InsightOut: A Reflection for Good Friday

Emmaus O’Herlihy is an Irish Benedictine monk of Glenstal Abbey, Ireland. Trained in graphic design, he worked as an Art Director in Los Angeles, U.S.A., after receiving his BDes from National College of Art and Design, Ireland. Currently a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Theology in the University of St. Michael’s College, Emmaus is exploring ways that liturgical art advance the full, conscious and active participation of the assembly during liturgy.

A Reflection for Good Friday: The Triune God’s Solidarity with Those Who Suffer

Illumination showing the Gnadenstuhl motif from Die Dietsche Doctrinale
Jan van Boendale, c. 1374.

The primary ritual action of this Good Friday liturgy is the showing and veneration of the cross. Although everyone here is already familiar with how the cross symbolizes divine purpose, it’s worth remembering how Jesus’ violent and humiliating death by crucifixion posed an enormous challenge for early believers.

Crucifixion was an intentionally brutal and humiliating form of capital punishment in the Roman empire that was administered to rebellious slaves, enemies of the state or leaders of insurrection. Because of this, Robin Margaret Jensen’s study on the significance of the cross in the history of Christianity begins with, what she terms, the ‘Curse of the Cross.’1 She refers to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in which he writes that for Jews awaiting a kingly messiah, it was incomprehensible that this messiah would be crucified since crucifixion signalled a cursed death; for Greeks, a crucified god was, to put it simply, ludicrous. Such a death was contrary to logic and scandalous.2

The early Church’s response was to embrace the paradox of Christ’s death; to preach of Christ crucified and proclaim that such a form of death represented both the most intense expression of Jesus’ humility and the clearest indication of his glorious identity.3

Nevertheless, it took almost another three hundred years for images of the crucifixion to become commonplace as the identifying marker of the Christian faith.4 Even today, images of the crucifixion remain challenging—and I don’t mean to suggest those occasions when contemporary artists reinterpret Christian iconography. Images of the crucified Christ engage our imagination, they tease out the significance of the events of Christ’s death: It is not enough to recall that Jesus died but to reflect upon how he died.

In the Pauline epistles, arguably the earliest testimonies to the place of the cross in Christian theology, Paul explains that those who count themselves wise or who seek more positive signs will judge any celebration of the crucifixion to be a kind of madness.5 What’s more, it’s the kind of madness that has multiple sides to it. One side to this madness can be identified in the accompanying image (see illustration). It reflects the theme that the Dominican community in Toronto has chosen for this year’s Triduum: the Triune God’s solidarity with those who suffer, especially those victims of violence.

The image shows an illumination from the 14th century that depicts what would, by the 16th century be termed the Gnadenstuhl motif.6 Translated as Mercy Seat or Throne of Grace, the German term refers to this trinitarian motif to underline the significance of identifying the Trinity as present in the death of Christ. In her study of the Incarnation through an aesthetics of vulnerability, Susie Paulik Babka writes that among those images that attempt to translate difficult and abstract concepts into visual expression, this motif invites Christians to consider that the darkness which accompanies us in times of catastrophic suffering, and especially at the moment of our death is nothing less than “the dwelling place of God.”7

An initial glance at the illustration is enough to show that this motif involves a trinitarian dynamic centred on the passion of Christ. God the Father is usually seated (sometimes on a throne), and supports the dying or dead Christ. The Holy Spirit, represented as a dove, is most often positioned between the Father and the Son. In seating the figure of the Father on a stool or a throne, this motif subtly alludes to Old Testament references to the mercy seat “understood as the point of contact between God and humanity; the locus of divine presence on earth,” …the critical point of mediation between heaven and earth.9

In the composition in this image, symbols of the four evangelists surround the diamond shape within which the Father holds the horizontal beam of the cross onto which Christ’s body is nailed. Whether or not an actual cross is present, “the unifying thread of nearly all the works of art that utilize [this] motif is the theme of unity between heaven and earth in the passion of Jesus…”10

