Christmas and the New Year has arrived and gone and very soon the Lunar New Year will come our way. In the Christian calendar, the Advent season is followed by Epiphany, which, for the Western Church points to the Magi visiting the Christ-child. In the Eastern churches, Epiphany commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. Then we will enter pre-Lent and the Lenten season, where the church remembers the temptations and suffering of her Lord. All of this leads us to the central event of the salvation history – the Cross – and its main protagonist – Jesus Christ.
In any good and grand narrative, there are, of course, subsidiary figures. If we read the Gospel of Luke, there is a multitude of secondary figures surrounding the birth of Christ. But the two main supporting actors at Advent and Epiphany must surely be Mary, the mother of our Lord (following the words of Elizabeth in Luke 1:43), and John the Baptist. That was how Matthias Grünewald depicted the scene of the crucifixion in the central panel of his Isenheim altarpiece.
At the bottom of the cross are the figures of Mary and John the Forerunner. On Jesus’s right hand side is Mary held by John the Beloved Disciple, and kneeling beside her Mary Magdelene. On his left is the figure of John the Baptist. John is painted symbolically, of course, for at this point of the narrative Herod had already beheaded him. An interesting detail in the piece is John’s index finger pointing toward Jesus. He is the great witness who directs the gaze of the world away from himself to the coming One.
Karl Barth, arguably the foremost theologian of the twentieth century – certainly the greatest Reformed theologian after John Calvin – was captivated by Grünewald’s interpretation of John. A replica of the Crucifixion hung above Barth’s study table as he worked on his monumental but finally unfinished Church Dogmatics
What can one do when faced with the crucified Christ? All we can and must do, Barth wrote, is to face the mystery and worship as Mary did and point faithfully as John did. And that is precisely what supporting actors and subsidiary figures in the drama of God should do. Although we have been included into the great plot, there is a question we must continually ask of our gifts, our vocation, our “private possessions,” and ourselves: To whom do they/we point?
The Architect I
As he stands in front of his dream,
He remembers the struggle to create,
Every point and line on paper.
Now each post and beam and rafter,
Somehow held together by his pen.
He walks into that finished space,
In blueprint entitled The Study.
In one hand he holds a Grünewald,
In the other hammer and nail.
“Where do I hang the Crucifixion?”
He raises his arm above his head
Ready to join iron and wood.
His swing is hard but imprecise,
In the pain of folly, a shout
As he grips the crimson finger.
And he remembers
The suffering of the Architect.
The Architect II
I hear faint rasps – my own breath,
Slow and rhythmic, bidding Death.
One mouth, dry and soured, once called to Life
This hill, this tree.
Dead wood now.
Cedar scent: hands remembering the familiar,
Thirty years, I learned the craft,
Of many ways to unite beam and post.
Roughened palms with splinters, held
Nails firmly, between thumb and forefinger.
I cannot feel them any more.
I hear loud hisses – their breath,
Impatient and angry, demanding Death.
Two eyes, clouded and bloodshot, now drip tears
From this tree, onto this hill.
Warm earth: hands forgetting the old,
Many aeons ago, I sculpted the dirt
From the ground under their soles.
Unblemished palms with dust, respired
Life into fragile beings, divine mirrors.
I cannot but feel for them.
I hear a cry – my last breath,
Irony and Paradox, Life and Death;
Three words of relief and triumph now echo
From a tree on this hill.
Blue print: hands unfolding the perfect,
Today, I shall create again!
Not tabernacle of cloth nor temple of stone.
Scarred palms with clay will build
Scarlet bricks, a living house.
I cannot but live in them.
“For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God”
– Hebrews 11:10, NIV
Dr Tan Seng Kong is our Lecturer of Systematic and Spiritual Theology. He is a graduate from Regent College, Vancouver (MA, Spiritual Theology). Seng Kong completed his PhD in Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he focused his research on Jonathan Edwards’s doctrine of salvation. Seng Kong was trained as an architect and with his family, worships at Bethel Assembly of God.