A Sermon from Sherborne
The Good Friday Three Hours’ Devotion
Conducted at Sherborne Abbey on Friday 30 March 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
Address 1: Dying, rising; dying, rising
A good many years ago, Philip Toynbee in a review in The Observer remarked that whilst Christianity is not a tragic religion, and the crucifixion has never been seen by Christian theology as a tragic event, Christianity has in its history shown a persistent hospitality to the tragic. “Christianity” he continued “has adopted many tragic elements which are alien to the fundamental concepts of atonement and redemption. The chosen symbol after all has not been of Christ Resurrected, which annuls the potential tragedy, but of Christ Crucified which remains obstinately tragic in men’s minds in spite of their official faith that this was not the last act of the drama.”
Philip Toynbee was a man of many parts. From the age of seventeen until his early fifties he had what he was to call a “hostile fascination” towards all forms of religious belief, especially Christianity. This was sharpened when his mother, who had brought him up to be a thoughtful sceptic, was suddenly received into the Roman Catholic Church and pulled him out of Rugby and packed him off to Ampleforth. He was to write “that conversion … offended and hurt me even more deeply than I knew at the time. The general effect was not to dampen my interest in religion, which had revived as soon as my prowess on the rugby field had made it permissible to exhibit again, but to make me passionately and derisively hostile to Christianity.”
Then, when he was fifty-one, Philip Toynbee’s wife, who had been going through a period of considerable stress and strain, decided that she wished to receive instruction from a friend and neighbour who was a retired priest of the Church of England. Sally Toynbee had been brought up in the American Middle West, and in virtually total ignorance of the Bible and Christian doctrine; nor until this point in her life – and after seventeen years of marriage – had she shown the faintest interest in any form of religion.
Toynbee followed his wife’s progress with fascination and some sympathy, as well as with many misgivings. He began to attend Mattins with her on Sundays. Then, as he was to write, “One day for no reason that I was able to detect, I made what seemed like a final decision that I too believed in God, and was therefore ready to start examining all the religious knowledge I had acquired over the years, not just as an intellectual curiosity but as the possible approach to a liveable reality. The point that needs to be made is that this “conversion’ was so unsensational, so undramatic that I doubt whether I really have the right to use the word at all. Yet by telling Sally about it I formally registered myself as a believer of sorts; and whenever arguments cropped up among our friends I now acted as a vigorous advocatus dei.”
Yet, as I have indicated, Toynbee could never quite forgive the Western Church for its obsession with the death of Christ rather than his Resurrection. That was a point which was also often made by D H Lawrence. “A small thing was Resurrection, compared with the Cross and the death” he wrote, in one of his many outbursts against Christians for what he regarded as their excessive, even morbid, and exclusive concentration on the Crucifixion of Christ. “Surely the passage of the cross and the tomb was forgotten? But no – always the memory of the wounds, always the smell of the grave clothes.”
The reactions of Lawrence and Toynbee are readily understandable to all of us brought up in Western European traditions of Christianity where in liturgy and music and art the emphasis of which they complain is only too evident. If, however, they had had more experience of Orthodox Christianity, in the Eastern Mediterranean area, the story might have been very different. The crucifixion is certainly not neglected in Eastern Orthodoxy, but there is no mistaking the primacy of the resurrection in its theology, liturgy and spirituality – so that Lawrence would have had no occasion to lament: “Alas! That the memory of the passion of sorrow and death and the grave holds triumph over the pale face of resurrection!”
So as I began to think about these talks, I became increasingly convinced that I could not and must not spend the short time available to me reflecting only on the pain and suffering of the Cross. Rather I must talk about its triumph, its victory, its hope and its joy.
In this, I have many centuries of Christian tradition on my side. Iconographically speaking, it took nearly ten centuries for a dying Christ on the Cross to become the dominant symbol of Christianity. In fact it took nearly five centuries before a body of Christ appeared on the Cross at all in visual representations of the crucifixion. The earliest examples are the well-known ivory in the British Museum and the panel on the door in Santa Sabina in Rome, both dated to about the middle of the 5th century AD. In both cases the emphasis is not on real death but on real life. Christ stands against the Cross as a back-cloth, and with eyes open looks through the scene in a way that suggests neither suffering nor death. In fact in the British Museum ivory there is a deliberate contrast between the hanging corpse of Judas on the tree and the live body of Christ on the Cross.
Those early Christian artists were not for a moment seeking to deny – as some heretical sects such as the Gnostics did – that Jesus of Nazareth really and truly died on the Cross. Rather, they were wanting to celebrate the Cross as a victory, a triumph, an event which changed human history and the human story. Christ’s death on the Cross, the artists seem to insist, must always be seen in the light of the resurrection, as a dramatic conquest of sin and mortality. The representation of a dead Christ on the Cross did not come into the iconography of the crucifixion – both in the East and the West – until the end of the 9th or the beginning of the 10th centuries. But in the Middle Ages, and again during the Counter-Reformation, the artistic concentration on the crucifixion in all its agony seared itself on people’s minds and seemed to make common cause with their own suffering.
It is tempting – it is always tempting – to stay with that crucified, tormented figure. He seems to identify so closely with us in our own pain. We have need of such comfort in our tragic world. Scarcely a day and seldom a week goes by without our being reminded of the infinite capacity for suffering which human beings possess. If Christians cannot understand the pain and know the pain of the world, then they have little to offer the world. But as a young priest I came across the way in which St Paul, in his second letter to the Christians at Corinth, distinguishes between what he calls the sadness according to the world and the sadness according to God. For Paul, the world’s kind of sadness is that the story of mankind is simply this – a story of frailty and pain, of mortality and ultimate loss. In the end, according to such a view, the meaning of human life is essentially tragic, if it has a meaning at all. So often when people die, even in ripe old age, their relatives cry “Why?” According to the sadness of the world, that is an unanswerable question. I would not like to estimate how many funerals I have taken where, because there was no faith of any kind present amongst those who mourned, the whole service was literally hope-less: no hope, no joy, no sense of continuity, nothing beyond stark emptiness and desolation. The family, the friends, were weeping when they arrived. Their crying deafened them, their tears blinded them to the message of hope I strove in vain to offer them. But, says St Paul, the sadness according to God is very different from the sadness of the world. It is the realisation that the tragedy of mankind lies in humanity’s wilful alienation from the source of its being. Sadness according to God is the contemplation of the misery of man without God, of man without hope, of man without faith.
I once was on a retreat conducted by a priest who was also a potter. For one talk he imported his potter’s wheel. In his hands, a beautiful pot was taking shape, but suddenly he stopped the wheel and the clay fell in upon itself into a shapeless mound. “All suffering comes like this”, he said. “It has no shape, no form. You can fashion of it something bitter and angry and twisted.” The wheel began again. In his hands, the clay began to assume a gnarled and ugly shape. “But”, he went on, “if you will allow God into the suffering then he can help you to redeem it, to make of it something beautiful and true and lovely.” In his hands the ugliness disappeared and a new pot of great beauty began to form. At the potter’s wheel I began to realise that God too has suffered, that God too has faced death, that suffering and death – while real to God – are not in Him finally defeating.
When we begin to see things from the perspective of the resurrection as well as the crucifixion, then we can take with full seriousness the uncontrolled and the uncontrollable, the alien and the menacing in the world, but say not that Christ just identifies with our suffering but that Christ has overcome it. The wounds the suffering inflicts are the prints of the nails in the body of the Lord. He has battled with the unintelligible dark, the power of evil, and still lives. He contains evil, he has shown that evil cannot contain him: “the darkness comprehended it not.” He has looked into the heart of darkness, he has held the burning world to himself, and holds it always, at the cost of a pain we cannot begin to conceive. “The Lord is King … be the earth never so unquiet.”
