Of all the paintings that have been done of Jesus as a man, Ivan Kramskoy’s painting “Christ In The Desert” stands out as one of the most striking. It portrays Jesus not with glowing beauty or as a compassionate teacher, but as a mortal man, tired and weary from his time in the wilderness. The biblical account of Christ’s temptation in the desert focuses primarily on his confrontation with Satan, but we often skim over the detail that says he stayed out in the wilderness for forty days without food, and that he hungered.
There’s something that happens when we talk about Jesus as a physical man. I remember listening to a discussion in a men’s class once about whether or not Jesus could’ve died had something happened to him before going to the cross. We think of Jesus as invincible, and even on the cross, it’s hard for us to truly picture him physically suffering to the point of death. It’s hard to imagine the Spirit of the immortal Creator of all life existing in the form of a mortal man, capable of pain, and grief, and weariness. And yet, on more than one occasion, the gospel writers give us little details that remind us of Christ’s humanity. He hungered. As we saw on the boat before the storm on the Sea of Galilee, he slept. And perhaps the most striking of all, John tells us that while Jesus was on the cross, after he knew that all things had been accomplished according to Scripture, he cried out, “I thirst!”
And Isaiah wrote in the oft-quoted passage from chapter 53: “He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.”
It seems strange to think of Jesus as being lonely and acquainted with grief, and yet, if we truly believe that all the fullness of God dwelt in Him in human form, then we cannot imagine the grief that he must have felt being separated from God. And in the same way, we cannot imagine the depth of compassion that Jesus had in fulfilling his purpose for coming to earth.
I quoted C.S. Lewis in my last post, and I have no shame in doing it again. He wrote, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” In building off of that statement, if everything about the Gospel is true, meaning that Christ truly left his place in the Trinity and took on the form of a man to bring salvation to all who would believe, then it’s not only infinitely important—it’s infinitely indescribable. And yet, even putting it that way feels cliché, for even the greatest words we have for explaining such things have been overused and drained of their worth. As the hymn writer of “O Worship the King” wrote: “Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?”
When it comes to evoking a true glimpse into the grief that Christ endured for us, Ivan Kramskoy’s painting is as powerful an image as any piece of artwork, for it shows Jesus not at the height of His majesty, but in the likeness of mortal man, weighed down by our grief, prepared to suffer in a way that we with our limited understanding could comprehend—yet, to a degree that we can never comprehend.