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God’s Rescue Mission

In the narthex of our church, you can see a beautiful and mysterious painting of the crucifixion of Jesus. It is a copy of a fresco (a painting on fresh plaster) from the lower Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy. The painting is a work of Giotto di Bondone, known as Giotto, a famous Italian painter who lived at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries. For 17 years (1303-1320) he decorated the upper church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) with depictions of stories from the life of St. Francis. He also painted some parts of the lower church.

The painting presents two dramatic biblical scenes: Jesus’ crucifixion (in the center) and Jesus’ body having been taken down from the cross (on the bottom left). The fresco shows the drama of Jesus’ death on the cross and the suffering of the people who loved him. We can easily identify them: Mary of Magdala is under the cross, St. John the Apostle stands on the left, and further, another Mary – the sister of Jesus’ mother. In another scene we see Mary, the Mother of Jesus, dressed in black who, together with her sister, is caring for the body of Jesus.

On the right, we see two soldiers: one could be the centurion who said: “truly he was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39), the other one seems indifferent to the suffering of the Innocent. Further on the right, we see the Pharisees discussing something, possibly how they finally won over the “self-claimed” Messiah.  Around Jesus on the cross are several angels: some are collecting the precious blood of Jesus that is flowing from his wounds; other ones, seeing what is happening, are crying; two others are seemingly despairing and turning to God the Father in a dramatic plea for help – to no avail. God seems to be silent but He is absolutely not indifferent. Jesus also is silent, not crying for help. He doesn’t request help and he will not perform a miracle to rescue himself. Even when Jesus hears the bystanders mock him: “Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him” (Mt 27:42), he continues his mission. Why so? Because it was the only way to wipe out the world’s iniquities and open the gate to heaven to a stray mankind. Jesus freely offered himself and the offering was accepted. God’s rescue mission of the human race, of his children, has been completed.

Surprisingly, under the cross in the fresco Giotto also placed the Franciscan friars who lived in 13th century. By this, he wanted to show their authentic devotion to the Savior on the cross, to the “Love that is unloved” as St. Francis named Jesus. We see St. Francis on the right side of the cross as he is accompanied by another Franciscan friar and probably another saint from that order – St. Bonaventure.

May this beautiful work of Giotto help us to deepen our Lenten meditations on the great mystery of God’s love toward us. He loved us to the very end and this end became the very beginning.

Fr. Mark Jurzyk