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Displaced at Easter

Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J.
Thursday, March 24, 2016

(Washington, D.C.) March 24, 2016 — As we enter the Sacred Triduum, the three most holy days of the church’s liturgical year, we naturally think sequentially. On stark Good Friday we pray in sorrow; hear once again the Passion according to St. John; venerate the bare cross; receive Communion reserved the day before. Holy Saturday is the time of emptiness, the suspension of time in fact, when the tomb of the Lord evokes the tombs, losses, rampant emptiness of our own lives. Easter is then the day of light, of song and risen hearts. He lives, who was our sacrifice. He calls to us, who had fled his cross. He gathers and forgives and imparts His peace to us, who no longer had any reason to hope or even pray.

With good reason we move thus through solemn rites, one after the other, even though we know instinctively that the reality we celebrate is not a sequence of events but rather a single mystery binding time and eternity, loss and love, empty hearts and fulfilled communities.  No words or images or rituals suffice for the new reality we are offered. It is the fulcrum of our lives, their hope of being real and true, of becoming fully ours while also fully God’s.  We celebrate it over the hours of days that intimate a presence and joy and communion transcending time. 

Not that time is left behind, or discounted, or rendered less important. On the contrary: its innermost possibility, its real calling, its true destiny are revealed — and brought home. It is the one Paschal Mystery that we celebrate, the unitary manifestation of the cost and promise of our lives together, before and with God, with all their sorrow and tears, base abuse and miserable waste, selfish aggrandizement and inhuman neglect — but also their laughter and exhilaration, beauty and achievement, friendship and care.

Part of the wonder is this: That the one mystery of the death of the crucified Jesus who was buried in the earth but also carried into the heart of God (not after but through his death) was of an entirely particular time and place and yet is offered to all times and places. On the hill of Golgotha outside the city of Jerusalem, at Passover, the man from Nazareth was slung on wood that he had carried himself to his place of execution. There he died all but alone. So that we, and all other men and women, might live together — with him.

Each age seeks imagery, however inadequate, to suggest the glory of this foundation of faith — from the mosaics of Ravenna to the statuary and windows of Chartres, through early Renaissance altar pieces to exuberant Baroque inventions, and on to heartfelt paintings of black American artists like Jacob Lawrence and William Johnson. No one style is enough. (No one gospel is enough.) Each time has means, moods, needs of its own. We must support each other in responding as authentically as we can to this celebration of Paschal Mystery which in fact is life in the Paschal Mystery. And we must hope for the artists who will help us.

One such artist, Georges Rouault, seems a special blessing in this time of war, widespread poverty, the arrogant misuse of power, and the terrible plight of refugees and displaced people throughout the world. Born in a working class district of Paris, in a basement to which his mother fled from the violence of the Paris Commune in 1871, Rouault brooded throughout his life over the plight of the poor, the indifference of the powerful, and the promise of Christ.  

After apprenticing as a boy in a workshop for stained glass (whose strong color and lines he carried with him always), he had enrolled at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris and studied under Gustave Moreau (Henri Matisse was a fellow student), becoming in fact the famous Symbolist’s favorite student.  Influenced also by the novelist Léon Bloy and by Jacques Maritain’s Christian philosophy, he was all but haunted by biblical themes, particularly the Passion of Christ, and rendered them repeatedly in a distinctively emotional and rugged Expressionist style. Today he seems providentially close to the earth, intimate with the ordinary, a man who sympathized almost unbearably with the suffering and downtrodden.  He would be far more at home in the refugee camp of Kakuma in Kenya than in the Elysee Palace in Paris.

One group of prints, Miserere et Guerre, offers plain but far from prosaic images that seem especially suited to Easter today. Conceiving the series in 1912 to offer biblical and social meditations on a time of suffering and imminent war, Rouault worked on it until 1918 and then again from 1922 to 1927, completing 58 plates out of a planned 100.  (There were unaccountable difficulties with his dealer Ambroise Vollard, who died in 1939, but the artist finally recovered rights to the work and published it in 1948, with titles that he wrote himself.)

Rouault sees Christ on the cross sometimes alone, sometimes with the usual figures accompanying him, sometimes in full view, sometimes partially or strongly cropped. In each case the Lord is a powerfully built man with his eyes closed, his arms outstretched but not tense, wearing the simplest of loincloths, and with his legs standing simply on the platform of the cross. He has a faint halo, seldom wears the crown of thorns, and his wounds are scarcely visible. (Each detail suggests suffering registered with sober severity but without melodrama.) Typically, as in the Prado’s incomparable Velázquez, Jesus’ head inclines to his right. 

