Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (1937)
by John McGrady
copyright 1937

Reformation, Psalm 46

Historical Description:

John McCrady is the William Falkner of Southern painting. He is regarded as one of the most important Louisiana artists, becoming particularly well known for his images of southern African Americans. This painting, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (1937), was inspired by the spiritual of the same named. The paining combines many facets of McCrady’s work as rural and religious themes mingle together under a nighttime sky. Here we peek in on an intimate moment with mourners hovering over a deathbed. At the same time, the viewer is gripped by the sight of angels descending to take the newly departed to heaven in a chariot.  All the while Satan is restrained by one of the heavenly host.

Devotional Reflection:

Digestive troubles, kidney stones, feverish rheumatism, toothaches, and chest pains—Martin Luther had them all. This champion of the Reformation spent more an inordinate amount of time under the weather. From his fortieth year onward, Luther was a sick man. He once said, “I am a veritable Lazarus, greatly tried by sickness.”

Perhaps his many lingering ailments account for the frequent death-awareness found in Luther’s writings. Reading through Luther’s commentaries, one will frequently observe his musings about the Apostle Paul are juxtaposed with musings about the Christian deathbed experience. One could say that Luther was adept at ‘Deathbed Theology.’

It was his frequent life-threatening ailments and frequent deathbed ruminations that would incline Luther to esteem John McCrady’s painting, Swing Low Sweet Chariot. In this painting we visualize the sum total of Luther’s deathbed theology. And we see the words of Psalm 46 embodied in a person’s final breaths.

This image depicts a deathbed moment. Hearts are trembling and swelling. We are invited to watch as the bereaved bear roaring and foaming internal tumult. We peek into this cabin through an open door to witness a time of great trouble.

Yet, we are relieved to see that the LORD of hosts is with them; He has sent His heavenly host to be in their midst as a very present help. We see an earthly ‘chariot’ parked outside, while a heavenly chariot has arrived to bring the newly deceased to the city of God. We cheer on the angel fighting back Satan, poised and ready to shatter his spear. Our hearts and souls can be stilled knowing that this person is safely in Christ’s nearer presence.

All that matters is Christ. The problem that Martin Luther recognized in the church of his day was that a horrible reversal had taken place: everything except for Christ mattered. Indulgences, penance, praying to saints, purgatory all got in the way of Christ bringing comfort to the dying Christian.

Stillness of heart and soul comes when all else is stripped away and we see Christ. The Reformation reoriented the Christian faith so that it was all about theology and the salvation of the brethren. The Christian life should be nothing more and nothing less.

On his deathbed the longtime Luther scholar Jaroslav Pelikan said, “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. If Christ is not risen, nothing else matters.” This is the summation of Luther’s theology. This is the word of comfort any dying person longs to hear on his or her deathbed. This proclamation—All that matters is Christ—is the source of true stillness.

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