A Lenten Reflection on the Isenheim Altarpiece

Matthias Grunewald’s crucifixion, one of the panels of the Isenheim altarpiece, was commissioned for the […]

Jacob / 3.18.11

Matthias Grunewald’s crucifixion, one of the panels of the Isenheim altarpiece, was commissioned for the church hospital of St. Anthony in Colmar France, which specialized in comforting those dying with skin diseases. Grunewald kept the background of this powerful piece of religious art intentionally dark to highlight the horrific scene: especially Christ’s smashed feet, his contorted arms, and twisted hands. The cross is bowed to demonstrate Jesus bearing the sins of the world. The most shocking part of the piece, however, is that Jesus also has a skin disease, and his loin cloth is the same as the wrappings worn by the hospital’s patients. Completed in 1516, the altarpiece is a creation of such shocking intensity that many initially- and still today- find it offensive and are repulsed by it. Yet the graphic nature served masterfully to define and illustrate the Antonite brother’s powerful understanding of Christian ministry-a ministry defined by the theology of the cross. Apparently patients were brought before the piece in order to silently meditate on it as they died. Profoundly, the brothers were a quiet order, so there was no explanation given as the patient died. There was no awkward chatter and God was not piously left off the hook, “now remember, this is not God’s fault.” There was just silence.

The crucifixion piece and the ministry behind it highlight the profound truth that theology matters in pastoral
ministry. Sadly, most Christian ministry operates from a place that readers of this website will know as a “theology of glory.” A theology of glory believes that we can invite Jesus and his cross to be apart of our lives. This theology sees the cross, as Gehard Forde would say, as a means to an end as opposed to the end itself. In pastoral ministry this takes various toxic and deceptive shapes that have defined much of the landscape of modern Evangelical Christianity. For example, when the cross is simply a means to an end, the Gospel is only what saves you – it is other things that propel you forward in the Christian life. In this way, Christian living becomes completely detached from the Gospel, and cluttered with the chatter of a variety of to-do-lists to keep us on the straight and narrow. Instead of being brought forward to die well, we piously spend all of our time trying to improve ourselves “everyday, in every way.”

Which is not to say that the theologian of glory denies that none of us is perfect: we are always going to make mistakes and sin, so we must repent. But tomorrow is a new day, with a clean slate, and with grit and determination we will pray, “I promise to never do it again!” This turns sermons into exhortations to live a better life, calling one to look within and transcend their current state; and testimonies become more like “The Pepsi Challenge,” with an emphasis on the self and how one’s life used to be, but now, because of Jesus, is no longer.

A theology of the cross, on the other hand, involves being brought before the crucifixion with no explanation before one’s death. It does not invite the patient to ponder the hidden things of God like, “Why me?” Instead, gazing upon the cross one is invited into God’s story, and invited into the question: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”

Pastorally, the theology of the cross understands the Gospel as the entirety of Christian ministry, never moving us beyond Christ’s saving work, and that any “good” that does take place is the fruit of faith in Christ. Preaching in this context, therefore, focuses on the reality of sin and the profundity of God’s grace; the Law and the Gospel are properly distinguished, leading one to rejoice in the forgiveness of their sins, trusting that God, through his Holy Spirit, will justify and sanctify an individual. As with the theology of glory, repentance is sorrow for sin – but the outcome shifts from “try harder,” to a renewed faith in the grace and mercy of God found in Jesus Christ for salvation, making our testimonies about the work of Christ for us in history.

A theology of the cross puts one in the same position as John the Baptist in this painting (the figure to the right). Simply pointing to the cross saying: Illum oportet crescere, me autem minui or: He must become greater, I must become less – because that is our only story and as dark and dreary as that may sound, our only hope.