A single picture in the sanctuary will stay the same from Palm Sunday through to Easter morning: the picture of Mary Magdalene peeking into the tomb and seeing angels.
The paintings we are using beginning with Palm Sunday are by James Tissot, a 19th century French artist who, in the last decade and a half of his life, painted 365 works depicting the life of Christ, and then began a series on the Old Testament, exhibiting 80 works before his death. The collection was purchased by the Brooklyn Museum. It’s on my list for the next time I go visit my daughter.
The images will shift as we move from Palm Sunday, through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and then to Easter. They accent different parts of the passion story, yet always preserving the larger narrative arc from the Garden of Gethsemane to the empty tomb. Only one painting is in all four sets, the resurrection, because this narrative is not ultimately about Judas’ betrayal or Pilate’s sentence, or Peter’s denial, or the jeering crowds at the cross. This story is about the resurrection. The death, yes, but the death that leads to life.
When we arrive at Easter, it would be tempting to have all the pictures represent the risen Christ, but this is a place where we run out of images. We don’t know how to paint the resurrection. We don’t know how to portray heavenly messengers. The betraying and dying are part of our human experience. What happened next is not.
To what shall we compare it? We are forced to use stylized images – angels with wings, for example, or haloes and shimmering light.
The resurrection can’t be painted like Peter fleeing the cockcrow. The empty tomb can be painted, but Jesus climbing out of a grave is a concept, an idea, not something we have ever seen.
We are up against the limits of human experience. And yet, we know something about death and life. For our Lent midweek services in Michigan one year we invited people to share something of their faith journey. One man came and told of the day he was on patrol in the jungles of Vietnam and heard the click of a landmine beneath his foot. He froze, then told all the rest of his platoon to move away to safety. This was his end. He faced it. But when he finally lifted his foot, the explosive didn’t go off. He was dead, but now he lives.
We can’t picture the resurrection of Jesus in our minds, but losing life and receiving it back again we do understand. We have been there, most of us, one time or another. Maybe more than once. Caught between the army of pharaoh and the Red Sea, when suddenly a path appears. Barren and too old for the promise to be fulfilled, but then there is a child. Carried into exile for fifty years, the city left behind in ruins, and then comes the royal decree opening the way to go home. Again and again in scripture and in life, the unexpected happens, hopelessness is turned to joy, prison doors are opened, ruptured lives are healed, broken ties restored.
We can’t paint it. But we know it. We know what it feels like. We know what it tastes like. It looks like an empty tomb. It tastes like bread dipped in wine.
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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Mary_Magdalene_Questions_the_Angels_in_the_Tomb_(Madeleine_dans_le_tombeau_interroge_les_anges)_-_James_Tissot.jpg James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGrudzi%C4%85dz_Polyptych_12.jpg Master of the Třeboň Altarpiece [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons