This sequence from John’s Gospel contains a range of extreme contrasts in emotion and intention. It takes us back and forth between death and life, through the inner struggles of Jesus and the revelation of God’s purpose.
John 11 begins with the raising of Lazarus, thus introducing John’s Passion narrative, which will include the plot by religious leaders to arrest Jesus, his anointing at Bethany, and his welcome into Jerusalem by the crowd as king.
Jesus then begins to talk about his death using the metaphor of a seed of wheat (12:24), and the now-familiar phrases of losing and finding one’s life (v.25). We are given an indication of Jesus’s inner turmoil and conflict as a voice from heaven thunders with an affirmation of glory (vv.27–28). We are then left with the image of Jesus being lifted up from the earth (v.32) and his encouragement to those listening to walk in the light (vv.35–36). Finally, Jesus slips from this public moment and ‘hides himself from them’ (v.36).
Colin McCahon’s large canvas is an attempt to enfold these contrasting perceptions and to play in and through the dark and light, the death and life, that structure this passage. It gives opportunity for the reader to fill out the visual elements of the story for themselves, and to inhabit an arena of tension and contrast. Rather than using the familiar nature of these verses as a source of comfort, McCahon wants us to explore the edges of uncertainty and be willing to live in the questions; to dismantle and explore faith as a form of discovery; to re-live the passage and its difficult horizons; and to acknowledge its echoes in our own lives. The work literally ‘spells out’ a space that is defined by both certainty and doubt. This visual habitation honours the positive aspects of questioning that allow a person to arrive at a new place of synthesis and resolution.
Albrecht Dürer’s lone crucified figure embodies the contrasting tensions of life and death, but here these marks are visually inscribed on the vulnerable flesh of Christ. This figure carries these physical signs and serves to embody the whole Easter narrative, from betrayal, to death, to burial, and finally to resurrection. Viewers are invited to take a devotional stance and enter the story as an act of contemplation, and in turn, to embody these signs of death and life in their own spiritual narrative. Dying and rising are the continuing cycle of experience for bodies who wait for redemption.
Brett A’Court’s flying Christ offers an innovative cross-cultural and ecological view of a Christ ‘lifted up’ (v.32) within the life of creation. Here is the divine presence pictured at a vantage point between heaven and earth, offering us a rope to hold on to so as to experience the exhilaration and hope found in the metaphor of flying. This is a figure who carries the wisdom of things being found in balance, in earth and sky, as well as in the wildness of land and the order of human culture. Rather than Christ being held aloft as a standard bearer of colonization or slavery, Christ is the one who invites vitality and harmony to be the mark of all earthly relationships. The meaning of Christ’s death moves beyond personal ethics, or even social relations, to include enemies, then other creatures, and finally the earth, as God’s gift.
In this complex narrative that begins Christ’s Passion, we are introduced to the larger themes that shape John’s theology of the cross as it moves towards glory, through the suffering figure of Christ intent on following God’s call. Of the four Gospels, it is above all John’s Gospel which invites the reader to contemplate and visualize the material signs of Jesus’s life and death. Jesus’s life is described in the tangible expression of the seven ‘I am’ sayings in the first half of the Gospel, where Jesus is described as bread (6:25ff.), light (8:12), vine (15:1), etc. The resurrection of Lazarus—a story found only in John—is also crafted to heighten our material and visual awareness. Jesus is delayed (11:6), we hear the emotion of Mary, Lazarus’s sister (v.33), Jesus is in turn moved to tears (v.35), and we arrive finally at the shuffling appearance of Lazarus as he comes out of the grave (v.44). The viewer understands the impact of these stories through the memory of the felt touch of the material things of ordinary life. It is into this ordinary world that God becomes flesh.
Bloem, Marja, and Martin Browne. 2002. Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith (Craig Potton Publishing and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam)
Rosenblum, Robert. 1975. Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko (London: Thames and Hudson)
Tarlton, John. 1976/77. ‘Ancient Maori Kites’, Art New Zealand 3 [available at http://www.art-newzealand.com]
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. 21So these came to Philip, who was from Beth-saʹida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew went with Philip and they told Jesus. 23And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. 24Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.
27 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify thy name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing by heard it and said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; 32and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” 33He said this to show by what death he was to die. 34The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Christ remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of man?” 35Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, lest the darkness overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes. 36While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”