Eleventh Sunday after Trinity – evening
Sunday 1st September 2019
Trinity 11 – Proper 17 – evening
Isa. 33. 13-22
John 3. 22-36
Revd Preb Maureen Hobbs
Does anyone recognise this example of religious iconography?
You may well react to it differently – as with any great work of art.
Some will love it – others will hate it for the gruesome and graphic portrayal of Christ’s crucifixion. It is known as the Isenheim altarpiece and was originally painted between 1512 and 1516 by an artist called Matthias Grünwald, and was originally commissioned for the hospital at Isenheim run by the Antonine monks. This hospital specialised in the care of patients suffering from what was called St Anthony’s Fire, a terrible infection that led to gangrene and was accompanied by terrifying hallucinations. We now know that the underlying cause of their illness was egotomine poisoning – derived from a fungus that contaminated rye bread, their staple foodstuff.
The patients looked from their beds towards this altarpiece – and you may well think that if the infection did not cause them to have nightmares, then this painting might do the job equally well!
It is a harrowing, shocking portrayal of Christ’s agony. The body contorted in pain from the nails. To one side of the crucifix you will see the figure of Mary, his mother, swooning in grief and being supported by John, the beloved disciple. Kneeling on the ground is Mary Magdalene, hands knotted in an agony of beseeching prayer. But I want to focus more on the figure standing to the other side, for this is John the Baptist, holding a lamb carrying a cross and pointing with a strangely elongated finger towards the figure on the cross – and painted on the canvas behind him are words from this evening’s reading… He must increase and I must decrease.
It is undoubtedly a powerful work – the more so that when it was painted, it was the practice of those who could read, to read out loud – not under their breath or silently in their minds. So imagine those poor souls who looked on this work daily from their beds. Those words would have had a special, rather dreadful resonance. The chances were very high that because of their illness they would indeed decrease; most of them were moving inexorably towards death!
Now try out those words for yourself…. They do not fit very easily, do they, into our culture where everything is focused on growth and improvement, where ‘increase’ seems to be of the essence? Those who argue for the need for action to counter the climate change that seems to be ever more real in our world, are battling against this culture. Exponential growth may be the very thing that is killing us – both personally as the obesity epidemic gets more significant, and even as far as our planet is concerned. – Those who have set fires to the Rainforest in Brazil are largely doing so in the interests of commercial gain and increase.
Even our cars have grown steadily larger over recent years, such that many vehicles can no longer be parked in a domestic garage, even if we had not taken over that space to store all the surplus stuff that we seem to have accumulated with passing years… the curse of growth once again.
Some of the cult of increase is a sign not simply of the pathology of capitalism and consumerism, but, at a deeper level, is a sign of our unwillingness to consider our own mortality. The raw reality is that we will all die, and perhaps we should all spend rather more effort in considering how we are going to approach that inevitability? If, as a society we make great preparation – quite rightly – when a birth is imminent, should we not do more to prepare ourselves for death? If in the long-term, we are all destined for decrease rather than increase, should we not take time to consider how we might approach the decrease–time of our lives?
When the Isenheim altarpiece was first created, many churches – probably this one included, would have had rough and ready frescoes on the walls about facing the reality of death. That doesn’t suit our modern sensibilities when we have largely tried to banish all such thoughts from our minds – and the result is that people today, have really big issues in dealing with grief and loss. From the perspective of our faith, we have many rich treasures to help people faced with such issues, but perhaps our squeamishness has led us to hold back when we should be disclosing and proclaiming these?
Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we know that death is not actually the end – whatever the humanists try to tell us. Beyond the grave there is an abundance of life and joy to come. John points the way – through his words as recorded in this evening’s reading. Through his pointing finger in the painting. Look to Jesus for our inspiration. He will only increase even if all of us, eventually, must decrease… And that is worth, at the least, a gentle Alleluia, surely?