The Holy Spirit, symbolised as a dove in flight, is a “vital part of the composition.”11 Positioned between the Father and the Son, the wings of the dove touch the Father’s lips and the head of Christ, acting as a bridge between the first and second persons of the Trinity. By echoing the shape of the cross, the figure of the dove emphasizes the Spirit’s dwelling with Christ, becoming what Jurgen Moltmann describes as “Christ’s ‘companion in suffering’.”12 Jesus’ experience of catastrophic suffering effects all three divine persons: The “tenderness of the relationship between the Father and the Son,” a bond preserved by the Spirit, “is somehow comforting” even while it reminds us of the suffering of the tortured.13

This image highlights something of both the ordeal of human suffering and the depth of Divine witness to it. Babka writes that “just as heaven and earth join to praise God in the liturgy, … heaven and earth join to mourn the death of the Son in solidarity with all who suffer catastrophically.”14 As an image of God, the ‘highest being,’ the Three in One, the Gnadenstuhl motif subverts any understanding of God as abstracted from our own experiences of isolation or illness, humiliation, brokenness, or pain.15 The cross is “the event in which God takes the absurdity of catastrophic suffering into God’s life and being” ; the triumph of the cross affirms the depth of God’s solidarity with the ordeal of suffering, with all who suffer.16 The “emotionaland theological impact of this image …occurs in an aesthetics of vulnerability” that challenges indifference to the suffering of others.17

By offering us a glimpse of both human frailty and divine grace, this image alerts Christians of the need to maintain a vigilance to the suffering ‘other.’ In venerating the cross, we are not only called to behold Christ in his great act of love and respond with veneration to the symbol of the way he died. When we kiss, bow or genuflect to the cross, we also commit ourselves to seeking Christ in the ‘other’ who suffers. We testify to what this image’s depiction of the Trinitarian presence at the moment of Christ’s death encapsulates: that God becomes incarnate where there is catastrophe; that by fully sharing human suffering in a humiliating death, God invites us to “stake our subjectivity” in the suffering of Christ, of the ‘Other,’ the Christ who suffered and died on the cross two thousand years ago, and the ‘other’ whom we identify as Christ suffering in the present.1 And in this is our hope, because we are ‘followers of Jesus’ whose death on the cross did not end in failure but in Resurrection—the definitive revelation of Jesus as Son of God, the second person of the triune God, and the conclusive reassurance that belief in the risen Jesus correlates with our deepest experiences and our ultimate hope for renewal.

1 Robin M. Jensen, The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017), 1.
2 Ibid, 4-5. Although Jensen writes that “Paul’s focus on the mode of Christ’s execution emerges most fully in his letter to the Galatians [when he] “acknowledges the fact that Christ’s death on the cross was an obstacle to belief in Jesus as Messiah,” (Gal. 5:11), she adds that “Paul employs the cross in a more metaphorical sense” in 1Cor. 1:19.
3 See, for example, 1 Cor 1:23, where Paul writes “we preach Christ crucified…”
4 See also Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 227: “…there is a rarity of depictions of the crucifixion in Early Christian art. The image is entirely absent from the catacombs and sarcophagi in Rome and does not become common until the Byzantine period [during] the late sixth century.” 
5 See Justin Martyr and 1 Cor 1:18-25. Also Robin M. Jensen, The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy, (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017) 1, 5.
6 This illumination is found in the Die Dietsche Doctrinale by Jan van Boendale, c.1374. The word Gnadenstuhl is thought to originate with Martin Luther’s use of the term in his 16th century translations of Exodus (25:21-22) and Hebrews (4:16) which refer to ‘mercy seat.’
7 See Susie Paulik Babka, Through a Dark Field: The Incarnational through an Aesthetics of Vulnerability (Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2016), 225.
8 The most familiar probably being Masaccio’s Trinity at the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, c.1427.
9 Babka, Through a Dark Field, 207, (who also refers to Ezekiel, Isaiah, Daniel, 204-205).
10 Ibid, 196.
11 Ibid, 204.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid, 225.
14 Ibid, 196.
15 Ibid, 194.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid, and 192.
18 Ibid, 225.

Read other InsightOut posts.