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Michelangelo's Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
These wonderful pieces of Christian art and sculpture are triumphs of their originators' faith and expertise. The Ravenna mosaic of Christ as the Pantocrator, ruler of the world, expresses the Byzantine, 6th century, stylised impressions of Christ. Michelangelo's pietà is the medieaval epitome of a realistic figure of the Christ in death which, if you have seen it in St Peter's, catches your breath on account of its extraordinary beauty.
Contrast both of these depictions of Jesus with an equally inspired prose depiction of Jesus from Paul -
For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them ...(2 Corinthians 5:14-19)
Paul paints in words the figure of the man from Nazareth who called himself the Son of Man. Michelangelo did not attempt to give material outline to the Lord of faith and love. Christ's love (or, as it can be understood in the text, our love of Christ ) has enabled us to come to terms with the death of this Man. With a bold stroke Paul then goes on to express the whole of the gospel in two phrases - therefore all have died; and, 'the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.'
The only way in which we can give substance to our meeting with this Lord, in faith, lies in the fact that there remains in the mind and consciousness an icon of this personal relationship between ourselves and Jesus the Lord. The great Christian artists point us towards this relationship. The extraordinary vivid narratives of the gospels do the same. The historical, liturgical re-enactments, on the other hand, tend to wean us away from the personal relationship with Jesus which we seek to foster in daily life. For it is not the past life of Jesus that Christians seek to recover in discipleship but the immediate friendship of him who loves us.
History, and the artistic and historical re-enactments of Jesus' life and death that took place through the centuries, are merely pointers towards the reality. The traditions of worship change, but the Lord, the Man from Nazareth, is he who is always with us. In his life he pointed towards the coming of the Father's rule or kingdom as being just round the corner. Now he invites everyone to share in that relationship of friendship in the divine rule, in God. But, as with Paul during his life, our friendship with the divine is mostly seen in weakness. The constant anxiety with 'sin' which suffuses the Christian centuries is like a spiritual plague! We are not easily comforted by Paul's statement that in the crisis of the reconciliation that God effected in Christ, our trespasses were not counted against us. It is left to the author of John's gospel to put things in perspective - in relationship, we may say - which could be a new motto for Christian worship -
Father, the glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
© Aelred Arnesen
A happy Easter Feast - Alleluia!"
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© Aelred Arnesen