Address 2: Face to face
The last time I preached the Good Friday Three Hours I did a rather breathless “Cook’s Tour” in six twenty-minute slots round six principal theories of the atonement: six different explanations of what Christ did and achieved on the Cross. This year, however, I suddenly remembered an old Life Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge (where I read Theology) who long before my arrival had been a distinguished Regius Professor of Theology. His name was John Burnaby, and he once remarked that there have been many theories of the atonement, many attempts to explain the saving work of Christ on the cross, and correspondingly large numbers of books about it. Not one of them, in his opinion, was worth the loss of a single tree. John Burnaby believed that the atonement, the reconciliation of our lost selves to God, is something that is lived and experienced first, and only then, if at all, written about: “One thing only I know: before I was blind, but now I see.” (John 9: 25). So, Burnaby argued:
There never was, and there never can be, a theory of the atonement that is worth the paper it is written on. If we want to understand God’s reconciliation of the world to himself, there is nothing that we can do but to listen to those who have known it as a reality in themselves. If we ask them, ‘How do you know that the one Christ died for all?’ – they can only answer, ‘At any rate he died for me’; and if we ask them how they know that, they will say with St Paul that they have known the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings.
I have come to agree. Before the mystery of the atonement, one can ultimately only keep silent. The attempt to explain it, systematise it, and reduce it to a set of formulae, can only rob it of its wonder. Nevertheless, words are our stock in trade (especially the preacher’s stock-in-trade), and in the end the story of the Bible can be put into yet more words as the story of the loss of our union with God, and with each other, and its restoration. It is significant, I think, that the Bible uses pictorial and therefore highly accessible language to talk about this. The opening chapters of Genesis describe the progressive disintegration of that harmony and peace which God intended to be our state – between human beings and God, husband and wife, parent and child, people and creation, town and country, craft and technology, heaven and earth – culminating in the confusion and the conflict of the tower of Babel. Adam and Eve do not dare any longer to appear in the presence of God, and Cain, in his guilt after the murder of his brother, knows that he is now hidden from the face of God. From this point on, the longing to be once more at one with God is described as “seeking God’s face.”
Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice: have mercy also upon me, and answer me. When you said, Seek my face; my heart replied to you, your face, Lord, will I seek. Hide not your face far from me; put not your servant away in anger. You have been my help; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation. (Psalm 27: 7-9).
But scripture is also the story of God’s progressive and patient work of repair, beginning with the covenant agreement with Noah, then with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, David and his successors. God then kept trying to repair his people through the message of the prophets. His people kept rejecting his attentions.
So, in the end, God had one last try. He took a new initiative for our rescue, and he turned his face towards us literally in the person of Christ: “While he was praying the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white.” To look on Jesus is to look on God: “He who has seen me has seen the Father”; and because as a result we are reconciled to God and are once more at one with him and “because we have this confidence in God through Christ” who has lived among us, we in turn can – indeed must – reflect that light to others: to those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death. “For God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shone in our lives, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
This, then, is the meaning of atonement. We are in need of repair. As that old American satirist H L Mencken put it, “We are the only animal that blushes; and needs to.” We were, in our former state, understandably ashamed to look God in the eye. Isaiah speaks for all of us at some time or other in our lives when, in his lyrical portrayal of the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, he comments sadly “and we hid as it were our faces from him.” And then, amazingly, we find that God has reached out and turned us toward himself so that we are once more capable of bearing the weight of glory. Just as in the deepest intimacy and love we may have for another human being, we meet each other face to face, we look each other in the eye, so also with God. We would not dare even to construct a distant shelter for God, if it were left to us; for we know that we are not worthy that he should come under our roof. But God turns us gently to himself and looks upon us face to face: “This is my Son, my beloved, in whom is all my delight: listen to him.”
Only St Luke, in his account of the arrest and trial of Jesus, has the significant little detail that, as Peter denied him for the third time, “The Lord turned and looked at Peter.” Scholars speculate as to whether Jesus was being kept under guard in the courtyard, or whether at that moment he was being marched through the courtyard of the high priest’s house on to the next stage of the trial. But the Greek text makes it clear that this was a look of reproach and a look of sadness. Did Peter blush? St Mark this time tells us he did more than that: he broke down and wept bitterly. Of one thing we can be sure: at that moment, bowed down by guilt and shame, he could not look the Lord in the face, he could not bear that sad and penetrating gaze.
