It was in the 16th century that Matthias Grünewald painted a triptych altarpiece for the Hospital chapel of St. Anthonys Monastery in Isenheim in the Alsace. A spectacular piece, full of drama. In the hospital people who suffered with the terrible St. Anthonys fire were treated. People who would have developed a rash caused by the consumption of spurred rye or ergot. This rash would develop into the most horrid ulcers, rheumatic symptoms and eventually cause limbs to fall off. Skin would attain a greenish tinge and the pain that went with the whole process was excruciating.
The crucifixion on the altar piece shows a Jesus in the last throws of the sickness: his welts look very much like the ulcers the sufferers that would seek solace in the chapel would have developed, his skin is greenish and his hands are curved upwards in the same agony those who had progressed to the rheumatic phase of the illness would have curved their hands out towards the monks who were treating them. And in the background we see a landscape that looks very much like the ruins of the war torn countryside the chapel must have been situated in at the time.
The resurrection part shows a glowing Christ with a body as pure as a babys with no blemish or fault, lifting his hands in a gesture of victory. It goes completely over the top and may make some of us wonder if it doesnt take things too far in its representation of the risen Christ.
Master Matthias, the signatory (there is some doubt it is a real Grünewald) on the altarpiece, did something remarkable: He took the suffering he saw around him and put it on a cross when he sought to paint the agony and suffering of Christ. He took his deepest longing for those he saw suffering around him and put it in front of the empty tomb.
Our theme for this Easter week has been water.
Like St. Anthonys fire was uppermost in Master Matthiass mind when he sought to interpret and understand crucifixion and resurrection in 16th century Isenheim, with water restrictions and images of the parched country side around us, water and drought have been prominent in our minds and have triggered the angle from which we have read the story this year: from the perspective of water, and its many impacts it has on our lives and the life of the world.
We reflected on Jesus, the source of living water on Maundy Thursday, and he many ways in which water figures in his life and in scripture.
We reflected on the crucifixion on Good Friday to the sound of Thunderstorms suggesting impending floods, and looked at pictures taken from the news papers showing the incessant flood of suffering in our world we are confronted with every day.
Mass graves, the devastated landscape after a Tsunami, a gutted building after a bomb attack, hungry children on a waste dump, the war in Iraq and the dry and despairing sight of an empty dam. We read psalm 22 where the psalmist complains that his insides have turned to water and that his tears just wont stop flowing.
Strong imagery, correspondent with our experience of suffering today where we are confronted on a daily basis with overwhelming floods of agony often left feeling pretty helpless because there is very little that we can do.
I imagine that those suffering from St. Anthonys fire, visiting the chapel would have derived comfort from that Christ that looked so very much like them. Green, rheumatic, covered with ulcers and obviously in terrible pain. It brought God close, close to their own suffering, made God part of it, placing him next to them, in their agony, crying out for help.
And I imagine that the unblemished, totally over the top rising Christ, would have offered them a glimpse of hope. Telling them that even though they were going through hell, God would not leave them, that there was hope, even if it was on the other side of death.
We live in another world. And most of us wont accept the prospect of a wonderful afterlife anymore as enough compensation for a life marked by pain and suffering on this side of death. Weve become cynical about resurrection. Our world does not buy it any more. Probably also because we dont, unlike those who lived at the end of the 16th century, have to.
A lot of the suffering we see around us can be helped, can be changed, if only the world got round to it and started to behave a little bit better. A fairer distribution of resources, a Tsunami warning system, a bigger effort at the peace table, I think most of us would believe that if only that would happen there would be a lot less suffering and a lot more happiness in the world. Our understanding and our modern technology is far more advanced than it was in the time of the hapless monks who fed their patients more rye to help them recover, making things worse because they were feeding them what had caused the illness in the first place. We can do things, we change things, we can
If only all the others would cooperate a bit more, if only more people would come to their senses .
But still, it happens, and people are crucified, able to identify with Christs suffering like the sufferers of St. Anthonys fire so many centuries ago. In our personal life and in the life of the world around us. Suffering beyond our ability to change, suffering that still, in vast waves, terrorises the world.
That is our image of suffering. Of crucifixion. The image of despair and hopeless beyond our grasp, beyond whatever technology and science are able to change, beyond political intervention, things beyond medical know how.
