each of us: Crucified Jesus is the answer to everything. Amid the tragedy, crisis, and misfortune, crucified Jesus calls you to Him. When you lose your job, your spouse, your baby, your health, or your dreams, it is Jesus on the cross who is waiting for you. When you cry out, “Please, Lord, take this serpent away!” our crucified Lord sees you, cups your face, and whispers, “I share how you feel; I am suffering the same.” 

Food for thought or journaling…

To grasp the nature of Jesus’s sacrifice, take some quiet time and gaze at the image of Christ crucified. 

How does the reality of His suffering make you feel?
What “bites” do you want Him to take away?
In what particular way can you share in His suffering?

Then pray The Prayer Before the Crucifix:

Look down upon me, good and gentle Jesus while before Your face I humbly kneel and, with burning soul, pray and beseech You to fix deep in my heart lively sentiments of faith, hope, and charity; true contrition for my sins, and a firm purpose of amendment. While I contemplate, with great love and tender pity, Your five most precious wounds, pondering over them within me and calling to mind the words which David, Your prophet, said to You, my Jesus: “They have pierced My hands and My feet, they have numbered all My bones.”
Amen.[5]

[1] Grünewald, Matthias. The Crucifixion of Christ. 1515. Mixed media on limewood 29 1/2 × 21 2/5 in. Collection: Kunstmuseum Basel, https://www.artsy.net/artwork/matthias-grunewald-the-crucifixion-of-christ.
[2] Heidi J. Hornik and Mikeal C. Parsons, “Crucifixion, by Matthias Grünewald,” The Christian Century (4 January 2017): https://www.christiancentury.org/article/crucifixion-matthias-gr%C3%BCnewald.
[3] Fr. David Starvz, “Christianity Without the Crucifixion is Not Christianity,” Word on Fire (14 April 2017): https://www.wordonfire.org/articles/christianity-without-the-crucifixion-is-not-christianity/.
[4] Fr. David Abernethy, "Resistance Podcast #255: Behold His Face They Shall Look On Him Whom They Have Pierced,” Sensus Fidelium Podcast: https://youtu.be/tWvG-TBjXUM?si=PgTo81Orn-2_7Y20.
[5] “Prayer Before the Crucifix,” My Catholic Life (Mar 2024):  https://mycatholic.life/catholic-prayers/prayer-before-the-crucifix/.

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