“PAINTING THE GOSPEL”
The Piercing by Brian Turner
A sermon preached at the
Detail from Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece
the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear,
bringing a sudden flow of blood and water” (John 19:34)
Thank you so much for your contribution to our service today -
and for sharing your work with us.
often been said that, within the Protestant tradition,
we do words better than we do pictures.
And it is good to be reminded of the power of the visual
as we seek to find and understand God.
undergraduate at Sussex University
one of my tutors was the educationalist Sybil Marshall,
who wrote a remarkable book about her experiences
as a Fenland village Junior School teacher.
point in the book [“Experiment in Education”]
she describes Roger, a lad with a challenging family background
and huge learning difficulties. He arrives in school aged 7,
but is totally unable to participate in any meaningful way at all.
He is shy, withdrawn, and totally unable
to learn even the simplest written language.
But slowly over the months he is coaxed and encouraged
and finally shows some ability to draw and paint -
though reading and writing remain quite beyond him.
Eventually the time comes for him to move to secondary school -
He is clearly fearful of potential ridicule in the big school
and doesn’t want to go.
He asks if
he can do a final art project before he leaves -
he wants to create a collage,
but the teacher is not to look until it is finished.
So the piano is pulled across the corner of the room
and he is given paste and scissors
and a pile of glossy magazines to work with.
And during art lessons, at wet playtimes and other odd moments
he works away for the better part of a month.
finally one day the lad comes out shyly from behind the piano
and says 'You can look now' and holds up the picture -
it is a collage portraying the Crucifixion.
Sybil Marshall comments -
“I can hardly ever remember being more moved.
The artist …who had produced this magnificent work,
worthy, as I have always thought,
to be hung in a church alongside our medieval treasures,
had been, four years before, little better than an un-educatable idiot. ….
It was as though he had issued a
to the world of education to dub him E.S.N. at its own peril,
for though it was sad that he never learned to read,
the world could better spare many a more
literate smartaleck than this illiterate creative artist.
Education is more than the ability to read and write,
which is after all only secondary to the ability to think and to feel.”
So speaks the educationalist.
As a theologian I might add:
The cross is for all who suffer -
not just those who can read about it.
[If you can, go and see Kate Winslet
in “The Reader”
for another powerful take on a similar theme.]
But I digress - How do we adequately portray (in words or
the deep indescribable things of God?
Those of us who use words
know the problem of crafting verbal images of God -
interested to hear afterwards any reactions
to that last hymn we sang - which describes God
in a whole range of images including
“the deepest and blackest of holes”,
“the squatter who makes us his home”,
“the wrestler with arm round our throat”
“the joker at wild in the deck”
and “the king that no bishop can check.” -
a brave (if maybe occasionally flawed) attempt
to paint new word pictures of God.
And things of course are no easier for the visual artist.
How do we capture God on canvas?
Those of you who know the Exeter University Chapel
may have seen the painting on the South wall -
it depicts the interior of a tube or railway carriage -
a central character is hanging on to the racks
on each side of the carriage as though to brace himself
as the train jolts along.
Look again, and suddenly
amidst the passengers and luggage and newspapers of the carriage,
you see a Christ figure strap-hanging on the cross
amidst our daily life.
our own way, we all need to tell the story of the cross
not just as historical anecdote but as a present experience.
Of course every age has painted the cross differently.
hundreds of years, early Christian artists
painted Calvary as a scene of triumph -
the cross empty or containing Christ or a lamb reigning in glory.
the Middle Ages things gradually changed -
the pictures of the cross began to emphasize the suffering of Christ.
It was a process which maybe reached its culmination in 1515
in the Isenheim Altarpiece of Grunewald -
with its twisted and agonized Saviour on the Cross
set amidst outer panels showing gruesome figures
with rotting flesh battling with ferocious devils.
critics have condemned the painting
as morbidly obsessed with suffering.
need to remember how and why it was commissioned.
