How often the poet and painter see what we do not! Or perhaps it is simply that recent generations have seen too much blood, too many horrors, to think of the crucifixion in anything but the most brutal terms. Of course it was brutal, but the modern film-maker’s lingering on torn flesh and gaping wounds misses something an older age understood instinctively: how to enter imaginatively into the drama of the cross not as spectacle but as participant. From the Dream of the Rood to the Harley lyrics, the poet’s vision of the duel between good and evil is intensely personal. The cross is no mere gibbet but speaks of its hour of glory when it bore creation’s lord; Christ questions us, demanding to know how he has erred that we should treat him so; and the dropping of that ‘lovely tear from lovely eye’ is like a lance to the heart of the onlooker. With Julian, most poetic and most homely of theologians, we see the blood falling from his pierced head as raindrops fall from cottage eaves after a shower and feel the wind that blows over Calvary and dries his flesh.
Our vision shifts and changes. We see the soldiers casting lots for Christ’s clothing, driving home the nails; taunting him, or maybe offering him some kind of sedative on a hyssop stick; we hear the thieves crucified with him and that gracious promise to the one popular tradition names Dismas to be with him in paradise; we watch the tender scene where he entrusts his mother to John and John to his mother; and finally, there is that last great cry, when Jesus gives up his spirit and the veil of the temple is torn in two as heaven and earth groan with one voice: the Son of God has died. What escapes us is the significance of what we see. It is too vast. Two thousand years of theological endeavour have not yet exhausted the meaning of what happened on Calvary, but I think Nicholas Mynheer’s painting captures one important element.
The mothers of Jesus and Judas embrace. Both have lost a much-loved son; both know the grief of being outcasts. To take one’s own life is against the Law; to be crucified as a common criminal is beyond the pale. But there is more than that. These two women know that their sons are eternally linked, that the actions of the one led to the death of the other, but there is no room for accusations, no desire to perpetuate a hostility in which neither they nor their sons shared. They knew that Jesus and Judas were friends. They had probably fussed over them and the other disciples on their rare visits home, delighting in their companionship and banter. They knew the humanity of their sons, and were not afraid of their own. The cross stands as a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation and we see in Mary and the mother of Judas that forgiveness and reconciliation at work. There is nothing but love between them, nothing but the desire to comfort, to lessen the agony each feels.
The cross now stands empty, having done its work. Jesus descends into the underworld to seek and save the dead. Among them, surely, is his friend, Judas.