Saturday, March 22, 2008

Examining the Repulsive

This past Monday I came across a Palm Sunday sermon preached by Kim Fabricious. The sermon makes reference to a painting I'd never before encountered.

Hans Holbein: The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb
(please click this link to enlarge and study closer)
I was viscerally repulsed by what I saw. It disturbed me deeply. I was feeling bad physically anyway because it was an MS shot day and, unbeknownst to me, my gall bladder was in the process of introducing its dark side to me in an attack that would lead to its removal this past Thursday. (I'm sure I'll post more on that adventure later.) The sermon, in general, and the painting, in particular, formed the core of my talks with my counselor on Tuesday. MS treatment side effects and the poisoning of my body by the then unrealized gall bladder disease converging with my Holy Week thoughts pulled me into the deep, dark, cold place between the cross and the resurrection. It is a profoundly sad place and Holbein's depiction of the body of Jesus in the tomb tears at me.
Reflecting on Easter worship I remember growing up Baptist, I struck me early on in my ministry that we did a good job celebrating Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday but, with the exception of whatever Good Friday songs there might be in that particular year's musical or pageant, we pretty much went from celebration to celebration without dwelling for a time on the signficance of the second day ... the day in the tomb.
Holbein's painting is immediately recognizable as a depiction of Jesus, his visible hand, his feet and side pierced, his mouth gaped open and his eyes staring blankly upward in death.
But the hand, the pierced hand by his side is locked in position that looks to us in our culture like one of the most common and crude gestures of our culture. How dare he?
Holbein painted this work in 1521 when a deep Christian symbology was at work. Michael Onfrey teaches us more about what is really at work in the significance of position of the hand.

...everything is symbol, allegory; everything says something other than its initial meaning; everything hides and reveals, speaks and is silent; everything murmurs to the ear that is capable of hearing. But who is still capable of hearing today?

The hand is no longer the hand, it is more than the hand; the middle finger is not the middle finger, but more than the middle finger. Namely? Within this allegorical configuration, each finger has meaning. The hand? The soul, the principle of life. The fingers? The opportunity for a spiritual exercise - a mnemonic technique inherited from the ancients. The thumb? "Give thanks."The index finger? "Strive to reach the light."The ring finger? "Suffer, regret."The little finger? "Offer, propose, show, present." And the middle finger, then? "Examine, weigh." A lesson in edification.

Consequently, the extended middle finger in Holbein's painting, as one might have imagined, has nothing to do with the phallic hand. At the epicentre of the work, Holbein is saying to us: "Look and conclude: examine."

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