Finding Beauty During Holy Week

James Tissot, The Resurrection


I had the privilege of seeing the original of this image by James Tissot at a recent exhibit of his work in San Francisco. I have known about this painting for some time, but was struck by how relatively small it is (image size approximately 8″ x 12″). Given the size, Tissot’s attention to detail is astonishing, especially when seen alongside his large oil paintings.

Like the one above, Tissot’s biblical paintings were largely done with opaque water color paint (now commonly termed “gouache” paint) and graphite on textured gray paper. This sets the water color paintings apart from his oil paintings in terms of their technical quality and pictorial finish. Nevertheless, they are in some ways more remarkable because Tissot was using the less forgiving medium of water colors instead of oil paints, which provide greater flexibility for painting over unsatisfactory or undesired results.

Choosing a single image for consideration in the context of Holy Week presents a certain challenge. For which of the events that we commemorate this week provides the most suitable reference point for our reflection? Considering this question, and possible answers to it, can help us gain insight about how we understand Holy Week in relation to Easter and more specifically whether we view the Passion (the arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion) of Jesus as an essential part of the Easter story.

We know that it is not just among Christians, but also among Jews and Muslims, that notable differences concerning belief and practice exist among pious adherents of a shared religious tradition. A significant variable for Christians concerns how -in our prayers, worship and practices this week- we approach the relative significance of the key liturgical ‘moments’ that we commemorate during the ‘Holy Three Days’ (or Paschal Triduum). According to the biblical concept of time, these three days commence at sundown on what we now call Maundy Thursday. And so, the first ‘day’ includes remembrance of the Last Supper, Jesus’ arrest and trial, as well as his Good Friday crucifixion. The second ‘day’ then begins on Good Friday evening, just after when Jesus would have been buried. And the third begins after sundown on Holy Saturday evening, and includes the twenty four hours during which Jesus’ resurrection occurred and his empty tomb was then discovered.

When considering the significance of the events we commemorate at this time of the year, some Christians think primarily in terms of Easter Sunday and what Jesus’ resurrection will mean for them. Many others include in their reflection a spiritual consideration of the events we associate with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The broader ‘catholic’ liturgical tradition reflects this wider perspective in the liturgies appointed for Palm Sunday at the beginning of Holy Week. For example, The Book of Common Prayer liturgy for Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ journey on a donkey down from the Mount of Olives and his entrance into the Holy City, which leads to his ‘cleansing of the Temple’ and the subsequent conflict this provoked. A central feature of the Palm Sunday liturgy is a reading of the full Passion narrative from one of the first three Gospels. John’s Passion narrative is always read every year on Good Friday. And, on both Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the Passion story often incorporates readers who give voice to individual parts within the narrative.

In light of these observations, and as we prepare to enter the ‘Holy Three Days,’ I invite you to consider Tissot’s painting titled, The Resurrection. As you view and reflect on it, here are some details you may want to take into account:

  • Tissot portrays the moment of Jesus’ resurrection at night (rather than ‘Sunday morning,’ with lanterns partially illuminating the scene
  • Matthew’s Gospel mentions Joseph of Arimathea placing Jesus’ body “in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock;” Tissot adds a dressed stone frame around the tomb entrance
  • though the crucifixion was enacted by Roman soldiers, Matthew suggests that the guard of soldiers sent to the tomb belong to the chief priests and the Pharisees and are primarily local citizens
  • the risen Lord still bears the marks of his torture and execution, though his wounds are transformed into points of light
  • diaphanous angels appear on the righthand side of the tomb opening

These and other observations about this resurrection painting make it relevant to our observance of Holy Week, as well as to Easter. I offer this image and these comments as a way into the mystery of this week.


