Homily by Fr James Heard on Tuesday 22nd March 2016 at St Georges Church, The Passion through Art

Homily by Fr James Heard on Tuesday 22nd March 2016 at St Georges Church, The Passion through Art

This holy week we are reflecting on the passion through a variety of means - most beautifully last night, through music. Tomorrow we will be exploring the passion through the poetry of RS Thomas. But tonight I would like to reflect upon just one painting: Christ Crowned with Thorns, Hieronymus Bosch.

Bosch was a prolific Dutch painter of the 15th and 16th centuries. Many of his works depict sin and human moral failings. Bosch like to used images of demons, half-human animals and machines to evoke fear and confusion and to portray the evil of man.

Christ Crowned with Thorns was painted toward the end of his life. It saw a shift in style which included paintings with a small number of large figures who appear to almost leave the painting and stand close to the observer. This painting is an example of this and you can find it at our National Gallery.

The episode this painting depicts is between the trial of Christ and his crucifixion. In what he probably sees as political expediency, Pilate has Jesus handed over to be crucified. The cruel and hardened Roman soldiers take him, clothe him with purple, put a crown of thorns on his head and then begin to mock him, hitting him and spitting at him, mockingly shouting, ‘Hail, King of the Jews’.

Just as John’s gospel has the stark, binary theme of theme of light and darkness, Bosch’s painting is also intensely stark. The ugliness, anger and violence of the four characters surrounding Christ contrasts with Christ himself. Research done on this painting, which shows preparation under the painting, has revealed that Bosch has actually toned down the violence going on for a slightly more subtle interpretation of the event.

In the gospel narrative we have Christ clothed in purple, but the theological point Bosch is making in this painting is Christ as the gentle victim wearing the white garment of innocence. The thorny crown is just about to be forced down upon his pale and delicate skin… and it sort of resembles a halo. Christ’s humble and serene expression, almost lost in his own thoughts, contrasts with the ugliness and violence of the tormentors. This is clearly the contrast between good and evil that Bosch is attempting to portray.

What do we know about the mockers? They are wearing contemporary c.16 costume. Bosch is obviously making a comment about the corruption of the society of his time. Only two of the characters are soldiers. The one on the right wears a spiked dog collar, which recalls Psalm 22 (v.16) about dogs surrounding God’s chosen one. On his hat he has a cluster of oak leaves and an acorn, perhaps an allusion to the secular authorities of his day.

The soldier on the left looks more menacing. His turban has a crossbow bold through it, and his armoured hands and arm hold the crown of thorns. Perhaps this soldier also reflects the secular power of his day. He’s about to place the crown upon Christ’s head, a right to determine the next ruler in a mock coronation. It depicts the government of his day being as good as complicit in Christ’s torture, and he refuses to allow us to look away.

The other two characters seem to be paying false mocking homage as they kneel before Christ. The one on the left has a red headgear on which is a crescent and star, identifying him as an unbeliever. The other man is dressed like a merchant.

The painting was, and is, a challenge to its viewers. We are challenged to answer the question posed by Christ to his disciples: ‘Who do you say that I am?’. As we think about the cosmic significance of Christ’s death, what are its implications for what it is for us today to be human? We ponder the injustice of Christ’s fate and the cruelty which humanity is capable.
We are challenged to see violence and ugliness not just ‘out there’, where we see it on the news every day, but to see it within ourselves.

Whilst much violence continues in our world today, it’s unlikely that we here today in this part of London participate in this sort of physical violence… but I wonder whether there are other, more subtle faces of violence, of which we might be guilty: emotional violence at work or at home, often with those whom we are closest to; the violence of ignoring someone; an abusive use of power; verbal aggression, and so on. We must not allow ourselves to see violence as being ‘out there’ so as to avoid confronting our violence within.

In contrast to the world, and ourselves, who so often respond to violence with violence, the power of Jesus’s passion is that he absorbs it. And by so doing, he transforms it and transcends it. That’s the powerful, redeeming message of the Gospel. And whenever it happens things change.

There is an account in The Catholic Worker newspaper during the time of the civil rights protest in United States. It was a time when blacks and whites would sit at segregated lunch counters, refusing to move until they were served while angry whites poured ketchup on their heads, smeared mustard through their hair, pelted them with slurs, and mocked them. It quotes a black man: ‘I will let them kick me and kick me until they have kicked all the hatred out of themselves and into my body, where I will transform it into love.’

That's how Jesus loves us. He accepts all the violence, the anger and hatred of sin, he absorbs it into himself, and then he pours out his love, even on us who are the sinners. May we be ready to give up violence, hatred, vengeance, retaliation, and all of those things that seem so natural.  We’ll absorb hatred and violence and respond with love.  It will be a miracle, but it’s a miracle that God can make happen. 

Revd Dr James Heard

Holland Park Benefice