When I was serving Woodbury Lutheran Church, we had a vicar one year who was an artist, now Pastor Matthew Blackford. We asked Matthew to do a painting of Christ on the cross throughout our six Lenten Vespers services. So as a part of our worship, as we sang, listened, and prayed, we also watched the painting progress. By week six we had Christ on the cross but without any blood or even wounds. It was a clean and sanitized crucifixion, like the old Western films where people got shot and didn’t bleed or bled hardly at all.
So at Week Six Vespers, Matthew preached and painted at the same time. He painted all that was left to paint – the wounds at Jesus’ hands and feet, the blood trickling down his face from the crown of thorns, and, lastly, the gaping wound His side. The painting ran blood-red. All along we heard about the importance of life being in the blood, of blood atoning for sin, and of Jesus knowing deep and writhing pain. It was a sermon I’ve clearly not forgotten.
For many centuries in the church the images of Christ were not that of Him bleeding and dying on a cross. Such a death was shameful in the Roman Empire during the early church’s first 300 years. The church for centuries loved the images of Christ as a caring shepherd and a universal king.
It was during the recurring outbreaks of the Black Plague in Europe (1350- 1750) that artists began showing Jesus truly suffering on the cross. So in the Isenheim Altarpiece (Gruenewald, 1512-1516) Jesus is depicted on the cross as bearing plague-type sores. Clearly Gruenewald and other Christian artists wanted to be sure we knew that Jesus understands and bears our suffering.
There have been times in my ministry when the bloodiness of the cross has offended people. A woman at a wedding once criticized my referencing Christ on the cross as an image of sacrificial love: “How can you bring such a violent picture into a wedding service,” she asked. Looking back, at least she saw the violence of the cross. Political correctness may ask for a cleaner crucifixion not on the order of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ (2004). I remember how in the early 80’s, when hymns were being chosen and revised for Lutheran Worship, someone actually suggested that we drop all references to blood in the hymns, lest we offend. An outcry to the contrary justifiably prevailed.
It was a bloody business alright out there at Skull Hill where they hoisted Him high to bleed and die! God would have it no other way. As the old animal sacrifices yielded blood for the mercy seat, Jesus’ blood “cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Isaiah saw it 700 years before it happened: “With His wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). This bloody mess, this butcher shop faith of ours, all of it points to a love so deep that it suffers like this for sinners like us.