By Alan L. Hayes
“Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed’ ” (Luke 2:34, NRSV).
As 2014 dawned, the Jewish Museum in New York was featuring a special exhibition of the paintings of the much beloved artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985).
For many viewers, their most surprising single discovery was how thoroughly Chagall had been consumed with the image of the crucified Christ. “The sheer number of these paintings and the variety of settings in which Chagall locates the man on the Cross,” wrote a reviewer in Commonweal, “make this new exhibit more than a curiosity; it is an epiphany.” Even in his homage to the Holocaust, in “White Crucifixion,” you see Jesus at the centre, suffering in compassion and solidarity amid the pogroms.
That the modern world’s best-known Jewish painter should focus so intently on the crucified Jesus created some controversy, as the exhibition catalogue acknowledged. But there were reasons why Chagall might identify with Jesus. Growing up in a shtetl (a small Jewish village) in the Russian Empire, Chagall knew Jesus’ experience as a despised Jew honouring the teachings of the Bible under a hostile imperial government. Later, fleeing the Nazi Reich, he felt what Jesus experienced as a victim of human cruelty, injustice, and persecution.
Chagall’s very first painting of a crucified Jewish Jesus, which he completed as a student in Paris in 1912, is also one of the most remarkable. It’s called “Calvary,” and you can see it on the website of the Museum of Modern Art. The Jesus in this scene of crucifixion is the Christ Child, with a beardless face, a bald head, and a round body. At the foot of the Cross, both his parents mourn. “I wanted to show Christ as an innocent child,” Chagall explained. Chagall is showing us the Christ Child, not on Christmas morning, but in the darkness at noon on Good Friday.
I find this so moving. Framing the Crucifixion with an evocation of a child’s death, which in one connection or another is an experience that most of us unhappily know, drives home the costliness of Christ’s sacrifice.
The mystery that connects the Crucifixion to the Incarnation is the utter humility of the Son of God, for, far from counting equality with God a thing to be grasped, the Lord Jesus lived and died among the wretched of the earth.
He was the offspring of unmarried parents, a refugee in Egypt, a dispensable member of a subjugated people in a remote corner of the Empire, and, even to the end, Chagall seems to be saying, a child with nowhere to lay his head.
Is this Child on the Cross relevant to the situation of those children who suffer, by the millions, every day of the year?
Could this long-ago, far-away Calvary be of any importance to them? In Christ, God assumed the flesh of every kind of humanity, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, and, yes, Chagall shows us, young and old.