Our chapel

Prelate Dr. Martin Dutzmann, former Protestant military bishop

I Theologia crucis to look at

In the Dietrich Bonhoeffer House in Berlin, a depiction of the cross by the artist Frank Lipka is installed above the altar in the chapel room, which many people find offensive and inappropriate to the dignity of the space. I myself think that this presentation of the cross of Jesus Christ contains essential elements of an evangelical theology of the cross (theologia crucis).

On the cross hangs a badly battered human body made of wood. The head, arms and hands and also the feet are missing. The torso is a found object. Somewhere in Liguria it was pulled out of the trash, passed through the artist’s hand and found its way into this chapel. The origin of the torso represents the last corners of the world, the places of suffering and misery.

The body is attached to a cross and extends it upwards. Thus he has become part of the cross. Body and cross are one. The material of the cross – hewn iron – corresponds to the material of the candlesticks on the altar in front of the cross. On these two candlesticks, which take the cross in their center, burn two candles that symbolize the light of the resurrection. Between them, directly under the cross, lies an open Bible – the Word of God, the Word of the Cross.

When asked why the cross is depicted in this irritating rawness, the artist answers: “To point to the weakness of man and the mutilation of his possibilities. The powerlessness of Christ in suffering and on the cross has become for some Christians the pivot of their understanding of God. God offers us redemption through the maltreated and crucified Jesus Christ.”

Soldiers who worship in the chapel not infrequently find this depiction of the cross offensive and inappropriate and reject it. It is possible that this rejection is related to the fact that soldiers are professionally confronted with the devastating consequences of war and crime. Some of them have seen human bodies mutilated beyond recognition by bombings or explosive attacks while deployed abroad. Others suspect that they will still see such images. Thus, the confrontation with this cross reminds some of terrible experiences and evokes in others the fear of such experiences. This makes it all the more important to consider the cross in its context with the altar, candles and Bible.

II A brief theological reflection

What Frank Lipka depicts with artistic means finds its textual counterpart in Paul’s theology of the cross, as it is prominently expressed at the beginning of the First Letter to the Corinthians: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. But we preach Christ crucified, a vexation to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks; but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, we preach Christ as God’s power and God’s wisdom.” (1 Cor 1:18,23f)

Several centuries after Paul, Martin Luther described the theology of the cross in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518: “So in Christ crucified lies the true theology and knowledge of God.” 1)
And: “God is found only in suffering and the cross” 2).

In my opinion, the pastoral relevance of such a realization moves between two poles: The word of the cross proclaims liberation from the burden of guilt. At the same time, it is the place for the believer to name and put away suffering he has experienced. This pastoral effect of the cross of Christ was already relied upon by the hospitaller brothers of St. Anthony (Antonite Order) when they commissioned the artist Matthias Grünewald to make an altar for a hospital of the Antonite monastery in Isenheim, Alsace, in 1512. The Isenheim Altar was dedicated to Anthony, the founder of the order and patron saint in infectious diseases. The artist Matthias Grünewald also depicted Christ’s dying on the cross with poignant realism.

Terminally ill people are said to have been laid before it at that time and to have found comfort in their own suffering in the encounter with the passion of Christ. Until today, people make the observation that suffering and dying people let them be addressed by the story of Christ’s suffering in a special way and recognize themselves in it. At the same time, the consoling effect that lies in the contemplation of the cross of Christ is twofold:

First, the cross gives expression to one’s own suffering and death. The terminally ill person, in the face of the cross, must come to terms with the fact that he will soon die. This has been the case at all times, but is especially a challenge for people in the present. People do not talk about death. The sight of the cross is able to release such blockages.

The other consoling effect of the cross is this: The encounter with the suffering and death of Jesus Christ gives direction to one’s own suffering and death. The dying person who contemplates the cross recognizes in it God’s compassion: God also knows about my suffering and about my dying and he has overcome it. This hope, which points beyond one’s own suffering and ultimately beyond all suffering, is able to comfort people.
Paul Gerhardt gave impressive expression to this context in the chorale “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden”.

The 9th stanza reads like this:

If I am to divorce once,<br>
so do not part from me.<br>
If I am to suffer death,<br>
then you step forward;<br>
when I am most anxious<br>
will be around the heart, so pull me out of the fears<br>
by virtue of your fear and anguish.

The person who in such a way rediscovers his own suffering in the suffering of the Son of God has already accepted his suffering and can approach dying comforted. To question 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” he will adopt the answer given there, “That in life and in death I belong body and soul not to myself but to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ…. “

1) Luther, Heidelberg Disputation.(on Thesis XX), in: Luther. Deutsch, vol. 1, Göttingen 1969, 389.
2) op. cit. (on Thesis XXI), 389.