Love to the end: A meditation on the Crucifixion

A meditation on the Crucifixion

It may make sense to our modern mind that great works of art are gathered together in large museums, but this wasn’t always the case. Originally, art was created to bring beauty to our lives, to the places where we lived, worked and prayed.

Today, it feels strange to go to a church in Rome and find, in some lateral altar, a painting by Caravaggio, or a sculpture by Michelangelo. We think: that should be at a museum. But those works were made for churches, and they were created to help us enter more deeply into the mysteries of our faith.

This week, as we prepare our hearts to accompany Our Lord in his Passion, Death and Resurrection, I propose we seek to rediscover the benefit of using art as an aid in our contemplation of the Crucifixion.

The method we will follow will be to reflect on a few key works of art in light of texts written by the Church Fathers. Therefore, in some sense, we are aiming to bring together what was meant to be together: the art that was the visual context for the mysteries of our faith.

O, admirable exchange!
Matthias Grünewald’s “Crucifixion” (1512–1516) was once described by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as perhaps the most moving depiction of the Crucifixion. It was painted in the early 16th century for a monastery in which the monks took care of the sick, especially of those afflicted by the plague, skin diseases and ergotism, an illness that produces horrible convulsions and deformation of the limbs.

Matthias Grünewald’s “Crucifixion” (1512–1516) was once described by then Cardinal George Ratzinger as perhaps the most moving depiction of the Crucifixion.

Matthias Grünewald’s “Crucifixion” (1512–1516) was once described by then Cardinal George Ratzinger as perhaps the most moving depiction of the Crucifixion.

The painting was a source of great comfort to those suffering with the plague who saw their wounds in Christ. The artist chose to paint Jesus suffering our passion: his sores and blisters are those of the plague; his hands are feet are convulsed as were those suffering ergotism. This is true love to the end.

We can only try to imagine the power of the words of Isaiah resounding in that chapel: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Is 53:4-5).

This Church Fathers called this the admirable exchange: “God became man, that man might become God.” Based on this we can say that God suffered our pains on the cross, so that we can be healed and live a new life. This becomes a reality again and again, as nowhere else, in the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass.

In the Eucharist we are healed and we find our remedy, as St. Ambrose says in “De Sacramentis”: “As often as we receive, we proclaim the death of the Lord. If death, we proclaim the remission of sins. If, as often as blood is shed, it is shed for the remission of sins, I ought always to accept him, that he may always dismiss my sins. I, who always sin, should always have a remedy.”

Pope Gregory the Great reminds us in “Dialogues” that the sacrifice of the Eucharist is not just a symbol, but the real immolation of Christ, where we can receive that very flesh and blood that cost him so much suffering: “He is again immolated for us in the mystery of the holy sacrifice. Where his body is eaten, there his flesh is distributed among the people for their salvation. His blood no longer stains the hands of the godless, but flows into the hearts of his faithful followers.”

“La crucifixion” (1597) by El Greco depict angels cleaning the cross and others making every effort to not let a drop of the sacramental blood of Christ fall to the ground.

“La crucifixion” (1597) by El Greco depict angels cleaning the cross and others making every effort to not let a drop of the sacramental blood of Christ fall to the ground.

Source of life
The sacrifice of the Cross brought us life, not only as a past event that paid the price of our reconciliation, but as the constant source of life through the sacraments. This is seen in the beautiful “La Crucifixion” (1597) by El Greco, the great Greek-Spanish painter. Again, this masterpiece —which today can be seen in El Prado in Madrid, Spain— was made for an altarpiece, where the eyes of the faithful would contemplate Christ’s open side pouring blood and water.

Many other artists would see here what the Church Fathers saw: the font of the sacraments. El Greco gave a tone of great drama to the scene, with its black background that enhances the contrast of the colors and the mysterious and serene expression of the faces. Some angels clean the cross and others fly and extend their arms, making every effort to not let a drop of the sacramental blood of Christ fall to the ground.

An abundant number of Fathers will see in the blood and water coming from the open side of the Crucified Christ the font of the Church. St. Augustine in his commentaries on the Gospel of John says that the open side of Christ becomes the open gate of salvation, from where we receive the sacraments: blood for the remission of sins and water to be mixed in the cup: “The Evangelist used a wide awake word so that he did not say, ‘pierced his side’ or ‘wounded’ or anything else, but ‘opened,’ so that there, in a manner of speaking, the door of life was thrown open from which the mystical rites (sacramenta) of the Church flowed, without which one does not enter into the life which is true life. That blood was shed for the remission of sins; that water provides the proper mix for the health-giving cup; it offers both bath and drink.… What is cleaner than this blood? What is more healthful than this wound?”

