French modern artist Georges Rouault was born in 1871 just outside Paris in the part of the city devastated by war. He was born in the midst of civil war. His mother gave birth to him as she sought shelter from heavy bombardment. Rouault would also live through the horrors of both World War I and World War II. He was drawn to art early in his life and encouraged by his mother, first training in a workshop that produced stained glass. By 1891, he was a pupil of Gustave Moreau in Paris, and a classmate of Matisse. But Rouault struggled deeply as an outsider. His art was disconcerting to everyone.
The church saw Rouault’s work as dark and unwanted. His contemporaries found his obsession with the cross far too religious, his interest in iconography and the French medieval aesthetic unwanted artifacts of the past. He was frequently referred to as “the artist of darkness and death.” He was accused of being able only “to imagine the most atrocious and avenging caricatures” and being “attracted exclusively by the ugly.”(1)
T.S. Eliot once praised the gift of artists who can hold a sense not only of the “pastness of the past but also of its presence.”(2) This is an apt description of Georges Rouault. His work considered the horrors of suffering that he saw presently and troublingly all around him alongside of the human Son of God crucified on a Roman cross, who somehow stood vividly in Rouault’s mind in the very midst of it. He saw the grotesque, the degraded, and demoralized of the world: the sorrow of clowns, the degradation of prostitutes, the hypocrisy of judges. And alongside these things, he saw the sacred, wounded head of Christ as the only one who could make sense of it. He saw within the bleak condition of the world and the fallen reality of our souls the presence of God in human form, standing within the darkness with us—and for us. Rouault inhabited an imagination steeped in the gifts of Holy Week and Easter, marked by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
In my own liturgical tradition, during the season of Lent as the church prepares for the feast of Easter, there is a practice called “burying the hallelujahs.” We refrain from saying hallelujah during Lent, hallelujah being an ultimate expression of rejoicing that means “God be praised.” For the forty days of Lent we are invited instead to remember our deaths, to call to mind our need, our sin, our apathy, our finiteness. During Lent, we mourn with the world, with the church far and wide, and we challenge ourselves to sit with it all.
This year, as we watched an unseen enemy move with deadly force around the world, I was thankful for the burying of our hallelujahs and a ready language to lament with neighbors I will never meet but with whom I grieve. I needed the imagination afforded by Lent and Holy Week. And in the midst of our continuing global health crisis and a suffering humanity in its wake, I need the imagination of Easter. We don’t bury the hallelujahs in cynicism or despair. We bury them because this is precisely where Easter itself begins: with a God who doesn’t bypass the darkness, but takes us through it. In the midst of this darkness, this grief, this death, this injustice, this moment of suffering, Jesus himself is present.
In the 70s and 80s when death squads were operating in countries of South and Central America, a liturgy emerged in the church by which Christians dramatically enacted faith amidst the pervasive fear perpetuated by the imagination of the nation state. Where death squads spread fear by “disappearing” those bodies that stood in their way, the church saw the resurrection of Christ and his own fatally wounded and “disappeared” body as a dramatic counter-narrative of resistance. Thus, at the liturgy, the names of those killed or disappeared were called aloud, and for each name someone from within the congregation would declare: Presente. “Here!”(3)
In this cultural moment, there are many who would meet this liturgical act or any mention of the resurrection, for that matter, with dismissal. Maybe even an understandable dismissal. Like words of comfort at a difficult funeral, while the sentiment might be needed, it will not undo what has been done. The death squads were not deterred by this communal act of rallying around a consoling word, and neither will Covid-19. These names are the names of people who were actually lost. In a heartbreakingly real sense, the “disappeared” are most definitely not presente. Those presently mourning loved ones lost to a virus that stole even the dignity of saying goodbye must feel this most acutely.
It is not hard to tend to an imagination that tells us that the “disappeared” belong to a group that will never stop growing: genocide, cancer, bombings, nameless lives wasted, tragically cut short, buried and gone. But whether confessed in sorrow or in cynicism, the assumption behind this imagination is that the dead can be buried once and for all and forgotten. What the churches facing these death squads seemed to understand better than most of us is that Christ gives us permission to lean into the tension of these seemingly contradictory claims: Buried. And Presente.
The bold proclamation of Easter is that bodies are not buried once and for all and forgotten. Suffering and injustice, viruses and cancer, murder and depression: None of these will have the final word. Easter is God’s promise that the darkness of Holy Saturday was far from empty, and the same is true of our darkness today.
In Georges Rouault’s Miserere series, there is a piece entitled “Resurrection,” where Christ’s resurrected body is depicted in that memorable cruciform image. It is both triumphant and a triumph that we feel compelled to reach for, to long for, as it breaks in. Rouault shows us victory, but we are also left longing for it, lamenting that it isn’t here yet.
Easter invites us further into this sacred, confounding space. We can delve into the darkness—perhaps holding the names of loved ones lost or lamentation we don’t know how to voice beyond groans—because this is a Suffering Servant who dares to hold it all. Beauty and ashes. Light and utter darkness. The risen Christ is present in all of it. Presente. He is here.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) William A. Dyrness, Rouault: a Vision of Suffering and Salvation (Grand Rapid: William B. Eerdmans, 1971), 43.
(2) T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” The Egoist, 1919.
(3) Story told by Rowan Williams in Choose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 133-134. See also William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1998).