But because of Good Friday, and because of Easter, everything changed, and Peter was able to look Jesus in the face again.
The early Christians did not kneel to pray, they did not bury their faces in their hands. They delighted to pray standing and looking up into the heavens. For the first time, they felt the weight of sin and guilt lifted from them and, because of what Christ had achieved for them, able to gaze as it were upon God and look him in the face. This is the truth of atonement. To write a book about it, as Professor Burnaby suggested, is to make clear from the outset that we have missed the point. For its consequence, its result, is not a book, but love.
There is probably nothing more revealing of your true state of mind and of heart than your face. Across it passes every conceivable emotion: your hopes and your fears, your anger and your compassion, your sadness and your love. T S Eliot writes in “East Coker” of that moment “When an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations/And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence/And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen/Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about …” Who of us has not had the experience of suddenly and unexpectedly gazing into the eyes of another person, as when the train slows and comes to a halt next to another train and for a moment the two of you, each staring out of the carriage window, find yourselves staring into each other’s face and, sometimes, seeming to see into the very depths of the soul. Just for that moment you look into that person’s face without their having had a chance to prepare for the encounter, without time to put on the emotional makeup; and you have not had that chance either. In that moment you see them without their defences, and they see you without yours, and perhaps you get an inkling of what they are when there is no one there; what they are, we might say, in the presence of God.
The Church at its wisest has never precisely defined the doctrine of the Atonement; it has never sought to be exact and precise in its accounts of the redemption won by Christ. Instead, it goes on celebrating it in hymn and liturgy, and Christians go on experiencing it in their lives. And as we enter into that experience on this Good Friday, there Christ hangs before us, beseeching us to stay and look, and as we gaze upon him, the awful picture of sin’s curse becomes at the very same time a shining image of the unconquerable love and mercy of God. That is how the redeeming work is still done today, if only we will stay long enough to see what is really going on. The God who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, on the cross and from the empty tomb, invites us to look into his face and to meet his gaze. Of course we cannot be wholly prepared for that, at least, not this side of the grave. What we can see is through a glass, darkly, knowing that when at last we come to see God as he is, and know him as he knows us, we shall recognise him; for we shall see in him “with unveiled faces” all that we have known in Jesus and through the work of the Holy Spirit. Christ as the human face of God brings us the assurance that the heart that beats in heaven is a heart of love, the same heart that led Jesus to his death because he loved his fellow men and women, the same heart that beats in all those who have experienced the work of the spirit to transform their lives and make them flourish. In Christ, God’s true nature is at last revealed – and it is love.
Address 3: A criss-cross of tears and laughter
Now I saw in my dream, that the highway up which Christian was to go, was fenced on either side with a Wall, and that Wall is called Salvation. Up this way therefore did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back.
He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a Cross, and a little below in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the Cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back; and began to tumble, and so continued to do so till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.
Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, “He hath given me rest, by his sorrow, and life, by his death.” Then he stood still a while, to look and wonder; for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the Cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked therefore, and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks. Now as he stood looking and weeping, behold three Shining Ones came to him, and saluted him, with “Peace be to thee.” So the first said to him, “Thy sins be forgiven.” The second stripped him of his rags, and clothed him with a change of raiment. The third also set a mark upon his forehead, and gave him a roll with a seal upon it, which he bid him look on as he ran, and that he should give it in at the celestial Gate: so they went their way. Then Christian gave three leaps for joy, and went on singing….
Thus did Bunyan’s pilgrim find the cross and the grave to be places of life, light and ultimately of laughter. “Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, He hath given me rest, by His sorrow, and life by His death.”
To those of us brought up to reflect, year by year, on the sheer agony of Good Friday, its pain, its sweat, its blood and its suffering, the notion of laughter on such a day is more than an irreverence, it is almost a blasphemy. The only laughter we will hear on Good Friday is that of the soldiers as they throw their dice for Christ’s seamless robe, and the scoffing and taunting of the priests and the rest of the religious establishment of Jerusalem.
