A few weeks ago I was blessed with a free Saturday afternoon and embarked on a supersized bout of solitude – paid a visit to the National Gallery of Art. There’s nothing like letting yourself get lost in beauty and history and reflection. This time I decided to immerse myself in the large room full of sculptures in the West Building. Most of them were beautifully crafted, but forgettable in my eyes. Then I came upon a sculpture of Jesus on the cross. A good number of the pieces at the NGA are devoted to Jesus, many of them paintings from pre-18th century Europe who give baby Jesus an Anglo-Saxon look while “cupidly” sitting on his mother’s lap. Unlike those painting, this sculpture really struck me, but indirectly. I wasn’t stopped in my tracks by the work itself, but by the shadow that was cast on the wall. I was so mesmerized I took a picture with my phone.
There are so many allegories that could be written about the shadow. Here are a couple thoughts that have been running through my head and heart. They might seem like “duh” statements, but ones that I see differently now.
First, Jesus died for me. Me, not in the “480957498750th person to come into fruition by the will of God” sense. Me, in the “Sarah Elizabeth Chilcote, look me in the eyes – I created you precisely how I wanted to and you are my child” sense. Sometimes I feel like I’ve only been redeemed by the blood of Jesus because I happen to be blanketed under the whole “I have come to save the world” part of his sacrifice, you know, since I happen to reside in the world. And frankly, I’m tired of the Christianese “if it was just YOU in the world, He still would have died.” Okay, but is it true that if it was just ME in the world, would He have lived for me in the first place?
It is true. And completely unfathomable and undeserved. Jesus’ death covers the whole world, yes, but at the same time, it’s so personal.
Second, Jesus was human – and this sacrifice hurt, really bad. So many depictions of the crucifixion seem to show Jesus in a state of shock and incoherence when He is on the cross. And both might have been true. But what really grounded this sculpture for me was how utterly dejected and defeated His shadow makes Him look. He can’t hold his head up. I actually think the shadow does it more justice then the sculpture. The sculpture has his head slightly tilted down at an angle; the shadow makes it look like he has absolutely no strength to raise it, not to mention the jagged silhouette of the thorns. That portrays to me the immeasurable burden that was on him at that moment. The shadow also shows that his arms have also completely lost strength. How would that feel to a carpenter? But then, a lot of people have said that the emotional and spiritual agony was far worse than the physical pain. That’s saying a lot.
I’m not sure what I’m trying to say. Maybe that we tend to romanticize the crucifixion scene. We think of it as an image suspended in time, and not a long, drawn out afternoon of turmoil and absolute despair.
Agnus Dei is Latin for Lamb of God. We’ve all heard the symbolism. In the Jewish faith, a lamb was sacrificed for sins. Go all the way back – the blood of a lamb was put over the door frame of the houses of Israelites so that God’s angel of death would pass over them and not kill the firstborn son. Just as the lamb’s blood covered God’s chosen people then, Jesus’ blood covers God’s chosen people now – every single one of us. And we aren’t just numbers. God knew what He was doing when He created you. He loves you just as you are. And Jesus would have died for your sins if it had just been you. Actually, that’s exactly what he did, because, between you and Him, it was just for you.