On Palm Sunday Evening The Bishop of Ebbsfleet closed our series of Lenten Sermon’s based on the Stations of the Cross designed Nigel Robert Pugh. He spoke about Station 12 :Death on the Cross & Station 13: Descent.
After saying how good it was to be back in the Church in Wales he said:
The artist who is being gracious enough to have his work scrutinized over this sermons series, Nigel Robert Pugh, quotes Satre in the catalogue saying that ‘the job of an artist is always to deepen the mystery’, and in his own introductory words he says that he hopes precisely what this set of canvases will do – ‘deepen the mystery’. So (despite having only this evening seen the whole set for the first time) I feel some obligation to let that be the basic prescription for these reflections.
We’ve been given two of the Stations for our thoughts this evening: the Death of Christ on the Cross, and Christ’s Descent from the Cross. They are the twelfth and thirteenth of the fourteen stations in their traditional arrangement fixed by Pope Clement XII the early 1730s.
All the gospels refer to Christ’s death on the cross: Matthew and Mark records the vinegar-filled sponge and a final cry but no words; Luke records Jesus consigning his spirit to the Lord before expiring. But it is from John – who always has something unusual to say – that we hear the Lord’s famous parting words, ‘It is finished’, words which are at the heart of the mystery we’re hoping for insight into this evening. All the Gospels also tell us about Joseph of Arimathea – ‘noble Joseph’ the Orthodox tradition calls him, because of his courage in asking Pilate for the dead body of Jesus – and about the body being lowered from the cross, wrapped and put hastily in Joseph’s new-cut grave because of the restrictions around the festival. (The Entombment of Christ is the 14th and last of the traditional stations.) All the gospels mention the women at the foot of the cross, but only John mentions Nicodemus. It’s into this heartrending sequence of very human interactions that devotional and artistic imagination has fitted other very familiar images of pity which surely delayed the eventual final burial: the Virgin Mother’s embrace and lamentation of her dead child (the so-called Pieta), the anointing and wrapping of Christ’s body, and the procession bearing it to the Tomb.
We’re familiar with the image of the crucifixion: the Saviour’s uplifted, stretched, shattered, immovable body. We’re less familiar with the the so-called deposition: the lowering of that body back into the possession of the little community of those who loved the crucified Jesus – his Mother, Mary Magdelene and St John, consoled by the rather detached dedication of Joseph and Nicodemus. The theme became a regular one for painters of the middle ages and afterwards.
Conventionally the emotional register of that image is a sort of calm after pain, a drained and shared quietness. Despite the enormity of the foregrounded fact of callously murdered body, the trauma of the scene is often softened by tiny inflections of reassuring human shock and fuss and grief-laden emotions in free-fall.
To a painter the subject posed not only a technical but also a theological challenge. Technically, there were structural matters to get right – managing the various stretched limbs, arched backs, slung weights and precarious ladders that hung off and around the proud and mysterious vertical of the Cross itself, reluctant to emptied of its precious burden.
But the theological challenge is no less serious: how will the particular image communicate to us the potential that is concealed in this body, these wounds, these relationships, even as it is being gently embraced, tidied up and anointed for burial; even as the beloved face disappears for ever inside Joseph’s clean linen cloth. Paradoxically even in death Christ himself often appears to be the most vibrant presence in the image.
When I first saw Robert’s Deposition I had two thoughts. The first was an artistic reminiscence: the line of Christ’s body is an almost perfect echo of the line and weight of Rubens second and less well known painting of the scene (which is now in Lille). And second was a theological identification: this image is the Christ of St John’s Gospel – the son of man whom the Father reveals divine glory. Each of these began to fill out this rather spare image.
We expect a image Christ’s death on the cross to be an image of isolation and the anonymity of meaningless pain. But not so a Deposition, which is classically full of Christ’s most sympathetic followers. Yet, even though we have in Robert’s image a hint of Joseph of Arimathea, taking control of Jesus’s lifeless body, we have neither the women or the beloved disciple waiting under the falling arched body as in Rubens’ masterpiece. We ourselves have to do the work: facing the dereliction of the dead saviour on our own. In a sense then, it’s an apparently ‘Protestant’ approach to a theme traditionally more visible in Catholic devotional art. But it is also possible to understand it as a clearing and freeing of the space around the Cross, which can be so easily overlaid with the community’s interpretations and reactions.
Yet, although there is not by pair after pair of loving hands reaching out to reclaim the lifeless body, nor a great winding sheet being unfurled to receive his weight, the figure of Jesus nonetheless has a certain weightlessness about it, as when bodies are submerged in deep water, dropping passively, limply loosing shape and control against the resistance of the water itself.
That in turn evokes the journey downward, into darkness, that has fascinated the Christian imagination since the earliest centuries – Christ descending into a netherworld of stranded souls, descending not only from the cross but into hell. This draws on the whole historic association of the death and resurrection of Jesus with a descent into watery chaos. ‘From the deep waters of death you brought your people to new birth by raising your Son to life in triumph.’ Those deep waters are where we meet Christ in baptism, and rise with him to new life in the resurrection.
With these thoughts in mind, I want us to look again at our two paintings of the dead Christ alongside one another, and to try to look through the eyes of St John. First we see Jesus isolated, stretched, lifted up in death against the darkness as night gathers in. Second we see Jesus accompanied, flexible, descending against a brightness of unexpected glory. What links the two is the moment that has just passed – Jesus’s final testimony which appears only in John’s account.
There, Jesus’ last words are: ‘It is finished!’ (19.30). In the Greek text, this word (tetelestai) points back six chapters to the beginning of John’s Passion narrative: to the episode of the washing of the feet, which John introduces by commenting that ‘Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world, and go to the Father. He had always loved his own who were in the world. Now he loved them right through to the end (telos).’ (13.1). This ‘end’ is his ‘hour’, this is his ‘glory’, this is his ‘kingdom’. It’s a kingdom that crucifixion does not delay; indeed, crucifixion is the way this king rules. This ‘end’, this ultimate measure of love, is now achieved, accomplished, finished – tetelestai – in the Passover of death. Jesus has truly gone right through to the end, to the very limit. In death he accomplishes the utter fullness of love – he has given himself unconditionally.
In other words John makes explicit what all the Gospels assume: that is, far from being a defeat the cross is in fact the hour of the victory of God. Jesus has conquered now, because in every previous moment he has given himself in unreserved love, dedication and obedience to God and to the needs of the world. The outcome of the last struggle on Good Friday is, you might say, a foregone conclusion. For all the injustice and violence and pain that surrounded his final days, something was already entrenched in the quality and character of Jesus’ life that told us what the result will be. (He himself said as much time and again.) His acceptance that the Cross was part of his destiny enabled him to turn his own submissive suffering at the mercy of others, into something which allowed God’s own action to flood into the world. Tetelestai: ‘it has been finished’. Here, in the gap between these two canvasses, is the great long-awaited apocalyptic moment. Here the powers of this world are forever subverted. A new age has begun. Christ’s kingdom is born, a new regime is inaugurated, a new way of life is created for those who worship and follow Jesus.
And therefore—paradoxically—it is not at all finished! He goes beyond that limit in unimaginable ways. Christ’s descent from the cross, into the underworld, is the opening movement on a new journey, where the glory of love’s now indestructible accomplishment, and the release of his Spirit into the hearts of those who believe in him, makes possible not only salvation but a new creation in him to whom be ascribed all glory and dominion now and for ever-more. Amen.
 See Mk 15.43. The Orthodox troparion runs: ‘The noble Joseph, taking down thy most pure Body from the Tree, / wrapped it in clean linen and sweet spices and laid it in a new tomb. / But on the third day thou didst rise, O Lord, granting the world great mercy.’
See 1 Pet 3.19-20 which speaks of Jesus preaching to ‘the imprisoned spirits’, and Eph 4.9 which states that Christ ‘descended into the lower parts of the earth’