The fact that it was blood and water that came forth from Christ’s side is a wonderful gift from God, as St. John Chrysostom writes in his homilies on John: “It was not accidentally or by chance that these streams came forth, but because the Church has been established from both of these. Her members know this, since they have come to birth by water and are nourished by Flesh and Blood. The Mysteries have their source from there, so that when you approach the awesome chalice you may come as if you were about to drink from his very side.”

Carlo Crivelli’s “The Dead Christ supported by Two Angels” (circa 1435–circa 1495) shows the sorrow of two angels who realize the high price paid by Christ for our rescue.

Carlo Crivelli’s “The Dead Christ supported by Two Angels” (circa 1435–circa 1495) shows the sorrow of two angels who realize the high price paid by Christ for our rescue.

Caring for Christ’s body
An important fruit of an increased awareness of the sacrifice of the Cross should be gratitude.

Carlo Crivelli painted an impressive scene for an altar titled “The Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels” (circa 1435–circa 1495). This image expresses the sorrow of these two angels who realize the high price paid by Christ for our rescue.

But the artist shows another important response to the sacrifice of Christ: the need to support and hold the dead body of Christ. They experience, so to speak, both the sorrow for seeing that we were capable of inflicting such suffering to the Son of God, and the responsibility of knowing that they have to receive his body.

It is not difficult to try to apply this to our lives. First, thinking about the depth of the pain suffered by Jesus for our salvation, and remembering that that happened for our sins. Second, being responsible with what has been entrusted to us: his mysteries, the celebration of the Eucharist, where he offers himself up again for us.

The Mass cannot be done in vain, as John Chrysostom says in his homily on Acts of the Apostles, after describing what happens invisibly in each Mass: “What do you say? There is the Sacrifice in hand, and all things laid out duly ordered: angels are there present, archangels, the Son of God is there: all stand with such awe, and in the general silence those stand by, crying aloud: and do you think that what is done, is done in vain?”

The angels, those who supported the dead body of the Son of God, are present when he is offered again to the Father. Let us pray that they will help us to grow in the awareness of what really happens at Mass and let us offer ourselves on the altar as St. Gregory the Great said in “Dialogues”: “We need to sacrifice ourselves to God in a sincere immolation of the heart whenever we offer Mass, because we who celebrate the mysteries of the Lord’s passion ought to imitate what we are enacting. The Sacrifice will truly be offered to God for us when we present ourselves as the victim.”

His mother
Let us finish our reflections contemplating our Mother and her compassion. Mary suffered with Christ as no one else, and this union of love and pain between Mother and Son has been expressed in a scene frequently painted and sculpted: the “Pietà,” most notably by Michelangelo.

Dead Christ Supported by the Madonna and St. John (1460) by Giovanni Bellini.

Dead Christ Supported by the Madonna and St. John (1460) by Giovanni Bellini.

The “Pietà” shows Mary’s deep sorrow, but also her profound peace. The Passion was the moment in which she had to renew her fiat in the most loving and obedient way. She then received again in her arms the body of her Son, but this time a dead body. That moment opened the hour of hope: those days in which the whole world was awaiting the victory of Christ’s resurrection.

At that hour, John, the only disciple who was at the foot of the Cross had to accept a new mission: to take care of Mary as Jesus did. Our final text comes not from a Church Father but from the oldest Roman book of prayers for the Mass, the Leonine Sacramentary (V-VI Century): “There, on the feast day of St. John we remember that he, who in the mystical supper reclined his head on the Lord’s chest, was at the foot of the Cross made Christ’s vicar, representing him by receiving the Virgin Mother into his life.”

Normally, by “vicar of Christ” we think about Peter, the pope, and not about John. But John is called to be Mary’s son, so he becomes the vicar, the representative of Christ in taking care of Mary.

In the same way, the “Pietà” reminds us not only of Mary’s compassion and her mission toward us, but of our own mission towards her: to try to offer some comfort to her heart with our commitment to receive with gratitude and share the good news of the sacrifice of the Cross, especially during these days of Lent.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”