As a new school year begins we say ‘thank you’ to catechetical leaders and catechists who begin their ministry of faith formation, education, and witness to faith. As catechists renew their commitment to leading others to Jesus Christ, the one who stands at the heart of all catechetical efforts, they will hear the anguished voices of the faithful in these challenging times. One image of Jesus’ crucifixion offers a profound visual catechesis for catechists and those they serve who seek hope, wisdom, and perseverance in faith in a season of healing.

An image for times of pain and scandal

The Small Crucifixion was painted by Matthias Grünewald, the master German painter, in the early years of the 16th century, a time marked by widespread scandal and deep divisions in the Church, sadly not unlike our own today. Only two dozen works of the artist survive, among them The Small Crucifixion, from the permanent collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The painter’s best known masterpiece is the Isenheim Altarpiece, commissioned for the high altar of the church of the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Alsace, where patients suffering from the plague and various skin diseases were treated. In that large altarpiece, Grünewald depicts a crucified Christ whose body is racked with plague type scars. Patients bearing the pain of their physical afflictions found spiritual comfort as they gazed on the crucified Jesus and identified with the mystery of his unjust suffering. It is thought that The Small Crucifixion was a personal devotional image, intended either for a domestic setting or a private chapel.

The bruised and broken Body of Christ

While Grünewald’s image depicts the historical event of Jesus’ crucifixion, it is more than a visual record of a distant, past event. The Church is the Body of Christ and in Jesus’ suffering body on the cross we see an image of His Body, the Church, suffering and broken, silenced in anguished waiting for God’s healing and transformative power. So Grünewald’s image of Jesus’ suffering is an image of the Church in her suffering, in every age, and in our own painful times.

He was wounded for our transgressions

In The Small Crucifixion, the artist presents the vivid horror of Jesus’ suffering body. One sees the depths of Jesus’ abandonment, his deep despair, and the extreme physical pain of a crucifixion. His body bears scars of torture while his lean face and bowed head evoke the injustice of his torment. Under a piercing crown of thorns, our Lord’s sacred face bleeds. The depravity of his tormentors is evidenced by his tattered loincloth. Helpless, humiliated, and silenced in the face of betrayal, rejection, and injustice is the Lord’s body on the cross, and his Body that is the Church.

But it is Jesus’ twisted hands and gnarled feet that convey the real depths of his agony. Obedient “even to death on a cross,” Jesus’ torment rises to heaven through gnarled fingers that cry out to the heavens. His twisted ankles, bending beneath the brutality of the nails that pierce his feet bear the chains of the world’s sinfulness. The crossbeam pulls downward under the mass of his body and the weight of divine mercy that takes the form of crucified love.

A prayer for healing mercy

Standing before the cross is Mary, the Blessed Mother of God, and St. John, the beloved disciple of the Lord. Mary’s head is bowed in anguished prayer, as she shares uniquely in her Son’s suffering. St. John bears the humiliation of a faithful disciple, like every faithful disciple who now looks on the Lord’s wounded body, his Church. And St. Mary Magdalene kneels at Jesus’ feet, faithful to the end. All three figures share in the Lord’s passion, as they witness his trial, condemnation, agony, and death on the cross. Their place at the foot of the cross is now ours as the faithful share in the unspeakable pain of survivors of abuse and beg God for their healing and for the renewal of the Church.

As the canvas bends outward this sacred scene moves into our space. The stark realism of Grünewald’s depiction allows no room for mere spectators, just as the stark reality of current events in the Church does for the faithful.

The force of God’s self-emptying love on the cross invites our participation in the mystery of Jesus’ suffering and the suffering of the Church. Only Christian faith gives access to this kind of participation. For with eyes of faith we see that Jesus’ crucified love is poured out on all humanity, but especially on those who suffer the most in his body, the Church. Grünewald’s vision allows us to see God’s healing mercy take the form of suffering love.

Sometimes a catechist might hear the question – why did Jesus suffer? In these distressing times, a catechist will eventually be asked – why does Jesus’ body, the Church, suffer? The Catechism tells us that Jesus suffered out of the depths of God’s love for sinful humanity. Yes, Jesus’ passion was an unequaled suffering. But the Son of God offered himself on the cross for all our sins. No one, not even the saintliest person, can take on the sins of all or offer himself as a sacrifice for sinful humanity as a whole. Only God can and did on the cross.

By your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

At the Sign of Peace at every Eucharist, the priest prays these words, “Lord, look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.” From the cross, Jesus looked on the sins of humanity and willingly suffered for them. From the cross, Jesus looks now on the faith of the Church, nourished by many faithful, holy priests and catechists in parishes across this local Church. For their ministry of teaching, forming and strengthening the faith of children, youth, and adults we say ‘thank you’ with a prayer that their efforts advance the Church’s healing and renewal. For we know and believe in faith that the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion gives way to the radiant glory of His, and our, resurrection.

(Jem Sullivan, Ph.D., educator and author, serves as Secretary for Education in the Archdiocese of Washington.)