Worship Helps for Lent 4

Grunewald’s Painting – “the Crucifixion”
Painted in the year 1515

Long before Mel Gibson brought the horror and brutality of Christ’s passion to the movie screen in “The Passion of the Christ,” Matthias Grunewald brought the horror and brutality of Christ’s passion to his altarpiece.

In order to understand “The Crucifixion” by Grunewald, you must first understand the background of this unique work of art.

“The Crucifixion,” which is part of the Isenheim Altarpiece was commissioned by the Antonites. The Antonites were a hospital order of medieval monks that devoted themselves to the care of people in the tiny hamlet of Isenheim. In the 1500s, that care consisted primarily of treating patients who were afflicted with a terrible skin disease called “St. Anthony’s fire,” or ergotism, which was caused by rye fungus. This disease caused serious convulsive symptoms including painful seizures and spasms, as well as visible and painful pustules and open wounds.

The Antonites would construct temporary hospitals at all the major trade junctions affected by this disease. People who came to these hospices knew they would soon die. German painter, Matthias Grunewald was invited to the Antonites’ monastery and asked to create an altar piece for the Abby church in this hospital. In a time before painkillers, Grunewald was asked to create a painting that patients could meditate upon to help them cope with their own agonies. As they suffered from their disease, they could look up to see Christ’s intense suffering for them on the cross. This would bring hope to the dying audience.

On the far left of the painting, is Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is not dressed in the clothing of her times. She is dressed in the same way that the nuns/nurses were dressed as they cared for the sick in the hospital.

Mary is being comforted by the Apostle John. Jesus has asked the disciple whom He loved (John 19:26) to care for His mother.

Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus drove out seven demons (Luke 8:2) is kneeling in front, praying, wringing her hands in sorrow. She has a vessel of ointments at her side, which she is planning to use later to anoint Jesus’ dead body. At the hospital where this painting was originally displayed, Mary Magdalene would have been at eye level with the patients. She best symbolizes the feelings of the patients. They could see her grief and immediately identify with it.

On the right, John the Baptist is pointing at Christ and saying: “Illum oportet crescere, me autem minui” or: “He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30). The Lamb is at John’s feet. His side is pierced and blood is being collected in a chalice. This is an ancient and well-used image for the Lord’s Supper, the Feast of the Lamb.

Jesus on the cross dominates the picture. He is specifically painted larger than all the other individuals in order to stand out and tower over every one else.

We may often see images in contemporary art or on the movie screen of a bloody, beaten and suffering Jesus on the cross. However, portraying Jesus as horribly twisted and mangled as He is in this painting was unusual and truly unique in the 16th century.

Christ’s skin is a grayish green. His body is covered with wounds – the same plague-type sores the patients had covering their bodies. Christ’s head is crowned with thorns and hanging painfully on His chest. His limbs are twisted and His hands and feet are distorted, bringing to mind the convulsive seizures and spasms of those suffering from St. Anthony’s fire.

This is a portrait of a brutal, solitary … but substitutionary death.

The original painting was physically huge – about 9’ tall x 16’ wide. The figures in the painting appeared to be life-size to the patients that would stand in front of it.  “The Crucifixion” became part of the curative process at the hospital. Every patient that was brought into the hospital was brought past this painting and given a chance to study it, to meditate upon it, to pray, and to hopefully find some spiritual comfort in its message. The belief was so strong that a patient did not receive any medical treatment until they first were exposed to the painting. 

Grunewald’s image of the crucified Christ portrays a visceral and emotional intensity. As the patients entered the Antonites hospital in Isenheim, they saw that Christ was not only taking their sins upon them, but also their painful and deadly disease, as well.

Worship Theme: Jesus calls us from sinful selfishness to selfless service. We can view the world from the perspective of selfishness or selflessness. Selfishness puts self before all and leads to favoritism, pride and envy. Repentance, however, means despairing of self, trusting in Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice and leading lives of selfless service modeled after our Savior who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for us.

Old Testament: Genesis 37:1-11 Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan. 2 This is the account of Jacob. Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. 4 When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him. 5 Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. 6 He said to them, "Listen to this dream I had: 7 We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it." 8 His brothers said to him, "Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?" And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said. 9 Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. "Listen," he said, "I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me." 10 When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, "What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?" 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

1. What do we learn about the choice between selfishness or selflessness from Joseph?

Epistle: Romans 8:1-10 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, 4 in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. 5 Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; 7 the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. 8 Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. 9 You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.