The mood is utterly still, the landscape deep but not detailed, the sky dark but cloudless. (In another crucifixion scene in color there is the suggestion of a setting sun.) This is the cross of primal fact, unadorned, its emotional appeal centered on the death for others of the Man for Others, before whom only the most profound humility, without any hysteria, is in order.

The fullest treatment of the cross, and the most poetically titled, shows Jesus with “INRI” written above him, John and the Magdalene to his left, his Mother half crouching, half kneeling to his right. It is not clear how, or whether, the three are clothed; shown in the most basic attitudes of grief and mourning, they recall figures from Edvard Munch’s “Frieze of Life,” though without any of the Norwegian artist’s obsessive frenzy. This is at once the most imaginary and most real of crosses, all but sculptural in its solidity, with the cross itself almost disturbingly massive, as if to suggest that it is the world indeed on which the Redeemer hangs. With appropriate creative freedom, Rouault entitled the print: “Love one another.”  I think of the image ineluctably when I see scenes of refugees enacting the traditional devotion of the Stations of the Cross.

How, in such a style, might one imagine the resurrection? (How, in today’s world, might one suggest it visually?)  There is a murky cancelled print that shows Jesus standing (rising?) in his tomb, with arms up-stretched, a loose cloak over his shoulders, while slumbering soldiers lie about beneath him. But a far more successful, indeed deeply moving and instantly recognizable image, simply shows two journeying men reaching out to each other with their right hands, one in a simple loin cloth with dark hair and beard and with a faint halo, the other wearing a sort of cap and something like a T-shirt. “Lord, it is you, I know you,” Rouault entitled the print. It is indeed the scene of Thomas and Jesus, but just as much of every refugee wondering if someone will accompany her in search of Christ. Not in the midst of grandeur, or at liturgy, or in the loftiest of ambitions, but simply along the way of life, the image suggests, we encounter the risen Christ among his brothers and sisters and are allowed to reach out for healing, or to help, or for love’s sake alone.  

“I greet him the days I meet Him,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins, “and bless when I understand.” And there He is certainly to be met, in the refugee camps of Turkey and Jordan, Chad and Kenya.  

If we celebrate the Paschal Mystery over these days of the Triduum, and rightly so, needing as a community to remember the wonder that works our redemption, we also live the Paschal Mystery in all the dyings and risings of our daily life: in renouncing excess, in turning to the poor, in the criticism of power’s abuse, in seeking out the lost, in finding ourselves strong in our weakness and accepted when we forget ourselves.  

Rouault was tormented by his sense of suffering and injustice in the world around him: “Everything is misery / In times of peace / And still more during war / Everything is misery,” he wrote in his Soliloquies in 1944, 14 years before his death (when he was given a state funeral).  But today the primal strength of his art, its spare concentration, his mastery of sardonic satire as well as his all-embracing compassion, commend him to a secular age that will be impressed not by elaborate religious theory but by the candor of personal witness and the courage of shared self-sacrifice. As we need churches less Gothic and more angular, we need pictorial art that suggests as much as it says and finds its strength in simplicity.

We live in a battered time, it seems to me. Karl Rahner called it “wintry” for the church.  But the world about us is certainly no warmer. And yet, living in time, we can make our way only through time, recognizing now one need, now one duty, now an opportunity for generosity, now one for restraint. Along the way we learn to correct our language, too: A loving God, unchangeable in purpose, nevertheless chooses to suffer with us in Christ. A crucified Christ, risen to eternal life in the Spirit, suffers still in the men and women called to be members of his Body but driven from their homes to harsh new landscapes and slums. The Church is the sacrament of the world’s salvation, but grace is blessedly, generously to be found in many communities of faith. (Theologians call this dialectic: the need to affirm not simply one truth but its complementary truth experienced in time.)   

If, after celebrating the Paschal Mystery, we now wish to live it and be assimilated anew to its daily dynamic of dying and rising, its pattern of surrender and empowerment, of the daily cross through which the divine eternal breaks in upon us, we need not look far to find its location. In an image which would alone guarantee him a place among religious artists of rank, Rouault printed a cropped Christ on the cross, showing him only from loin cloth to bowed head and shoulders, with a presence at once uncannily intimate and grand. “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world…,” the artist wrote beneath it. One knows immediately, assuredly, that it is so. He will suffer as long as any of his sisters and brothers, beginning with the most abandoned, suffer.

The Lord is risen! Alleluia! It is true. And the Lord is suffering daily, too, in the least of his sisters and brothers. It is true. Where shall we go to experience resurrection?

by Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J.

[An earlier version of this essay was published in the National Catholic Reporter on April 6, 2007.]