Skip to content

Good Letters

White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall 

It helps to know where you’re going. Few of us ever do. My wife and I had taken the train to Würzburg, Germany, only to learn most of the tourist sites were closed for the day. We decided to make the best of it, taking in what gardens and historic buildings remained open, and soon found ourselves in the Neumünster church.

Though I have a fondness for the medieval, this nine hundred year-old church was not to my taste. The spare Romanesque lines of the original interior hid under eighteenth-century Baroque accretions the locals saw fit to restore after the church’s near total destruction in World War II. To me, the busy technicolor visions of celestial glory set into the white walls and ceiling proved diverting but hardly transcendent. My mind wandered, and so did I.

A side door led to the cloister garden, a quiet tree-shaded enclosure graced with a Romanesque colonnade. There, to my surprise, stood the tomb of Walther von der Vogelweide (c.1170-c.1230). The Bob Dylan of his day, Walther wrote scathing political and religious lyrics in Middle High German, but is remembered now mostly for his love songs, full of nostalgia and heartbreak. Bridging nine centuries and a chasm of vastly altered sexual sensibilities, Walther’s words live on. He knew romantic love never visits without an entourage: loss, suffering, grief. To this day, admirers come to Würzburg to pay their respects, adorning his tomb with fresh flowers.

Having no flowers at hand, I mumbled a fragment from Walther’s Under der Linden and reentered the church, pondering love’s paradox. So prepared, I stumbled on a side chapel where stood the strangest crucifix I’ve ever seen. The cross itself is simple. The corpus, not yet dead, lingers at life’s extremity: a gaunt and gothic man of sorrows with limbs battered and bloody, a gaping wound in his side, and pleading eyes acquainted with grief beyond Walther’s imagining. But what set this Jesus apart is that his arms are no longer fixed to the cross. They reach out, defining a space into which the viewer appears invited. Therein lies the horror: the crude spikes meant to pin his hands to the crossbeam remain buried in his palms. Silently, wordlessly, the crucifix speaks a terrible message: there’s no way to enter that embrace apart from the instruments of his suffering and death.

Photo of the Neumunster Church crucifix by Markus Hauck

Such is the paradox of love revealed at Holy Week, now underway in the Western churches and a week away for the Orthodox East. Familiar stories recounted in the coming days unite love and suffering on an infinite canvas, surpassing Walther’s love songs as the noonday sun outshines a candle. Through these stories, Christians remember there’s no road to Easter without Good Friday, no rebirth without death. In a technocratic age, when suffering is seen as pointless, a mistake in nature to be eliminated, it’s an act of cultural defiance to stand before the cross and say, if only to oneself, “This is where I’m headed, whether I acknowledge it or not.” Not that I’m advocating suffering for its own sake. As a Benedictine monk once told me, “Don’t go looking for suffering. It will find you. But when it comes, don’t waste it.”

Isaiah tells us that God’s ways are spectacularly different from ours. Nothing reveals this gulf more clearly than the cross, defying all I know and everything I do. Old habits die hard (if at all), and to this day, I misuse the cross, acting as if it gets me what I want, that I can work it into my agenda. But Jesus doesn’t go to the cross to get or do anything. He goes to the cross because that’s where his faithfulness and love lead him. The Letter to the Hebrews names the cross’s disturbing lesson as obedience, another cultural anathema. The roots of the English word are Latin, ob-audire, “to hear; to hear completely.” Jesus is an observant Jew, and – contrary to common Christian misconception – that means his obedience isn’t a matter of keeping rules. It’s rather in hearing the Word of God so thoroughly that he embodies the love of the one who speaks that Word.

The cross points where words cannot go. It commands silence. How can language capture a mystery whose love is palpable not only in moments of ecstasy, when everything fits together, but even – and particularly – in catastrophe, when it all falls apart? I can’t say what the cross means, but I can tell you what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that we buy God’s love with our suffering. Nor, I respectfully submit, does it mean that we buy God’s love with Jesus’ suffering, though there’s a long, convoluted tradition that suggests as much. No one – not even Jesus – sets out to suffer, and it’s blasphemous to claim the maker of the universe wants that for us. We don’t need to create more suffering. It’s all around us, and often enough it’s within us. What the mystery we call God asks is that we pay attention, hearing so thoroughly that, in the heart of that suffering, we reflect the character of Divine love. As Richard Rohr puts it, “Unless we find a way to transform our suffering, we will almost certainly transmit it.”

We can’t hope to do this on our own. I know I can’t. That’s why we have each other. That’s why humans gather, pray, worship, love, serve, share, mourn, sing, play, and make beautiful things, learning from one another how to live into our suffering, not as an act of resignation, but as an invitation to abundant life. There are no lifetime guarantees, as Jesus well knew. Facing death, Jesus begged, “Remove this cup.” In his agony on the cross, this observant Jew turns to psalms of lament, demanding to know why God has abandoned him. It’s in his tenacious Jewish faithfulness, Christians believe, that Jesus shows rather than tells how in God’s good time – never ours – we are raised up. Our temptation is to hurry on to the raising up, to pretend the suffering is trivial, even illusory, but that denies the body. The body remembers the truth of suffering, however diligently the mind labors to forget. If we can’t stay in the pain, bearing it for and with each other, crying out for justice and deliverance, then what on earth are we doing?

Real human transformation comes rarely, if ever, without great love or great suffering. Perhaps that’s why they travel together, why Walther’s love songs still draw pilgrims to his tomb, and why the far greater love song of scripture leads many to the foot of the cross. It’s embarrassing, then, to see the cross sentimentalized into a fashion accessory or embalmed in the vapid lyrics of praise songs. That’s nothing, however, compared to the long, damnable history of using the cross against the Jewish people. I can think of no greater betrayal, no sin Christians more urgently need to remember and repent. Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion, which I mentioned on this blog last month, forbids my forgetting. Whenever I’m in downtown Chicago, I make a pilgrimage to the Art Institute to stand in its disturbing presence. In Chagall’s 1938 rendering, the crucified Jesus is draped in a Tallit (prayer shawl), surrounded by twentieth century pogroms, and mourned not by angels, but weeping spirits of Jewish elders. Painted as the Shoah – that unholy alliance of antisemitism and technocracy – was yet unfolding, Chagall negates the comforting theobabble of Christendom. Like the Würzburg crucifix, White Crucifixion demands my silence.

As grace would have it, the interval between Good Friday and Easter/Pascha is a Jewish Sabbath. Happier still, it coincides in the 2019 western calendar with the first day of Passover. What better time to dwell in silence on that collision of great suffering and liberating love revealed in the Passover Haggadah and the Paschal mystery? This is where we are going. This is the paradox where great beauty and words of real power lead, a place awaiting our arrival, where words and images fall away like autumn leaves, exposing dormant buds awaiting the spring. This is the coincidence of opposites where birth and death meet. For the mystery of the life to come and the mystery of the cross now here are linked as intimately as once you were linked to your mother while you grew in the darkness and the silence of her womb.

Image depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

+ Click here to make a donation.

+ Click here to subscribe to Image.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Brian Volck

Brian Volck is a pediatrician who received his undergraduate degree in English Literature and his MD from Washington University in St. Louis and his MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of a poetry collection, Flesh Becomes Word, and a memoir, Attending Others: A Doctor’s Education in Bodies and Words. His essays, poetry, and reviews have appeared in various periodicals and journals, including DoubleTake, Health Affairs, and Image. He provides clinical care in Maryland and on the Navajo Nation and is working on a book on the Navajo, history, and health.

If you like Image, you’ll love ImageUpdate.

Subscribe to our free newsletter here: