Madonna and Child of Budapest
The God who suffers with us and for us
In light of violence in the United States and around the world, I would like to share an image I painted and a meditation I wrote. This meditation was originally published on the international www.Artway.eu website, for Lent of 2021. Here is the link to my original publication.
As we seek justice, may we know God’s comfort and the peace of Christ.
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The Afflicted Ones Rising
by Barbara Sartorius Bjelland
In all their affliction he was afflicted,
and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
Isaiah 63:9, RSV
This painting was inspired by a recent trip to Budapest. The two background buildings are the Hungarian Parliament and St. Matthias Church which actually face each other across the Danube River. One night I visited the Shoes on the Danube Bank, a small memorial next to the Hungarian Parliament building. Sixty pairs of bronze shoes tell the story of the 3,500 people, many of them Jews, who were killed at that spot by Nazi collaborators during WW II. The victims were lined up, ordered to remove their shoes, and then shot, their bodies falling into the river and turning it red with their blood. The image sticks in my mind—little children’s shoes, stylish women’s pumps with curved heels, men’s lace-up walking shoes, none of which could protect the people from the horror at the hands of their fellow human beings.
“Shoes on the Danube” photo by Nikodem Nijaki; Commons:Valued image candidates/Shoes on the Danube Promenade - Holocaust Memorial in Budapest found at:
There was an oppressive dreariness about the place. I could not fathom the atrocity. I felt connected to both the oppressed and the oppressor, knowing that my grandmother was a Jewish American and my grandfather was a German. At the memorial there were freshly laid flower bouquets and burning candles. In the dark waters the reflected lights of Parliament mingled with the candlelight. The lights illuminated a pathway across the river to St. Matthias church, the most beautiful church I have ever seen. It was if I were glimpsing the heavenly Jerusalem on the other side.
Above photo of “Shoes on the Danube” ©2020 Barbara Bjelland
My personal tragedy years before
was the still-born death of our first child, near full-term. At that time God provided comfort through an image of Mary. So, as I prayed for God’s love and redemption to bloom in the place of the memorial, this image came to me. The Madonna was inspired by the brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe with her star-studded mantle, a woman “clothed with the sun with the moon under her feet” (Revelation 12:1, RSV).
The virgin’s cape rolls and wraps around the child like the waves of the river. I pictured the Madonna and child descending into the waters with the slaughtered people. The mother and child also ascend, carrying the people up to God. The faces that unintentionally turned up in the upper church windows seem to be angels or heavenly beings with expressions of horror, expressions much like the man standing on the bridge in Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream. There is a paradox in my painting—one that cuts through the heart of our world: if God is all-loving and all-powerful, why does he allow such evil? An intellectual understanding of the consequences of free will, the pervasiveness of sin, and the brokenness of all Creation, does not fully satisfy. It is more accurate to say that Satan and his workers, though conquered, are still alive and active in this world.
Lent reminds us that God does not stand far off in our suffering. Christ came to suffer to conquer sin and death, and he suffers with us today. As Isaiah writes, “In all their affliction he was afflicted and the angel of his presence saved them.” There is another message that rings throughout Scripture: Christ will return and the veil of death, evil and sadness will be removed forever.
As God promised through the prophet Malachi, “The sun of righteousness will come with healing in its wings (Malachi 4:2).” And we will gaze upon this son face to face.
As we wait, Christ gives us signs of his love and care. The deep reds and purples in the painting point to Christ’s blood and the bread and wine of the Eucharist. We celebrate that God’s love has come to us and binds us together across all our divides. The moon above curves toward Mary and the child like the eye and hand of God. I often gaze upon the moon and feel the love and peace of God shining down on me. The hand of the Father sends forth his own child that he may return with victory spoils: hearts turned to him, love responding to Love. The stars give light and the sky is alive. Here I am inspired by the crescent moons and magical realism of Marc Chagall, whose work whispers that “all the air has wings.”
May we have eyes to see the multivalent signs of God’s presence with us, and may we be transformed by that seeing. May the power of the Holy Spirit give us hope. May we live out our calling as Christ’s image-bearers, knowing each act of mercy has eternal significance.