And yet we need to remember that distinction which St Paul makes between what he calls the sadness according to the world and the sadness according to God. From the perspective of the world’s kind of sadness, Good Friday is hardly good at all: it seems so tragic and so futile, our eyes can see only the agony of it and there is room for nothing else. But the sadness according to God always bears within itself the realisation that death and the grave do not have the final word; it encourages us – no, it commands us – to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and [to] run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12: 1-2).
In a remarkable series of lectures entitled Tragedy, Irony and Faith, the late Bishop John Tinsley of Bristol (who ordained me) pointed out that it is significant that the greatest tragedies are not purely tragic through and through, nor are the greatest comedies purely comic. For example he quotes Professor Wilson Knight’s verdict on the peculiar greatness of Chekhov’s plays as “a criss-cross of tears and laughter.” As John Tinsley put it: “The perspectives of the Christian believer are not those of tragedy (and certainly not of pathos) nor are they those of comedy (and certainly not farce) but something which contains elements of both.” Christian life itself is a “criss-cross of tears and laughter.”
I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete…. I shall see you again, and your hearts will be full of joy, and that joy no one shall take from you… while still in the world I say these things to share my joy with them to the full….
Despite these words of Jesus, joy is not commonly associated with death. Jesus’ attitude to his own death is here most forcefully at odds with the spirit of this world, the sadness of this world, which sees death as final negativity. Death in the world’s eyes is that which destroys relationships and thus defeats man’s best endeavours to establish and sustain a community of love, whether in family life or in a wider sense.
This is perhaps the most paradoxical theme of Lent and Good Friday: the way in which Jesus prepared his friends for his death. If this could become our perspective too, the world really would be stood on its head. Jesus declares the disciples will have an abiding joy in consequence of his death, a joy in the light of which their immediate grief will be as nothing. Not that Jesus tells them they should not grieve. There is no counsel of the stiff upper lip here, but rather an affirmation and an entering into their anguish. It might almost be said that Jesus encourages them to grieve while they need to, while there is good reason to do so, for he knows that it is only by walking down that tunnel that they will come upon and be surprised by the joy which lies ahead.
The word of future joy is therefore designed not to diminish that sorrow which is the fitting response to the loss of him, but only to suggest that the end of the story is not desolation. This joy will give meaning to their grief, just as the birth of a child gives meaning to the mother’s pain in childbirth. The suffering of the disintegration of one form of relationship is seen to be the price that has to be paid for entry into a new and more comprehensive mode of relationship.
Yet joy still clashes with the world’s idea of death, and therefore with the common expectation of what happens in bereavement. In particular, any sign of joy at such a time is liable to be seen as lack of respect and affection for the person who has died. Perhaps these words of Jesus need to be remembered: “Unless you become as little children you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” To the child, grief and joy are very close companions, each being entered into with like seriousness as occasion offers. This whole-hearted spontaneity of response to what happens tends to become blunted in adult life, as the cares of this world obtrude and burgeon into all manner of unproductive activities, not least a ruling concern with what other people might think or will think.
It is for this reason that joy in bereavement might be described as socially unacceptable. Not that this is a feature peculiar to the modern world: the apostles at Pentecost, preaching in exultation a crucified man, were thought to be drunk. This earthy interpretation of their condition is matched in more sophisticated terminology when any sign of joy on the part of the bereaved is described as unbalanced or, quaintly enough, as morbid. Yet the fact is that joy in bereavement is by no means uncommon. In the forty years during which I have been visiting and ministering to the bereaved both before and after the funerals of those they have loved, I have been amazed by how often there has been a profound rejoicing as part of their bereavement experience, particularly amongst those with a living and vital Christian faith.
This does not make joy an alternative to grief as a response to bereavement. But it does mean that we cannot approach crucifixion on its own. We live on this side of Easter. We are Easter people and alleluia is our song. Always through the crucifixion is resurrection. The cross is meaningless without the empty tomb. This is why St Paul commands a specific attitude to the death of Christians: “You are not to lament over them as the heathen do, with no hope by which to live.” This is not a prohibition of mourning as such, but of hopeless grieving. Lamentation cannot be the essence of bereavement for anyone who knows the risen Jesus as the first born of many brethren.
