As the world copes with the impact of COVID-19, Lecturer in homiletics, liturgy and theology at the United Theological College and the Charles Sturt University School of Theology Reverend Dr Ockert Meyer reflects on an Easter unlike any other. He suggests our real challenge this Easter 2020 is to see, perhaps for the first time, how the power of hope springs from isolation and emptiness.
One of the most striking paintings of the Last Supper is by the German artist Ben Willekens, which clearly references Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper; the same room, the same long table and the same windows framing the group of people gathered there.
But there the similarities end. Instead of hosting the group of thirteen people that gathered in the upper room, Willekens’ table is empty. In fact the entire room is empty.
Therefore his work speaks most dramatically and most directly into our current context: the Easter weekend when almost all communion tables in the world will be empty – perhaps for the first time ever.
Willekens created this work, not with any virus or disease in mind, yet there is something hauntingly prophetic about it.
His table is also covered with a white cloth, however, it doesn’t look like a tablecloth; it looks like hospital sheets. His table has exactly the same shape as Da Vinci’s table, but the legs of his table make it look like an operating table.
When Willekens painted this work he was in his mid-thirties and in a very dark place in his life. He had lost his job; he was angry and was without hope.
He regarded the 1970s as an era of broken promises; both the promise of Christianity, but also the promise of the Enlightenment; neither could help him in his need.
Hans Schwebel, Professor of theology at the University of Marburg, describes the painting as ‘an ode to emptiness’.
In his interpretation the painting evokes something of the cultural malaise of a post-Christian era in the European community, and the clinical white space evokes the idea of a laboratory or hospital room rather than a dining room: an experimental space bereft of both community and communion.
During this Easter weekend this emptiness resonates deeply with the isolation, even abandonment, that many people are experiencing all over the world.
For the Church it is a stark reminder of the desolation that Jesus Christ experienced on Good Friday; the solitariness of his suffering, the forlorn sense of fear that the disciples must have felt.
But the emptiness and the solitary silence that the painting evokes also reminds us of the silence of the Easter Saturday; a day that is known in Christianity as Holy Saturday or Silent Saturday.
This Saturday represents a kind of liminal space: beyond the forlornness of Friday, but before the hope of Sunday.
In fact, it is in this space of the Saturday that I think the painting fits best. Silent Saturday is the day where seemingly nothing happens; the day that only marks the time. It represents the emptiness of death, its isolation, and the hopeless fears of those who are left behind.
It is important to remember that the pattern of Easter − Friday, Saturday and Sunday − also represents something of the pattern of life: suffering, silence, and new life.
Most of us are familiar with the suffering and we find it easy to invest in the hope, but the silence of the Saturday is the part of this pattern that most of society struggle with. This discomfort with the silence and isolation has become very apparent during the last few weeks.
And yet, this solitary silence also contains a certain possibility: the possibility of new insights, of reorientation and deeper change.
So perhaps what we should strive for is not an escape from the boredom, or a flight from the isolation, but a deeper entry into both.
Perhaps for society and the Church the most profound insights into the reality of our deepest desires, the dreams we invest in, are to be found just here.
It is exactly the silent isolation of the Saturday that keeps the space vacant for what the Sunday may bring. The quiet time reminds us of the importance of waiting, of patience, but also of mystery and the quiet movement of hope. It is in the hiddenness of the grave that the Spirit stirred.
Something of this is also profoundly true in Willekens’ painting. If you look closely you’ll see that just like Da Vinci’s painting, the three windows at the back allow light to stream into the room.
But in Willekens’ work the light that comes in is not like sunlight: it evokes the dazzling light of the Triune God.
And in the light of this, one looks also at the white linen and emptiness in a different way.
Yes, the emptiness and the white linen suddenly remind us of something entirely different: the empty grave and the white linen that Mary found there on the Sunday morning.
Perhaps that is our real challenge this Easter: to see, perhaps for the first time, how an empty table could become the most eloquent and powerful witness to an empty grave. How the power of hope springs from isolation and emptiness.