The image above is James Tissot’s painting, The Resurrection, which with many of his other biblical paintings is part of the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

Beauty Over Chaos

Peter Koenig_Good Shepherd Resurrection


The Resurrection of Jesus is all about grounded hope, and the strength to persevere in the face of adversity. Peter Koenig’s Good Shepherd Resurrection provides a compelling image of its power. The painting builds upon ancient biblical imagery of chaos manifest as a sea monster, and acknowledges how death, and resistance to the will of God in the order of Creation, pervade the world. The painting is brilliant in its conception, precisely because it is so counter to our culture-bound world of Easter bunnies, daffodils and pastel-colored candy.

The Resurrection of Jesus is not mainly about hopeful feelings, a positive attitude and self-improvement, even though it can enable these things. His Resurrection is really about the defeat of evil and death, and triumph over pain and suffering. We may not immediately experience that defeat and triumph in our every moment of need. But, we live by Easter faith, and not by Easter feelings.

Peter Koenig risks showing us the Risen Lord stepping out of the mouth of a sea monster. The fresh water from his side recalls his crucifixion, and also the water from the rock in the wilderness. Both give us fresh water that fulfills genuine human need, as compared with the inhospitable salt water in which the dragon finds its abode. Every one of us is the lamb, held safely upon his shoulders, as he carries us out of the jaws of death into the new life where he is preeminent.

To me, this is real hope. Precisely because it is hope that deals with where we are now, rather than hope for something that might be, some day, somewhere. Both you and I want the kind of hope that squarely addresses all the things we’ve been worried about this last month. We all want hope that squarely confronts all the things we fear might go wrong in the coming month. And that is the kind of real hope that God brings to us in Jesus’ resurrection.


Peter Koenig, Good Shepherd Resurrection. Click here to visit the website where this and other paintings by him may be viewed. To see my Easter homily from which this is adapted, please click here. For background, see Revelation 12 and or do an internet search for biblical texts related to the words dragon, Rahab (i.e., Job 26:12-13 & Isaiah 51:9-10), Leviathan (i.e., Job 3:8, Psalm 74:13-14 & Isaiah 27:1), the deep, etc.

Another Emmaus Perception

Disciples of Emmaus_11thCentury_CloisterOfSantoDomingoDeSilos_Burgos_Spain


The writer of Psalm 8 asks God, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

The Psalm answers its own question, in part by pointing back to the wisdom of Genesis. God made human beings as the crowning point of a sequential process of creation, and entrusted us with a stewardship role meant to mirror God’s own stewardship of his handiwork. But after the long history of Israel’s defection from the patterns of creation and God’s covenants, many wondered whether the Creator’s original intentions for our role in the world still remained.

We discern the most decisive answer to Psalm 8’s question, in Jesus’ resurrection. This Easter mystery has two dimensions. Clearly, the first centers on Jesus. But we don’t understand the first dimension until we perceive the significance of the second, which concerns us. Through Baptism, God raises us to a shared-life with Jesus, where we dwell in the presence of unqualified truth, pure goodness and absolute beauty.

When Jesus ‘opened the scriptures’ to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Luke tells us that, “he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures.” The Psalmist’s question was surely one of the texts Jesus connected with himself, and then with them.

Jesus’ resurrection appearances to his followers nurtured a process of recognition that began prior to his death. Earlier, his teaching and his ‘signs’ prompted some to say that God was with Jesus, acting through him in a powerful way.

But after experiencing his resurrection and through having the scriptures opened to them, they perceived something further. Instead of saying that Jesus is from God, their eyes were opened to see that Jesus is God. And whereas, before, they could say that Jesus reveals the lord God, they could now identify Jesus as the lord God. To call him lord was more than to honor him as an esteemed teacher, and more than a pointed contrast with the emperor who used the same title. By beginning to confess Jesus as Lord, they identified him with the God who had revealed himself to Moses.

As the two disciples discerned on the way to Emmaus, in the risen Jesus we meet and are brought into fellowship with the One who was, and is, and is to come.


The above 11th century stone carving, Disciples of Emmaus, is found in the Cloister of Santo Domingo de Silos, in Burgos, Spain. The road to Emmaus story is found in Luke 24:13-35.