There is an old passion play in which the centurion listens with a professional ear to the different sounds as his men hammer home the nails into the hands of Jesus. “Flesh”, he says as he hears the first blow; “bone” he says as he hears the second; “wood” he comments as the nail bites into the cross itself. How harsh and crude we have to be as the ninth hour approaches. The hammer blows of the third hour, when Jesus was nailed to the cross, still echo in our ears. This sort of death is harsh, it is crude: flesh, blood, crushed bone, waning pulse, tortured sinew, bloody sweat – and stained, pierced, lacerated wood.
All of us can come to this cross, or creep to the cross, as our mediaeval ancestors used to say. We can come to it no matter how strong our faith is or how weak, because in the end nothing matters except what Jesus has done for us by dying on that cross of wood. But always, but always, we come to it by way of the empty tomb.
Address 4: The heartbeat of eternal life
The teaching of Jesus of the crowds in Galilee was not just instruction. It was a transmission of life from the fully alive to the half dead. He told them that he had come that they might have life, and have it to the full. He told them that if he set them free, they would be truly free. The mass of the people hung upon his words, and when he asked Peter if he wanted to join those who were drifting away, the answer came back: “To whom shall we go? Your words are words of eternal life.”
The late John V Taylor, sometime Bishop of Winchester, has beautifully described Jesus of Nazareth as a man so intensely alive that others catch life from his touch. Bishop Taylor goes on “The historical figure of Jesus that emerges almost incidentally from the study of the Gospels is of a man supremely alive in his awareness and his freedom. He was, above everything else, alive, and his aliveness was contagious.”
Seen like that, Good Friday means that life went down into death and, for a moment, was overwhelmed. The sensitive awareness of Jesus that had woken others to life made no impression on those who ringed him round, neither on the set policies of the High Priests nor the incomprehension of the Roman Governor. Their inertness prevailed. In the long torture of his dying, darkness prevailed. With his last breath, death prevailed. It had to or it would not have been the death we suffer. There was nothing of him left – in the dramatist Tom Stoppard’s words, “Only silence and some second-hand clothes”. He who was life itself had gone the whole way in identifying himself with our deadness.
And yet all that had happened – but it was all – was that the seed had gone into the ground to die in order that it might yield a rich harvest. That is why St Paul would insist to the Corinthians “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
I wonder how many of Jesus’ intimate circle glimpsed that possibility. His mother? Perhaps. Mothers have a touching faith in their sons to get things right in the end, even while disparaging them and putting them down in public. Long ago at that wedding in Cana of Galilee, Mary had displayed her enormous confidence in her son, even when he did not seem to want to co-operate, by simply instructing the servants to do whatever he told them. She had seen so much of sorrow, her heart had been pierced also. But she knew him, she knew him through and through. Perhaps she glimpsed, she guessed, she half-knew, that it would be all right. And the beloved disciple, John: perhaps he, too, had some inkling that all would be well. For he, more than any other of the disciples, understood that love is stronger than death. In his Gospel and, according to ancient tradition, in his long ministry as Bishop of Ephesus, it was love to which he would return again and again: “Little children, love one another.” But the rest, well, we know the answer. They all fled.
But Jesus’ dying was simply to absorb our deadness. On the cross the unparalleled aliveness of Jesus Christ went down under the deadness that is our sickness and our sin and was annihilated. Surrendering himself to death he drew it into himself and absorbed it. If you think of our deadness as sin, as we should, then you can see that it was absorbed in Christ’s forgiveness; for that is how forgiveness works – it absorbs the wrong by enduring the pain and hostility of it without throwing it back. And if you think of our deadness as a wasting disease you can see that its infection spent itself upon Christ, and was absorbed or, as the New Testament put is, “swallowed up”.
The Anglican Religious, Sister Frances Dominica, of Helen House [now Helen & Douglas House], the Children’s Hospice in Oxford, once had this experience:
I had known this mother for some time as both her daughters suffered from a rare genetic illness, and were frequent visitors to Helen House. During the year she and her husband went through a difficult and painful divorce. On Christmas morning she telephoned and I went.
