Holy Week Meditation

Ilya Repin  - Golgotha

In the Spring of 1921, the terrible Ukraine Povolzhye Famine resulted in the deaths of an estimated 5 million Ukrainians. Using the famine as a rallying cry for help, the new government received millions of dollars in foreign aid (especially from the United States). However, Lenin, Molotov, and Stalin did nothing to aid the Ukrainians, but enriched the coffers of the Communist Party. The Ukrainian people resorted to eating their pets and then their children to stay alive.

In response to the horrors of the famine, Ilya Repin (1844-1930), regarded during his lifetime as the greatest Russian painter of the 19th century, composed his masterpiece Golgotha. Repin was a religious man, and he saw the Bolshevik Revolution for what it was: Hell on earth. Thus, in the painting we are brought to the site of the Crucifixion: a washed-out flood plain in post-WWI Ukraine; trash fires and smoke in the distance; devoid of human activity. The two thieves remain, dead, abandoned, and still tied to their crosses. A bloodied cross, the Cross of Christ, lies on the ground. The Body has been taken. Starving dogs lick the blood of the dead off the wood and dirt.

Repin’s painting is meant to revulse. I recall the first time I ever saw it. I wasn’t even yet a Christian. But I felt the ugliness of it. Repin’s Golgotha is his final masterpiece, which is also his message to humanity:

Without God, man is but Satan's instrument.

Proclaimed in sober blotches of paint, Our Lord says to us, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” The only food of value to the starving, whether human or dog, or to
the human who starves for justice, is the Bread of Life who once hung upon a cross. Holy Week is our last chance to meditate on what this means for me and you:  To climb the Tree of Life, to eat the Bread of Life, means to be hanged with the Crucified One.  Only you will know what that looks like for you; just as only I know what that looks like for me.

We all desire the Bread of Life.

But to receive this Bread in truth, we must ourselves climb that cross and be willing to die to all in us and in the world that is not of God.

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