“The Adoration of the Lamb” and the Christian Hope
Christ is risen, Alleluia!
The Ghent Altarpiece, by Netherlandish painter Jan Van Eyck, provides rich material for reflection this Easter season. A beautiful, detailed image of the end of time, it reminds us of the Christian hope of Easter and how it connects to our own crosses in our ordinary life.
Active in the early 15th century, Jan Van Eyck was one of the great figures in the art of the Northern Renaissance. He was recognized as a skilled painter who paid great attention to detail in his work. Van Eyck brought this skill to his religious paintings as well; one of the most stunning was his Ghent Altarpiece, especially his center panel, “The Adoration of the Lamb.”
Van Eyck’s painting is based on John’s Apocalypse (Revelation):
“After this I saw a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne, and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands: And they cried with a loud voice, saying: Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Apocalypse 7:9)
One of the great details from the painting is the lamb itself. A close inspection of the lamb reveals it standing in triumph, receiving the adoration and praise of the numberless multitude. But while the lamb is triumphant, it is also slain. Blood from its pierced breast continues to pour out into a chalice.
This touch is a beautiful one and an important reminder for us during the Easter season and beyond. Easter Sunday did not erase Good Friday, nor make it like it never was. The risen God remains the crucified God. Christ risen is still Christ crucified. He rose with the scars. Hence, He could say to Thomas, who doubted, “Put in thy finger hither, and see my hands; and bring hither thy hand, and put it into my side; and be not faithless, but believing” (John 20:27). Before that, when He first appeared to His apostles in the upper room, St. John tells us that “He showed them His hands and His side” (John 20:20). At the end of the world, the devil will have no scars, but Our Lord will.
The point is an important one for a number of reasons. The Old Testament references to resurrection that Jesus’ apostles would have been familiar with generally held that the just would be resurrected, but only at the end of time. Hence when Our Lord told Martha that Lazarus would rise, she replied that she knew he would rise on the last day. The clearest reference to resurrection in the Old Testament, from Daniel, has the risen shining like stars in the firmament (12:3). Yet, in a key difference, the Gospels do not describe Jesus shining like a star. He is not the same, but rather, still risen with his wounds. Resurrection did not erase them. And, by those wounds, His disciples recognize Him.
Van Eyck’s painting of the Lamb triumphant, but also slain, reminds us of this. Our Lord came to Easter Sunday only though Good Friday. We come to our own Easter only through our own Good Friday.
Easter gives us the only real source of hope in our own lives. The Christian hope is not a mere optimism, like an anticipation or expectation of good things in the future, comfort, or success. The Christian hope is based in the knowledge of the cross and Resurrection. With that knowledge, we know that we will have to carry our own cross, go through our own Good Fridays, and someday, also pass through death itself.
We may sometimes be tempted to wonder why God will not remove a particular cross from our own lives, no matter how often or how fervently we ask. But we should not be surprised at this, for He did not remove the cross from Himself. Our Lord prayed that the cup might pass away, but added: “but not as I will but as you will.” This does not mean we should never ask for the removal of some cross or another, but that we should ask in the same spirit: not as I will, but as you will.
At the same time, the true hope of Easter does not promise the removal of our crosses or the erasure of death, but their redemption. We are reminded of what awaits us if we faithfully bear our own crosses. God willing, if someday we stand before the throne and the Lamb, we will stand before Him with scars of our own, crying: “Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb.”