Above the altar at St. Peter and Paul Church in Weimar, Germany, stands the famous Weimar Altarpiece. Begun by Lucas Cranach the Elder around 1552, and completed by his son, Lucas Cranach the Younger in 1555, this painting is a visual sermon on the doctrine of justification. It is a work of profound Christian theology, and stunning Christ-centered artistry. It is cruciform creativity. It is didactic and delightful. It is a witness, and a work of art. It portrays the truth of Jesus’ crucifixion and does so beautifully.
The gospel writers are doing something similar in their accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, albeit greater than even the greatest works of art. After all, the gospels are divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit, and at the same time, a delight to hear and read again and again.
As Christians we are accustomed to teaching, learning, and hearing the account of Jesus’ death and resurrection in historical terms. And well we should. Jesus does. Paul does. So do the other apostles. Jesus’ resurrection is historical, verifiable, and veracious. The central event of the Christian faith – Jesus’ death and resurrection - is fact, not fiction. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection did not happen in Never-never Land, or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but in the days of Caesar Augustus and Herod. In real human history. Jesus is crucified under Pontius Pilate. The Christian faith, and its central teaching of Jesus’ death and resurrection is thoroughly historical. As Christians, we are called to declare and defend this good news, by always being prepared to give a ready defense for anyone who asks about the reason for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15).
And, as we approach Easter, as we spend time hearing and reading the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection in all four gospels, it is good to remember that this true story, is also beautiful. It is beautiful, in part, precisely because it is true; and in its truthfulness, its beauty is not lost. One of the joys of reading all four gospel accounts individually, is that we are able to behold the true story beautifully told from each of the points of view of the gospel writers. Slow down and spend time observing the unique prose, dialogue, and language each gospel writer uses in recounting Jesus’ resurrection. Watch for allusions and references to the Old Testament, to previous events within each gospel. Notice the gospel writers’ thematic emphases, arrangement of the life and ministry of Jesus, and how they each move the story along, and tell the same story from a different viewpoint, much like various artists will draw different aspects of the same apple set on the table in front of them. In the gospels we receive four historical accounts of Jesus’ resurrection which are both didactic and delightful. They are witnesses and works of art. They present both historical fact and meaningful satisfaction. Jesus’ resurrection is both true and beautiful.
In The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright observes that, “Luke 24 is a small masterpiece, designed as the closing scene for a large scale work of art.”(1) Luke’s artistry as a historian and physician comes through in his attention to detail, his precise language. Consider, for example, how Luke points out the Sabbath day rest in the final verse of chapter 23, leading us to the first day of the week in chapter 24:1. Jesus, too, rested on the Sabbath day. He rested in the tomb from all his labors on the cross. And in doing so, he hallowed the Sabbath day again, and fulfilled it all at the same time. Jesus’ rest in the tomb gives you eternal Sabbath rest. Jesus remembers the Sabbath day and kept it holy for you. Or, notice the contrast around the word “find” in 24:2-3. They (the women) found the stone rolled away. But they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. Luke also cleverly waits until 24:10 to tell his hearers who these first visitors to Jesus’ empty tomb were; it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and some of the other women.
Think back to the Weimar Altarpiece. Another feature of the painting is that it is a triptych, comprised of three panels. The right and left panels portray the people of Weimar facing inward towards the center panel; their hands folded and eyes focused on the painting at the heart of the triptych, the crucified Christ. Cranach’s point is clear. The focal point of the altarpiece, at the center of the church’s confession, faith, and witness, indeed, at the very center of the Scriptures is this true and beautiful good news: Jesus crucified for you. Cranach even paints himself in the picture with the blood of Christ streaming forth onto his own head. Truth and beauty.
In chapter 24, Luke paints a triptych of words. Think of verses 1-12, like the left panel of a triptych painting. In verses 1-12, he records the women visiting Jesus’ tomb, finding it empty, and the angel's mysterious, yet marvelous words, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen.” We also hear how the women were perplexed, how Peter marveled, and how the angel reminded the women to remember Jesus’ words, “The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.”
In verses 36-49, Luke paints the right panel of his resurrection triptych. He recounts Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to his disciples. Jesus answers their doubts and fears by showing them the wounds in his hands and feet. Jesus eats with them, a sign both of his physical resurrection and his desire for table fellowship with and for sinners. Jesus also teaches them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
Jesus’ words reveal both divine truth and sacred beauty. Every book, chapter, verse points to Jesus crucified and risen. Every prophet, apostle, and psalmist tells a part of this true and beautiful story Jesus fulfills in his death and resurrection. Every genre, from the historical narrative of Genesis of Moses to the apocalyptic symbolism of John in Revelation paints God’s word with two brushes, the true and the beautiful.
And then, in Luke 24, at the center of Luke’s resurrection masterpiece, notice how he carefully crafts verses 13-35. While two of Jesus’ disciples are walking the road to Emmaus, Jesus joins them along their journey, only he keeps them from recognizing him. The Emmaus disciples recount the events of Holy Week and how some of the women had reported that Jesus’ tomb was empty. Jesus gently rebukes them and at the same time comforts and patiently teaches them. “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.
The center of this central scene in Luke 24 comes next. The disciples invite Jesus to stay with them, for it was toward evening and the day was far spent. St. Luke paints the climactic and central scene of chapter 24 while Jesus is at the table with his disciples surrounded by a meal, fellowship, and Jesus’ word. “Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight.”
Later, as the disciples returned to Jerusalem, Luke records the true and beautiful words of comfort for his disciples, “How he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
Luke’s artistry is awesome to behold. Where do his disciples then, and now, find the crucified and risen Lord? In his word where he speaks and gives life, and at the table where he is known in the breaking of the bread. It is truly beautiful, and is a beautiful truth.
This is what makes the account of Jesus’ resurrection in Luke such a delight to read. Luke tells the true story of the gospel and the good news of Jesus’ resurrection as a glorious, gracious surprise. Not only is it true. It is beautiful. A gracious, unexpected, never-saw-it-coming surprise.
This is what J.R.R. Tolkien called the Eucatastrophe, a good catastrophe, or a sudden turn of events that no one expected or saw coming and yet fills you with wonder and joy.
“The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable Eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the Eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the Eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”(2)
As Easter approaches, take some time to read the gospel accounts of Holy Week. Dig into the unique details each gospel writer focuses on. Read aloud their Spirit-crafted, creative, and powerful words. Read the story and don’t skip over what you think you’ve already heard before. Slow down. Take your time. Soak in the words. Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this good news. And while you do so, ponder the gracious, grand miracle of Jesus’ resurrection. Rejoice in the truthfulness and veracity of Jesus’ resurrection, and behold the beauty of this true and greatest of all stories, Jesus crucified and risen for you.