In the Christian West, our most central devotional image, that of the crucified Christ, usually carries two major resonances. One is theological: it represents the salvation of the world through the loving self-offering of the Saviour in his victory over death. The other, more devotional resonance is of the suffering of Jesus and most representations of the crucifix have this character – the suffering of Jesus is shown powerfully and graphically as he bears in his own tortured body the suffering of the world. However, this emphasis is surprisingly late in Christian art. It is really only from the 13th century or so that we see Christ depicted more consciously in his suffering. Until then, his image was not one of pain but of victory, even to the extent of showing him crucified as a king.
Perhaps the most famous example of this earlier form is the crucifix before which St Francis heard his call to rebuild the church, which hung in the church of San Damiano. This powerful image can still be seen in the Basilica of St Clare in Assisi.
It is surprisingly large, almost 2 metres tall, and is rich in symbolism and narrative. The art shows strong influences from the Christian East and shows how close the iconographic traditions of the churches were at that time. Incidentally, this tradition has been revived in the icon painting of the ecumenical community at Bose in Italy. But I don’t want to get distracted into art history because my purpose in sharing this profound image is a spiritual one.
I have often felt that it is a pity that Christian art does not have an equivalent of the Buddhist iconography of the Buddha Shakyamuni in meditation. Jesus is shown teaching, healing, at supper with his disciples, on the cross, risen, but only very rarely at prayer. Given how often the Gospels refer to his withdrawal by himself to pray, this is surprising. But in revisiting this image, which has held a very important place in my own spiritual journey for about three decades, I has struck me with a great force that this is the supreme image of Jesus in meditation! The Jesus who emptied himself and took the form of a slave is here depicted in that boundless and loving emptiness. Stripped of all outward embellishment, he stands erect, open-eyed, open-armed, serene, united with the Father and with all of life, not in suffering but transcending suffering. This is Jesus-Sunyata: having let go of all things, even life itself, he fills all things with his boundlessness. This is the-one-who-does-not-cling (Phil 2:6) and is therefore open to all in unbounded compassion. This is how he saves – not through some legal-theological process, but by the utter poverty of self-emptying love. Suffering and violence are transcended by the complete renunciation of the savage system of blame and revenge that can sometimes pass for justice, and peace is realised through the courage to enter the unknowable void of egolessness.
The Seed has fallen into the ground and has died. It has let go of life that Life might flower.