Arts and Culture

Ecce Homo – Behold the Man

by Father Robert Lauder

Tenth in a series

WHEN I LEFT my parish assignment many years ago to do graduate studies in philosophy at the request of my bishop, two parishioners gave me a large print of George Rouault’s painting, Ecce Homo. I immediately bought a large frame, and the print has been on my wall for more than 45 years.

I don’t know whether the parishioners knew that Rouault is one of my favorite artists, but the gift meant a great deal to me when it was given to me. In recent years, I have used the print often to help me enter into centering prayer.

Several years ago, I visited an exhibit of Rouault’s paintings in Manhattan. The room in which the paintings were exhibited was relatively small. After I had looked at each painting, I noticed that I was alone in the room. I sat down and started praying. It seemed like the right activity to engage in after viewing Rouault’s marvelous depictions of Christ.

Rouault’s Ecce Homo is on my mind because of pages that I have recently re-read in Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011, pp. 362). The Holy Father suggests that as Pilate, after seeing that Jesus has been scourged, says to the crowd “Ecce homo” (Here is the man!), Pilate was probably distressed at seeing the beaten and wounded Jesus. Pilate may have been counting on the compassion of the crowd.

Pope Benedict writes the following:

“‘Ecce homo’ – the expression spontaneously takes on depth of meaning that reaches far beyond this moment in history. In Jesus, it is man himself that is manifested. In him is displayed the suffering of all who are subjected to violence, all the downtrodden. His suffering mirrors the inhumanity of worldly power, which so ruthlessly crushes the powerless. In him is reflected what we call ‘sin’: this is what happens when man turns his back upon God and takes control over the world into his own hands.

“There is another side to all this, though; Jesus’ innermost dignity cannot be taken from him. The hidden God remains present within him. Even the man subjected to violence and vilification remains the image of God. Ever since Jesus submitted to violence, it has been the wounded, the victims of violence, who have been the image of the God who chose to suffer for us. So Jesus in the throes of his Passion is an image of hope: God is on the side of those who suffer” (pp. 199-200).

That statement of Pope Benedict is filled with marvelous insights from the Holy Father’s theological knowledge and faith. The meaning of the historical events of Jesus’ suffering and death reaches far beyond the time in which those experiences took place. The experiences shed light on the entire history of the human race. If we want the most profound understanding of human suffering then we look to the crucified Jesus. It is also to the crucified Jesus that we look if we want the most profound understanding of sin. In Jesus, both God and the sinful human race are revealed.

In allowing Himself to be crucified, Jesus reveals what happens to the powerless when those who have worldly power exploit them and persecute them. In Oscar Wilde’s brilliant novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, there is a painting of Gray which changes each time he sins. Throughout the novel, Gray remains physically a young handsome man, but the depiction of him in the painting becomes hideous. His sins are depicted on the image in the painting.

Sins Depicted on the Cross

On the cross, the sins of the human race are depicted on the body of the beaten and crucified Jesus. The Holy Father reminds us that in Jesus “is reflected what we call ‘sin.’” The crucified Lord is the result of sin.

Yet the pope insists that Jesus remains the image of God, that the hidden God remains present within Him. Now those who suffer persecution, those who seem powerless before the forces of evil are the image of God. Jesus on the Cross has identified with all who suffer violence, indeed with all who suffer in any way. I don’t ever want to forget that but rather try to understand it as deeply as I can.

I believe that to understand the crucifixion as deeply as possible we have to recall the resurrection. Good Friday only makes sense when coupled with Easter Sunday. However, we should not allow our belief in Jesus’ resurrection to minimize the real suffering that Jesus endured on the cross. Even in His suffering, Jesus is an image of hope. The more deeply we reflect on the crucified Jesus, the more deeply we should see that God is love.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.