2. Why are the opening words (verse 1) so triumphant?

3. While the Law no longer condemns us, it still has a function. What is the Law’s purpose for us now? (verse 4)

Gospel: Matthew 20:17-28 Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, 18 "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!" 20 Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. 21 "What is it you want?" he asked. She said, "Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom." 22 "You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said to them. "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" "We can," they answered. 23 Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father." 24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-- 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

4. What was the “cup” of which Jesus spoke?

5. Why is pride such a dangerous sin?

6. How do Jesus’ life and ministry provide a model for us?

1. The life of Joseph illustrates Jesus’ message that whoever wants to be first must be your slave. Selfishness led to Jacob’s favoritism and his sons’ jealousy. Selfishness led Jacob and his sons to such pride that they could not imagine God’s prophecy about Joseph coming true. Their selfishness forced Joseph into the role of slave and servant, yet God in his grace would save many people in spite of their sin. Sold into slavery and jailed unjustly, Joseph would trust in God and selflessly serve his fellow man. Ultimately, God brought the prideful low and raised up humble Joseph. In doing so, He both fulfilled his prophecy and also saved the family of God and countless others.

2. Paul has already discoursed at length on the reality of sin and its consequences as well as on God’s faithfulness and his gracious forgiveness in Christ. As Christians, he acknowledged that we are still struggling daily with the sinful nature that is part of us, but that we are being rescued by Jesus Christ (7:21-25).  Now the triumphant confidence naturally follows: THERE IS NO CONDEMNATION FOR THOSE FOUND IN CHRIST! What a comfort. What a relief for sin-challenged Christians!

3. The “righteous requirements of the law” speak not of achieving God’s demanded perfection. Remember that there is no condemnation in Christ! This use of the Law is referred to as the “guide” or “rule,” which we obey out of love for God through the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

4. The cup was Jesus’ suffering and death, which he was headed to Jerusalem to drink.

5. It is incorrect to consider one sin more punishable than another, but pride causes a person to ignore his need for spiritual help, and that can be a damning mistake.

6. Jesus revealed the plan of the Father to his disciples: the Son of God would leave his heavenly throne and selflessly give his freedom to his enemies, his body to the torturer, his life to the executioner in order that he might be our Savior. Rather than marveling at the depth of his love and self-sacrifice, the disciples argued about places of greatness in glory. The sons of Zebedee wanted to sit at the right and left of Jesus, but were only promised that they would join in drinking his cup. The other disciples were indignant, but not righteously so. Jesus corrected them, too. Followers of Jesus drink his cup and find greatness in selflessly serving others. For our motivation and our model, Christ points back to God’s plan for the Son of Man who came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Putting your faith into action
When God allows us to endure suffering at the hands of our own sinful choices, he does so in order that we might see the cause and depth of the problem in our hearts and bring us to our knees in repentance. But we can be sure that God never abandons us, for the abandonment took place at the cross when he abandoned his Son. Knowing this soothing gospel love of our Savior, we are encouraged to press on in our struggle with selfishness and give our lives to the Lord’s service.

A reading from the Book of Concord for the 4th Sunday in Lent
60] For inasmuch as our nature has been corrupted by sin, and is worthy of, and subject to, God's wrath and condemnation, God owes to us neither the Word, the Spirit, nor grace; and when He bestows these gifts out of grace, we often thrust them from us, and make ourselves unworthy of everlasting life, Acts 13:46. And this His righteous, well-deserved judgment He displays in some countries, nations, and persons, in order that, when we are placed alongside of them and compared with them [and found to be most similar to them], we may learn the more diligently to recognize and praise God's pure [immense], unmerited grace in the vessels of mercy.

61] For no injustice is done those who are punished and receive the wages of their sins; but in the rest, to whom God gives and preserves His Word, by which men are enlightened, converted, and preserved, God commends His pure [immense] grace and mercy, without their merit.

62] When we proceed thus far in this article, we remain on the right [safe and royal] way, as it is written Hos. 13:9: O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in Me is thy help.

63] However, as regards these things in this disputation which would soar too high and beyond these limits, we should, with Paul, place the finger upon our lips, and remember and say, Rom. 9:20: O man, who art thou that repliest against God? – Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, Article XI, Election (paragraphs 60-63)

Hymns: 102; 486; 312; 525

1  Lord of glory, you have bought us With your lifeblood as the price,
Never grudging for the lost ones That tremendous sacrifice,
And with that have freely given Blessings countless as the sand
To th’ unthankful and the evil With your own unsparing hand.

2  Grant us hearts, dear Lord, to give you Gladly, freely, of your own.
With the sunshine of your goodness Melt our thankless hearts of stone
Till our cold and selfish natures, Warmed by you, at length believe
That more happy and more blessed ’Tis to give than to receive.

3  Wondrous honor you have given To our humblest charity
In your own mysterious sentence, “You have done it unto me.”
Can it be, O gracious Master, That you need what we can do,
Saying by your poor and needy, “Give as I have giv’n to you”?

4  Yes, the sorrow and the suff’rings Which on ev’ry hand we view
Channels are for gifts and off’rings Due by solemn right to you,
Right of which we may not rob you, Debt we may not choose but pay
Lest that face of love and pity Turn from us another day.

5  Lord of glory, you have bought us With your lifeblood as the price,
Never grudging for the lost ones That tremendous sacrifice.
Give us faith to trust you boldly, Hope, to stay our souls on you;
But, oh, best of all your graces, With your love our love renew.

Text: Eliza S. Alderson, 1818–89, alt.


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