What then is our image of resurrection?
Well, I believe most of us have become somewhat cynical about that. Perhaps we can imagine that it makes all the difference to not be alone in our personal suffering, and we might know from experience in our own personal life that often, somehow, through deep suffering our life is resurrected and we find life will be filled with a deeper and more profound joy once we have been pulled through (and that of course is also an experience most of us will recognise, that it is not us but some other force that will eventually pull us through). That resurrection happens, after years of grieving for someone who was close to us, after accident or disease, that somehow we find ourselves brought back to life, on firm ground after our life has been turned upside down and seemed to have lost all sure footing and meaning.
And in a lot of post modern thinking and theology we see how the message of resurrection then gets shrunk to just that: Jesus died and somehow his disciples, after a period of grieving, found their way back to the positives in life and started to tell the world about his inspirational life, exactly like we sometimes do, after trauma, after a time of difficulty, after a time of deep sadness and suffering.
Well, that certainly is an important part of it. But what about the other part? The really hopeless despairing bit? The bit where we discover that in spite of all our scientific advances and technological development we have not been able to make the world a better place for 2/3 of its of inhabitants? And have to admit that there really is no hope in sight that we will? Does resurrection apply to that too? Or is that asking too much of God and all only pie in the sky?
When scripture, and this is more in the epistles than in the gospels, describes the resurrection, it is a cosmic event. Not a private one. The earth trembles, the sky moves, and the claim is that it changes the world, and not only the lives of a few fisherman friends of one Jesus of Nazareth. That no death is beyond Gods redeeming power, not even the forces of death that seem to govern the world.
Can we believe that for our world?
Ezekiel dreams about a new temple at a time where his country was in ruins and there was no hope in sight that there would ever be enough resources to rebuild. He dreams about God being present and close in his particular time and situation. And what he dreams about is a splendid building that is a fitting dwelling place for the divine to be with his people. And welling from it a river that goes out to the sea, bringing renewal, changing parched land into fertile grounds full of fruit bearing trees and lush green grass. Flooding the world with new life and bringing change even to the vastness of the sea.
Those of you who have ever been confronted by a flood will know there is something wrong with that picture. In a flood invariably water will flood into a building and not trickle out of it. And it will be dirty water, muddy and full of debris contaminating everything it comes into contact with.
What Ezekiel pictures is quite impossible. Floods dont ever consist of clear, cleansing, life giving water, and they dont gently flow from buildings either. They destroy, they contaminate, they kill. Not in Ezekiel though, and perhaps that was his way of picturing the resurrection power of God for his time and his people. Where God is present Ezekiel says, the normal flow of what happens in the world is turned around and upside down. Instead of the destruction of mud and debris laden water there is the gentle flow of clear and cleansing water, changing the world around into a paradise of new and fruitful life.
God can do this, says Ezekiel, even if it is impossible in our eyes. God brought Christ back says the gospel, even where it is impossible in our eyes. There is a future says Master Matthias, even where it is impossible for us to see.
What is it we say? In our time?
Do we dare believe that God can turn what seems an unstoppable flow of suffering and grief that sweeps our world? Do we believe we are not beyond redemption but that there is hope and that God is working on it? That there is resurrection, new life, new hope, new firm ground, even for all of us, in the 21st century. Kids on rubbish dumps and mothers in Iraq included?
The tomb is empty when the women arrive, and as they meet with a heavenly messenger they understand that there is more than they first thought they understood about how the world fits together. The other disciples at first instance are cynical and believe it to be idle talk. Until they meet the risen Christ in their lives and also start to believe that the impossible is possible.
Most of us wont have the benefit of a revolutionary experience like they had. Most of us will have to trust the testimony of others who saw and believed.
God does change the world, and even the power of death cant put a stop to that. There is hope for our world. Time and time again renewal and resurrection have happened. In the first Christian movement, in 16th century Germany and in the 21st century global village. And it still does: It happens when we celebrate communion together, it happens when we support towns suffering from drought in the country side, it happens when we refuse to give up on hunger and war, it happens where wells are struck in poverty and disease stricken areas in our world, it happens wherever we fight for a better world, it happens where we find God on our side making the impossible happen. Amen.