Dating back to the late fourteenth century, this iconographic type shows Jesus sitting on a stone, bent over, supporting his head with one hand while resting the other on his knee. Sometimes he is crowned with thorns, sometimes not, but either way he bears an expression of exhaustion and grief and is thus associated with the Passion.
Although the image first appeared in northern Germany, it is now most commonly associated with Lithuania, where the figure is called Rūpintojėlis (pronounced roo-pinto-YAY-lis): “the One Who Worries,” or “the Brooding One.” (“The Pensive Christ” is not a strict translation, but that is the name that has gained favor in the English-speaking world; “Christ in Distress” is another.) As Christianity spread throughout Lithuania in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so did images of Rūpintojėlis, as the wandering woodcarvers (dievdirbiai) of native folk culture carved him into hollowed-out tree trunks wherever they went. Today he is found not only at crossroads and in forests but in churches, homes, cemeteries, and shops.
Lithuanians relate the figure to their own passion as a people, especially since having had endured persecution under the Soviet regime, including mass deportations to Siberian labor camps and other remote parts of the Soviet Union in the 1940s and ’50s. About 60 percent of the roughly 130,000 Lithuanian deportees either died in the camps or were never able to return to their homeland—a tragedy still mourned by Lithuanians each year on June 14, the date of the first major deportation (in 1941), which they call the “Day of Sorrow.” Others were executed as political prisoners.
For these victims of repression, the Pensive Christ represents a God who identifies with the suffering of humanity. Perhaps he contemplates not only his own unjust treatment and death but also the countless injustices waged against others throughout time. And he weeps.
Here is a roundup of Pensive Christs from Lithuania. To view more, visit www.tradicija.lt, which documents thirty-eight unique examples.
Here are a few images of the Pensive Christ originating outside Lithuania, in . . .
> Poland (where the tradition is also strong),
The way we think about Jesus is important.
In the first centuries of the church, two kinds of heresies developed: one started off with Jesus=God as a kind of Superman with the bullets bouncing off him. He only appeared human but was “really” divine. It was TOP down thinking. His human traits were only apparent. This has been the critique of Islamic thinkers: How could God die?
In this narrative, the miracles occurred because he was God etc.
The opposite view was that Jesus was “really” man. Instead of being GOD he was godly, or divine. In truth, he was a man filled with the spirit of God.
Then other subtler explanations were attempted. He was born man but the Sp[irit came on at baptism and ascended at death (“Why hast thou forsaken me?”) .Or how about this one: he had a human body but a divine soul.
None of these really satisfy what the Bible itself says and what the Rūpintojėlis indicate.
The Bible uses phrases such as “Being in very nature God;” “Image of the invisible;” “He who has seen me has seen the father;” “The word was God… The word became flesh.”
It’s just not good enough to think of a divine soul and human body because who we are is not merely bone and tissue. We ARE what we are inside.
And so we are told (Luke 2) that Jesus “grew” naturally (body, soul and spirit. We hear that he was weary, thirsty…the normal reactions of a physical body. We note that “He looked round in anger;” that “he wept;” that he reached for close friends to stay awake whilst he prayed. That is to say, he exhibited all the attributes of a sensitive human soul.
And precisely because of this total humanity, (as Hebrews 2 and 4 puts it): “He understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same temptations we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy and we will find grace to help us when we need it.”
He is touched with the feeling of our pain. This is the heart of the Lithuanian iconography. He can be touched NOW because of what he experienced THEN. Because, you see, if, so to speak, the bullets bounced off him, then so did the pain. If Jesus has some advantage over me in being human (that it’s just an act, a game) then how does he really understand? How did he really “suffer being tempted”?
And yet he didn’t sin. It’s hard to understand how he can face the temptation fully if there was no possibility of failure.
But its at this point that we misunderstand what it is to be human. We think that we are the norm, but really that’s not so. For generations the human race has devolved (rather than evolved) into a state of almost total depravity and darkness. Is it not so?
But we were not created for sin but for God, for pleasure and light. We were created for heaven. Our choices have led us badly astray, worse and worse . Romans 1 describes that spiralling in of sin and degradation. We have arrived at the point when we almost do not realise that we even face temptation. Or think much of it. And so we blunder from wrong choice to wrong choice.
But Jesus is fresh born from God, the son of God, the second Adam… the light that lightens everyone was coming into the world. He was the first truly human being since Adam. He came with two driving passions: one was “to do the will of He who sent me” and the other was the overwhelming pain of the people around him. “He had compassion on them…” Those two polar drives charged every word and action with powerful meaning.
So I suggest that Jesus had it not easier but tougher than us because he was fully awake to what temptation really was. It was sharper for him. He really “suffered being tempted”. If you think the pain on the cross was just physical (which I don’t), the pain of Gethsemane was deeper than we could ever understand.
And he washed the feet of Judas too, that night.
But he is touched with the feeling of our pain because he fully experienced it. “That which is not assumed is not healed” said a wise Athanasius. God entered fully into what it was to be human so that humans might enter fully into what it is to be Godly.
And because he understands, he’s in a position to help.
But what use is it to be helped by someone who is –after all- in the same position as you? It would be like an AA meeting run by an alcoholic. The leader might mean well, sure, but you just know that it might not work in the long run. You can’t trust them, ultimately, to stay clear of the stuff themselves.
But Jesus is clear of the stuff. He has faced the temptations but is clear of the sin, of the failure. “He faced all the temptations we do, yet he did not sin.” That’s the difference.
And so the Rūpintojėlis declare this truth: the humanity of Jesus, the empathy of Jesus, and the sorrow and sin of humanity, etched into the scars on his hands and fet.