We preach Christ crucified

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A fresco painting by Italian painter Masaccio is titled “Holy Trinity” and can be found on a wall in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Masaccio was only in his 20s when he painted the piece in 1425-27. He died at the age of 26.

The work is important as one of the first instances of a painter using a mathematical, geometric formula to give us true perspective on a flat surface. As you stand in front of the painting, you can see the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit portrayed as if in a separate inner vault with the crucified Christ at the center. The Holy Spirit hovers as a dove between the minds of the Father and the Son. At a second outer level, Mary and John the evangelist stand beneath the cross as on Calvary. On still another outer plane are the two patrons who have funded the painting. Finally, at the base of the painting, on the level of the viewer, is a sarcophagus with a skeleton on its top, representing Adam. There an inscription reads, “I once was what you are and what I am you also will be.”

A cherished aspect of the painting is Masaccio’s positioning of God the Father behind the cross. The Father holds the cross in His hands, giving His Son as a sacrificial gift for the world. The inscription above the skeleton reminds us of our oneness with Adam. As he died we will all die, and our only hope is in this cross and the marvelous work of God — Father, Son and Spirit — to save us there.

I remember a woman who came up to me after a wedding to question my referring to the cross in my wedding sermon. She asked, “How could you bring up something so violent and bloody at a wedding?” I tried to explain that for us Christians the cross may be violent and bloody, but it is also the greatest sign of love we know. So we point to the cross, even at weddings. She struggled with my words. It is, after all, a matter of perspective.

One thing I love about being Lutheran is how we never live far from the cross. It marks us as Baptized. It looms atop our steeples and dangles from our necks. Our theology of the cross includes not only receiving the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice in faith but also
intentionally bearing our crosses for others in His name. Every Christian has this calling (Mark 8:34). It defines us.

As we walk with Jesus to the cross this Lent and Holy Week, may we once again receive the Father’s forgiveness in faith and the Spirit’s rich fruit of repentance. Here death is put in the perspective of grace and ultimately trumped by resurrection life. Only God could make this happen. No wonder “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23).