It was painted as an alterpiece for a hospital of the Antonite Order -
a religious order who cared for those suffering
from what was then known as St Anthony’s Fire -
a particularly ravaging illness that produced
gangrene, boils, blackened skin and muscular spasms
caused by eating poisonous rye (ergot).
So the 19th Century art critic Huysmans
“That awful Christ who hung dying over the altar of the Isenheim hospital
would seem to have been made in the image of the ergotics who prayed to him;
they must surely have found consolation in the thought
that this God they invoked had suffered the same torments as themselves,
and had become flesh in a form as repulsive as their own;
and they must have felt less forsaken, less contemptible.”
(Huysmans, quoted in David Brown, Tradition and Imagination, Oxford 1999 p 352)
As we move through Lent towards Calvary,
we come as injured, damaged and flawed men and women -
“Out of the depths I cry to thee”
We fear that God will have no time for us - we have sunk so low -
the awesome joy when I stand on Calvary’s hill,
and see the one who suffers on the cross,
and realize that in Christ
God is truly alongside me in my life, my need, my struggle.
You know I need Grunewald’s Christ to remind me
that there is no dark place to which he has not travelled before me.
But I also rejoice at Brian’s painting we have looked at
(shown at the top of this page)
yes the spear is still there - symbol of evil and death dealing -
but now I am reminded that that is not the end of the story -
the figure of Christ is ultimately
not bound to the cross
but having found me there, soars with me to heaven.
When the author of John’s Gospel tells the story of the
he tells how the soldier pierced Christ with the lance
and water & blood poured from the wound he made.
In that image he reminds us - yes - of the violence and
and yet points us forward beyond it to the symbols of the sacraments.
What John is saying is that what looked at the time like
was actually the moment of victory -
The might of Rome and the powers that be have done their
and from the very death wound flows the life-blood of Christ,
and the baptismal water of life!
Jade Goody may
appear to live in a very different
(and certainly much more public) place than we do.
But she is of course our sister - like all of us one day facing death -
Discovering that ultimately the blood of Christ,
the water of baptism, and the love of God, are more powerful than
the Roman spear, the terrorist machine gun, and the cancer cell.
So if you feel like
· The sick and dying and tortured inmates of Isenheim Hospital
· The frightened & illiterate schoolboy cowering behind the piano
· Jade Goody and a million unheralded others like her, staring death in the face
maybe you just feel that you are rattling around the tube line of life
with no obvious purpose or destination -
Well whoever, wherever you are, Christ is there for you -
saying “Come to my wounded side -
find shelter and comfort and hope and life.”
the Gospel we have received.
and that is the Gospel which we are called to share
- in word and symbol, in love and action -
with every needy child of God!
Order of Service
Sunday 8th March 2009 2nd Sunday in Lent
10.30 am Morning Worship led by Rev Andrew
with Brian Turner, Artist
¯ Psalm Prelude No 4 - Herbert Howells (based
on Ps 130 v.1):
“De Profundis Clamavi ad Te, Domine” (Out of the depths)
¯ Chorale Prelude “Vater unser im Himmelreich” - Georg Böhm
Hymn 457 “Christ whose glory fills the skies”
All Age Ministry - Brian Turner
Hymn SOF 120 “The Servant King”
Leader: Let us share the peace
Adults: The peace of the Lord be with you
Children: And also with you
Leader: Go in peace
[Young people leave for their own sessions]
Reading: John 19:28-37 (page 1088)
Painting the Bible Story - “The Bible Project” - Brian Turner
Hymn “God is the deepest and blackest of holes” (Tune HAP 378 Slane)
[© Kim Fabricius in “Worship Live” no 26, Stainer and Bell CCLI No 58752]
“Rock of Ages” (만세반석 열리니 내가 들어 갑니다)
(during this hymn the collection will be taken)
Prayer and Lord’s Prayer
Hymn 255 “Crown him with many crowns”
¯ Praeludium und Fuge in C major - Georg Böhm