In Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpiece, originally made for a French hospital chapel, we contemplate the horror of the cross where Jesus took on our infirmities to heal us by his wounds. The artist brilliantly conveys this by depicting Jesus with the same gruesome symptoms of skin disease that the patients in the hospital were suffering from. Day by day, they would be able to contemplate this image and experience that they were not alone in their suffering. Jesus carried the cross before them and he is carrying the cross with them now. His heart is literally ripped open to pour out his life-giving love.
On major liturgical feasts, such as Easter, the altarpiece would open up to reveal a stunning depiction of the Resurrected Christ, ascending effortlessly from the tomb as the master and head of the cosmos. He is the never-setting sun of justice that shines in the darkness. “Death no longer has any power over him” (Rm 6:9). For those suffering in this valley of tears, Grunewald opened up a view into the divine destiny of Jesus’ wounds – and their own. The same wounds that inflicted so much pain are now glorious.
On the night of Easter Sunday Jesus passes through the locked doors of fear and appears to his apostles who abandoned him and shows them his wounds. St. Thomas Aquinas says, “A problem arises here because there can be no defects in a glorified body, and wounds are defects. How then can there be wounds in the body of Christ?” (Commentary on the gospel of John, 2557) The angelic doctor answers that Jesus’ Sacred Wounds are the trophies of his victory over death and the proof of his love for us. Jesus shows his disciples his wounds and invites us to touch them and take refuge in them. He implores his disciples, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself (cf. Lk 24:39), the God-made-man who takes your wounds and transforms them into sources of mercy and peace. Contemplate my wounded heart pouring out my divine love. It is the new and living path through the curtain of my flesh to the inner sanctuary (cf. Heb. 10:20). It is the only way to the Father (cf. Jn 14:6), and the gate to holiness” (cf. Ps 118:19).
This masterpiece of Grunwald was created to lead us to contemplate in the Mass the mystery of the Incarnate Word “who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Rm 4:25). This Easter the Lord is not going to magically solve all our problems and take away all our suffering. But Jesus wants to trace a way in the wilderness of our wounds so that our suffering is not meaningless, because it is united to his pierced heart. He wants to transfigure our wounds so that they, too, may be the trophies of our victory over evil and a source of mercy and peace. “In heaven these wounds in their body will not be a deformity, but a dignity” (St Augustine, City of God, Bk 22).
Br. John Paul Puschautz, O.P. | Meet the Brothers in Formation HERE