Her thirteen year old died the following morning, suddenly and unexpectedly. Seeing her sister dead, the four year old said, “I wanted to die first”, and five days later she too died. During those days and nights that I was with the mother and her children there were a thousand and one things to do. After the funeral there was nothing to do except to be there beside her. Surrounded by grief too immense for words I felt physical pain which still recurs from time to time when I least expect it. By staying alongside I was absorbing a little of her pain.
That simple but profound illustration of how our pain can be absorbed perhaps goes a little way towards an understanding of how the death of Christ took all his intense aliveness into the depths of our deadness in order to absorb it. Is this not what we recall every time we celebrate the Eucharist, in that simple ritual Jesus Christ bequeathed to his followers down the centuries: a very direct, a very basic means by which his own perfect aliveness might be imparted to them; and through the same action, an enduring token of the eternal cost of that sharing. The bread is broken as he was, the wine poured into the cup as his life was poured out. Then it is offered – offered to his Father as his whole being was, in all its awareness and responsiveness, and then offered to us. “Because I am alive you shall be alive also.” It isn’t forced upon anyone, nor does anyone receive it simply by sitting back and doing nothing. That would only confirm us in our deadness. So he says take it. He says ask. He says come. How you do that or what you say is between you and him. But as here, now, we ponder upon his offering of his aliveness in order to redeem our deadness, we realise afresh that we must die with him in order to know resurrection life. Dying and rising, dying and rising: this is the heartbeat of Christian life; it is the heartbeat of eternal life.
Upon a life I did not live,
Upon a death I did not die,
Another’s life, another’s death,
I stake my whole eternity.
Address 5 (given during the Liturgy of the Cross, 2.00 to 3.00 pm):
In my first address today, I referred to the fact that the writer and journalist Philip Toynbee, though he made a journey from atheism to Christian belief, could never forgive the Western Church for its obsession with the crucifixion rather than the resurrection. And I have been trying to view Jesus’ passion and death from this side of Easter – as, ultimately, that is the only way Christians can do it. We are the Easter people. But that does not, and cannot, insulate us from the agony and pain of it all.
Nowadays we live in a society which is frightened of pain and prefers not to think about suffering. Ours is an anaesthetic age which has a pill for every problem and a hundred cosmetic names for illness and death. Politicians of every party tell us that when they are in power things will not be as bad as they seem, and the good times are just around the corner – and we long to believe them. People are vaguely aware of an emptiness, a meaninglessness, in their lives, but instead of confronting that honestly, they are conned into filling the emptiness with things, with acquisition, or with drink or drugs or other temporary escapes from the real world.
But there are no quick routes in the search for meaning, just as there are no short-cuts to Easter. We can reach the empty tomb only by way of the Cross. And we cannot wish it any other way. The Bible not only fails to spare our tender feelings with its accounts of the harsh realities of that first Passiontide. It dares to call them Good News. For Christianity, true Christianity, refuses to inoculate us against suffering, or to provide a spiritual pill against pain. Instead it speaks of God’s only-begotten Son as the one who suffered and died for us, who shared in all the suffering of the world, for us.
To be protected from suffering is to be protected from living. Lose your ability to suffer physical pain and you can be burned or scalded or horribly injured – without realising what is happening to you. You need to be able to feel pain to snatch your hand away from the hotplate or your foot from scalding bathwater. In the same way, if you try to protect yourself from emotional hurt, by giving your heart to no-one, then your heart will simply become cold and hard, and eventually it will die. Love is about vulnerability, about taking risks. Love anyone, and you make yourself vulnerable, and your heart will be wrung and sometimes it will be broken. But you will be alive.
And so it is that the Son of God chooses to identify himself with us at the centre of our vulnerability, at the place of passion and of pain. He clasps the suffering world to himself, and the place of his death becomes the place of our hope and of our salvation. It is at the foot of the Cross that we discover the height and the depth and the breadth of God’s love for us – that he loves us so much that he will even die for us. But we know all this only from the perspective of the empty tomb, of resurrection, of the gift of eternal life in Christ. And for that, thanks be to God.