Easter and Passover

I know I've shared this painting (Exodus) by Marc Chagall before. In a week following Easter and Passover I've been thinking about it again.

Chagall has an uncanny ability to resist categories. In some ways he’s a folk painter. He’s unapologetically sentimental and uses fairy tale imagery and rural themes. He's also sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and incredibly modern. He’s been called “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century,” yet he painted crucifixion scenes. In a way he paints like a reporter—bearing witness to the world about burned Russian-Jewish villages. (I was fascinated to see Russia claiming him as their own this year by sailing huge representations of his paintings through the Olympic stadium in the opening ceremonies.)

Maybe he didn’t really care how people categorized him. Chagall was an exile and a refugee and he painted from his heart, and his heart was horrified by the forces that were gathering people from their homes and homelands into a massive river of suffering and then expelling them into the unknown. When that happens--at least in this painting--the world turns dark. The colors and joys of life darken and drain.

Then, in the center of this story of Jewish suffering, Chagall makes everyone even more uncomfortable: he puts Christ on a cross. (Why?! Is he abandoning his roots? His faith? Is he co-opting Christ? Or deconstructing? And why is Christ yellow?)

Part of what I appreciate is the discomfort and the way it gets inside my heart and emotions. That river of humanity is not just an event in the past. It's not over. It’s not just Jewish. It's Syrian and Sudanese and Central African Republican. With the number of refugees at an historic high (nearly 16 million, with a total of 45 million displaced) it should make us very uncomfortable. At the very least (to use one of Chagall’s phrases) our hearts should not be silent about it.

And so I wish all of us a meaningful (and uncomfortable) Easter and Passover.

Written by Keith Cooper

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