The Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald is one of the most jarring portraits of the Crucifixion ever completed. Far from the more palatable renderings of Christ, complete with pastel tones and unblemished features, Grünewald’s depiction seems like something more akin to the image from a horror film than a work of religious art. Our Lord’s face is a death mask whose pallid lips and tongue hang limp beneath an anguished brow, while his lifeless, emaciated body is racked and contorted on the cross, bending the patibulum itself as if heavy with some unseen burden. Gott ist tot, as the Madman says. God is dead.
But despite their origin, these very words are hardly ones of triumph for the nonbeliever. In order for God to die, God first must have lived, and it is the very death of that living God that makes for a much more compelling, and perhaps more terrible view of reality than even the hardest nihilist could ever profess.
To hijack a line from Chesterton, for all the issues the nonbeliever might take with the Church, the one doctrine that he cannot truly deny is the doctrine of Original Sin, as it is the one dogma for which the empirical evidence is insurmountable. Be there a God or no, human nature remains a dark place. For all modern devices would have us believe about the perfectibility of man through secular means, luring us to either forget or overlook his potential for real suffering, they ultimately cannot rid him of a part of his nature that has endured since the very beginning.
This burden is man’s, and man’s alone. War, suffering, and death are his abiding companions, defining his existence on earth even as he tries to rid himself of them. Long has he desired to be free of them and the desolation that follows in their wake, and long has heaven itself seemed deaf to any prayers for relief. Unbound by mortal limitations, God in his nature seems entirely alien in that respect. Divinity doesn’t suffer and die, nor need it be concerned with those who do. Such things are entirely extraneous to God, in whom there is neither any deficiency nor contingency. Despite their ignorance of the Gospel, even the pagans understood as much, and uplifted their prayers as nothing more than pious supplications to sway the whims of otherwise indifferent deities.
But that is not the God who appears to us. He reveals himself in the face of all that men have sought to escape. His aspect, which above all others should be glorious and beautiful, is rendered horrible. Disfigured by wounds, cruelty, and abuse, divine majesty is transformed into something that is awesome in its ugliness, a sight from which “others hide their faces”1 for there is “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”2 Fear, sorrow, and anguish follow him, while his “one companion is darkness.”3
That alone is a difficult enough truth to bear. An act of love that seems almost to flirt with sacrilege, “a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles,”4 the sacrifice of the crucified Christ defies almost any reason. That God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to sanctify its wretchedness is beyond human comprehension, and to say it would approach blasphemy if it hadn’t first been inspired by God. Around the wood of the cross, all creation is bowed not just in sorrow but in contemplation, repeating to itself a simple refrain that eludes any direct answer, “What wondrous love is this?”
It is a love that is “stern as death,” borne by a passion “relentless as the netherworld.”5 The grave itself could not contain it, and sin was broken beneath its weight. The most terrible of both physical and spiritual sufferings were embraced and carried high on the cross, blessed by Christ’s own words—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”6—so that man need not even endure the most abject desolation alone. In his darkest moments, God is there, pursuing man through the nightmare of his own fallenness “so that primacy may be his in everything.”7
God wants it all, every part of man’s nature. For him there are no half measures, no shortcuts to redeeming that which seems farthest from him. “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.”8 There are no lengths to which God will not go to ensure that his presence can be felt even in the deepest abyss. Though lost within the vale of sin and death, man cannot place himself beyond the sight of God. Christ abides in the darkness with him, piercing the shadow that surrounds him to take on all that man deems most abhorrent in himself. God wears the face of death, carrying the cost of every evil within his body to the point where his appearance becomes “marred … beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals.”9 While remaining God, he becomes unrecognizable as God, having no spark of divinity anywhere to be found. And yet, in his suffering, his divinity becomes all the more clear. He carries a burden not his own on behalf of those who despise him. He suffers our punishments more perfectly than we ever could, and he makes holy that which we judge most accursed.
Only God could do such a thing, and it is only through God that we ourselves can hope to find salvation even in our most wretched moments. In the death of God the death of man is redeemed, marking not an end, but a beginning won by the scandal of the cross. It is a beginning that every Christian invokes at the beginning of every prayer, a mystery that constitutes the very source and summit of his faith, without which it would be nothing more than pious sentimentality. In proclaiming Christ crucified, we profess the power of his suffering, sacrifice, and death to sanctify our own, echoing the words of that centurion on Calvary as he beheld with his own eyes that moment of dark grace, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”10