The career of James Tissot (1836 – 1902) is truly remarkable. A French oil painter who enjoyed beautiful women and Parisian high society, he underwent a religious re-conversion late in his life, and gave up the pleasures of Paris for an ascetic life in the Holy Land. There, for nearly ten years (1886-1894) he made 350 paintings of the life of Christ and numerous compositions of prophets and Old Testament scenes. His series on the Passion of our Lord are truly remarkable. In wonderfully detailed and topographically accurate watercolors, Tissot depicts every major moment of Holy Week, and even devotes his time and skill to individual portraits of Christ, the Apostles, and Pilate.
In one stunning piece, named “The Guards Falling Backwards,” he captures that enigmatic moment which is only described in John’s Gospel. Jesus stands in the center of a crowd of men carrying torches and brandishing weapons. Dressed in white robes, He points to His heart with his hands. There are two men immediately in front of Him who have suddenly become airborne: feet off the ground, hands high in the air. All around Christ, the rest of the thugs are in the process of falling backwards, with arms raised toward Christ in shock and alarm. What is happening exactly? The Evangelist tells us:
Violent men came to Jesus as He prayed in the garden. They came with clubs and torches. They had no hesitation about their mission; this teacher was to be captured, brought before the authorities, and violently crucified. Yet, as they approached Jesus, He asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They said to Him, “Jesus the Nazorean.” Jesus replied, “I AM.” When He said to them, “I AM,” they turned and fell to the ground. So He asked them a second time, “Whom are you looking for?” They said, “Jesus the Nazorean.” He replied, “I told you that I AM. So if you are looking for me, let these men go” (John 18:3-8, NABRE).
When He said to them, “I AM,” they turned and fell to the ground.
In Tissot’s painting, Christ in His innocence, peace, and purity is dramatically set against the dim, shadowy backdrop of violence and villainy. The Lord doesn’t offer resistance. He doesn’t seek to escape. He doesn’t lie. He gives true words about who He is: the God I AM, and this is enough to turn the men’s bodies around and to cause them to fall. He points to His heart, because His heart burns with love for His enemies. He stands upright, because He is confident that God’s plan will come to fruition in His suffering.
This Holy Week, the innocence and purity of Christ’s body is being assaulted again by evil, violent men. As I write these words, only God knows the extent of the hurts, injuries, atrocities, bombings, and shootings that are occurring in Ukraine and Syria and elsewhere. Each day Abel’s blood cries out from the ground as it pours forth from the innocent. Until the end, even more churches and Christian schools and monasteries will burn, and Christian women and children will run in terror. As the Body of Christ, we must offer protection and prayers, but we also must remember that this is creation groaning. Yes, violent men seek to hurt, maim, kill, and destroy all vestiges of Christianity, but, Christ in His absolutely perfect innocence, faithfulness, peace, and beauty, declares, “I AM.”
Yes, violent men seek to hurt, maim, kill, and destroy all vestiges of Christianity, but, Christ in His absolutely perfect innocence, faithfulness, peace, and beauty, declares, “I AM.”
This was His answer in the garden and it is His answer now, and even now all the forces of hell turn in awe-struck terror and fall backwards. All the evil on earth will not triumph over Christ. His plan will come to pass, and everything that breathes will see His love, His mercy, His forgiveness. Tissot’s Christ, pointing to His heart, shows us that the heart of the God I AM pours out love for humanity still.
As we both meditate on our Lord’s sufferings and engage ourselves with world events, take heart, for Christ is the God I AM, and after suffering always comes resurrection.
Rev. Adam Carnehl is the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Randolph, NJ. He is also a trained spiritual director and former fellow of the Collegeville Institute at St John’s University and Abbey. He is the Dean for the 2022 Labor Day Family Weekend Retreat, teaching on the theme “From Eden to Elfland: Imagination in Christian Thought and Principle.” Learn more here. There’s still time to register!
Jeff Alexander says
Awesome devotion! Thanks, Adam!
Patricia Santel says
Always wonderful we are so blessed to have him for our Pastor now at Good Shepherd!