Ascending and Descending
Jacob was on the run, a homeless fugitive trying desperately to escape his brother Esau’s wrath. As the day reached its end, Jacob lay down with a rock for a pillow. In a dream, the veil of dark glass was removed and he saw the permeation of earth by the heavenly realm of God’s angelic messengers. As opposed to the tower of Babel, where people attempted to build a tower to heaven in order to remain in one place and worship themselves, the ladder Jacob saw showed that it is God who pursues, who steps down when we aren’t looking for Him, who blesses and nourishes and multiplies, and who is real and present despite what we think we know from the world we perceive.
The Jewish artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985) lived in an enchanted, Jacob’s Ladder-like imaginative world. To Chagall, it was but a thin veil that existed between the sensate and divine worlds. Maintaining this view was quite a task for a Jewish man living through the atrocities of the Holocaust, of Shoah. Jill Carattini beautifully explains Chagall’s outlook on life, describing that he lived in a world where “the distance between the heavens and the earth was not fixed and silent, but alive with movement and color.” This is seen quite well in his depictions of Jacob’s Ladder which, Jill writes, envisions “a world where God himself descends into the chaos.”(1) Chagall was, as Richard McBee put it, “consumed by the fantastic constantly invading the everyday fabric of life.”(2)
Chagall began using the crucifixion of Jesus as a powerful image of Jewish suffering in an era of indifference to Jewish suffering. No doubt, the image of a crucifix to many Jewish people at the time would have been the emblem of the ones who sought to destroy them rather than the One who suffers with them. For Chagall, though, Jesus represented all of the Jews, and he served as a call and indictment to all of the silent Christians. His painting, White Crucifixion, was painted in 1938 just days after the Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass.” Chagall was usually a painter of bold colors, but as lecturer Vivian Jacobson explains, when Chagall was trying to get a message across, he often used black and white.(3) Here Chagall leaves the colorful world of dreamscapes and enchantment and enters the horrors of real life. He illustrates the words of Simone Weil, who wrote, “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.”(4)
What one will notice in this and many other crucifixion scenes by Chagall is that the ladder placed beside Jesus, presumably the one that took the limp and lifeless Christ from the cross, is reimagined as Jacob’s Ladder, a permeation and identification of heaven with earth. For those who run like Jacob, hellhounds tracking the scent of one following the difficult call of God on their life, it is a jarring reminder of the God who descends the ladder to taste defeat so that we may ascend the ladder to feast on victory.
Chagall saw something powerful in this suffering servant, something mysterious and fascinating that he could never explain with words. His faith remained firmly Jewish, and yet, Jesus, a man considered by many of his friends to be a false prophet beckoned Chagall again and again from the ladder. Jesus represents God’s presence, God’s rescue mission, the liberation that awaits all prisoners of evil and suffering. This mysterious God does not answer the sufferer’s question of why with words, but God answers with a Word that comes among us and suffers as one of us.
In the early days of Jesus’s ministry, he walked around calling the Twelve to follow him. This rabbi was asking some odd characters to surround him. One such person, Nathanael, in the span of what may have been mere minutes went from trashing Jesus because of his hometown to calling him the Son of God and King of Israel. But even these lofty phrases did not fully encapsulate what Nathanael and the others were witnessing. Jesus invokes a divine title from Daniel 7:13 and Jacob’s ladder when he lifts up the veil and says, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”(5)
What I find most profound in Chagall’s connection with Jacob’s Ladder and the suffering of Jesus is that he saw something that centuries of Christian depictions of the crucifixion had missed: he rightly shows Christ in the midst of suffering people. He paints the incarnation in a pastoral way. Martin Hengel pointed out that the cross “demonstrated the ‘solidarity’ of the love of God with the unspeakable suffering of those who were tortured and put to death by human cruelty.”(6) When we say that God is with us in our suffering, when we say that God is with us in our cries for justice and the end of oppression, I don’t think we fully understand how literal that truth is. We need to be able to sense that beyond the thin veil obstructing the view from our despairing eyes, there is an ever-approaching, persistently present God. That when we see that cruel T-shaped Roman torture device, we can lift the veil and simultaneously exclaim with Jacob, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Humankind in its hubris had once erected a tower, but God showed Jacob a vision of a ladder; in its hubris humanity once again erected a tower declaring autonomy from God. What they erected in the sky was a cursed tree of death, but God’s descent planted the blessed tree of life.
Derek Caldwell is a writer for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Jill Carattini, Marc Chagall and the Sacred, gallery guide introduction, April 2019. Marc Chagall and the Sacred was an exhibit hosted at Still Point in the Spring of 2019.
(2) Richard McBee, “Chagall and the Cross,” Richard McBee: Artist and Writer, May 10, 2011, https://richardmcbee.com/, Accessed July 7, 2020.
(3) Vivian R. Jacobson, Chagall and the Sacred, Lecture, April 14, 2019. See also: Vivian R. Jacobson, Sharing Chagall: A Memoir (Pinehurst, NC: Belleray Press, 2009). Vivian R. Jacobson was the guest lecturer at the opening of the Marc Chagall and the Sacred exhibition at Still Point.
(4) Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 70.
(5) John 1:51. Jesus is quoting Genesis 28:12.
(6) Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1977), 88.
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