I’ve always been fascinated by the center panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece by Mathias Grünewald. Nailed to a raggedly constructed cross, the pale body of Jesus sags under its own weight. His hands are knotted. His feet are twisted. His skin is marred by small fragments of stones and twigs from his scourging. To the right of Jesus is the figure of John the Baptist anachronistically inserted into the scene. He points toward Jesus and behind him are the words: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Karl Barth had a framed print of this painting in his office. He wrote that all theology is in that single, bony finger.
One the other side of Jesus are the figures of his mother Mary, the Apostle John, and Mary Magdalene. They recoil from the cross yet, at the same time, there is identification between them and the crucified Christ. Grünewald gives Mary’s skin the same greenish tint we see in Jesus’ skin. John’s head similarly sags and his lips are similarly pursed. We see the hands of Mary Magdalene contort in a way not unlike the nailed hands of Jesus.
So I look at the painting and I’m forced to ask a question: Are they identifying with Jesus or is he identifying with them? Are their expressions reflections of Christ’s suffering or is Christ’s suffering a reflection of their pain. Our religious culture is often guilty of gravitating toward a romantic view of the faith wherein Christ's work on the cross is sentimentally pitied. Instead it is important to be reminded by St. Paul that "He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor 5:21). He not only took on our sins, he became sin. We were The Walking Dead—we just didn’t know it.