Corpse Christi

When I visit El Salvador most of the churches have a life sized image of the dead Christ lying in a glass coffin like box. The image usually shows the corpse ravaged by the scourging and crucifixion. Not nice.

Christian artists down the ages have also portrayed the corpse of Christ–this one by Hans Holbein being the most stark. Jesus lies out flat as if he is just another criminal whose body has been donated to science and the medical students are just about to begin their gruesome task.

The corpse of Christ is a shocking image, but one which we need to see–much as we need to see Gibson’s Passion, and just as we need to see the starved victims of Auschwitz, the dismembered remains of aborted babies or the dead babies thrown in the trash. We need to see the starving children of Africa and the emaciated faces of crackheads and drunks and homeless people.

We need to see these things because life is beautiful. “Whaaat?” I hear you gasp. “This is beautiful? Father, I realize this blog is called ‘Standing on My Head’ but this is going too far.”

Here’s what I mean: we all rightly want to create beautiful lives for ourselves, and in the USA we do a pretty good job of it. We have our trophy houses, our trophy second houses, our trophy cars, our trophy kids, our trophy wives. We’ve got it all and done it all, and one of the things that makes up our pretty plastic lives is a very effective block of seeing any of the unpleasant stuff. It’s like a spam blocker for our lives. We can go through our squeaky clean little suburban lives never seeing the squalor, the cruelty, the insanity, the poverty–the grime of crime and the sludge of sin.

The corpse of Christ reminds us that we live in a physical world where life can be nasty and hard and cruel and bitter and that Jesus Christ the Son of God came down to embrace all this and take it to himself. Furthermore, that he calls us to take up our cross and follow him, and that part of the Christian life, therefore is to reach out to those who are in the middle of the mess, and when the mess comes to us to endure it with dignity and grace knowing that it is just our little share of the cross.

The corpse of Christ reminds us that the realities of our faith also have a physical dimension. It’s not all doctrine and dogma, rules and regulations and rubrics. It’s about life and love and joy and sorrow and being alive, more fully alive than we ever imagined, and that means embracing the physical part of the faith–a faith that is abundant with signs and symbols of both beauty and pathos–physical signposts to an eternity not less physical than this one, but more material.

Finally, the corpse of Christ reminds us of Corpus Christi. The body of Christ crucified is also the Body of Christ resurrected and glorified. The Body of Christ glorified is also present in the Body of Christ the Church, and the Body of Christ the Church is present and alive and real in the Body of Christ hidden beneath the appearance of bread and wine.

Here is the beauty therefore, in the corpse of Christ–that in this body broken we glimpse the bread that is broken. In this body given we see the bread that is given. In this body of death we see the seed that dies so that new life may grow.

In this corpse of Christ we see the upside down world of the kingdom–that this is the King of Kings–and that these wounds will one day dazzle our eyes like radiant rubies–the gemstones of our salvation.



  • Bob Wirth

    Beautiful essay, Father. Thank you!
    At the local Ukrainian Catholic Church, they put up a representation of Jesus lying dead in His tomb, for prayer and meditation. I like this custom.

  • Josemaria

    We Have what we Call the Santo Entiero in The Philippines

  • Lisa Dobrowolski

    Just a note, Fr. My Windows Explorer browser is showing the landscape-oriented painting “squeezed” into the left column, so it looks rather freaky, like a melting wax figure. Clicking on the image itself opens a separate window and then I see it in the correct proportion. (2:15p CT, Sat.)

  • Steve Neef

    I have searched for a description of your book Challenging Catholics: An Evangelical-Catholic Dialogue, but to no avail. Can you please provide some information regarding its contents. Thanks. Steve Neef

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Challenging Catholics is my debate with Evangelical John Martin. The book is now out of print, but we hope to have it available later this year as an e-book.

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  • Patricia Brauer

    Beautiful post. First tome visitor to your site and your post radiated with me edp. in this season. I really became a Christian on a Good Friday eve while meditating on the passion of our Lord. I love/need looking at images like this and Matanega’s The Lamentation of Christ to ground me back to the true reality that is not the world I move around in. We’re called to alleviate the suffering of this world as a means to alleviate His suffering.