Alan Rimmer examines the mystery of the Cross
Stop all the clocks……….cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Good Friday might, paradoxically, present an opportunity to dwell on those desolate, hopeless, abandoned parts of the human experience which W.H. Auden’s familiar poem communicates so powerfully. ‘Stopped’, ‘cut off’, ‘moaning’, ‘dead’, ‘unwanted’. Dark places of disillusion and despair. Places which all of us visit at different times; baggage – of different kinds but always heavy – that we carry with us. Perhaps we bring some of it here with us today. Our sickness unto death – our fear of death, our griefs and losses, our unresolved, inarticulate anger, our own depression and pain, and the struggles of those dear to us. Auden’s words have in the background that dulling knowledge of the cruel ways in which men and women treat one another, over history and over the breakfast table. In the diseased distance is the problem of evil, hearts squashed by the senselessness of suffering. The poet appeals grandly to a cosmic sense of existential alienation, but exile can be ordinary too – felt in long broken friendships, the jagged edges of which pierce our hearts but which through hurt and pride and the complexity of our human circumstances we must leave unreconciled. Of course there’s nothing new in Auden’s words – we’ve heard the Psalmist this morning and here at this Liturgy sing ‘I am like a dead man, a thing thrown away’, and ‘my heart throbs, my strength is spent’. We need not look far to find a sense of ourselves as, in the words of this week’s great office hymn, ‘a race shipwrecked forever’.
Our hearts might dwell too on the disillusionment of Jesus’ mother and his friends, tired to the death, as they took his torn body down from the Cross and sealed him with a despairing sense of finality into the tomb. Heart-rent and yet in their tender burial preparations, grimly accepting of death and of the decay that comes in death’s wake. Blood and earth and burial, the sky’s light obscured, its dome darkened with the invisible but unmistakable scribbled message ‘He is dead’.
How else could they be thinking, having heard from that Cross the most heartbreaking cry ever to reach human ears – ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ As a child I was absolutely scandalised, disturbed, embarrassed by those words, and by Jesus’ identification with and fulfilment of those pathetic, desperate hopeless words of the Psalmist who in that moment is a ‘not a man but a worm’. This is not how it’s meant to be, is it?
And yet, we come here today to ‘celebrate’ the Lord’s Passion and to ‘venerate’ his Cross. The Latin roots of the word ‘venerate’ take us, of course, not to mourning and despair but to beauty, desire, good, love. Our liturgy this afternoon is not ‘Funeral Blues’, not about paying our respects to a dead God, but about beholding and cherishing an instrument, yes, devised in man’s wickedness and emblematic of his morbidity, but which has become the vehicle of divine love; an emblem of pain and decay which God has made our salvation and our way to wholeness and joy. We venerate and not mourn, we hold even now in our solemnity love and joy in our hearts, and do not postpone it until Easter Morning, because it is here that the work of salvation out of love is achieved. This is the image of God come down to the deepest, darkest places of our broken condition, Christ not acting out some divine theatre, but truly taking upon himself genuine separation from abandonment by God so that we might return to intimate relationship with him.
Remember that it is at this darkest hour and not in the happy reunions and fish suppers of Easter that Jesus Christ commissions his Church – that Church by means of which we are united to God. In the midst of his pain he looks down in love and commends his Mother Mary to the care of the Beloved Disciple, his Beloved Disciple to that treasure house that is Our Lady. Significant that Baptism and the Eucharist, the Church’s very constitution, are not organisational principles drafted once things have come good at the Resurrection and settled down. No, they come as the water and blood pours from his side at the sharp and bitter point of the executioner’s lance.
Throughout scripture and the history of the Church, relationship with God has involved giving up the worldly paucity we desperately cling to in order to receive back abundance of a different quality. In Abel the just, in Abraham and Isaac, in Joseph’s exile and Moses’ exposure, in the trials of saints and the pains of martyrs, in the difficult spiritual work incumbent on every Christian to leave an old self, old selves behind, there is pain and despair and separation. Dying to what we once held dear and experiencing the cost is the way that God prepares to receive back from him. To receive back something which might look completely different from what our desires once yearned after, but which will fill our deepest desire and silence that sad voice that whispers ‘nothing now will ever come to any good’. Those shocking words from Hosea – ‘Come, and let us return unto the Lord: for he hath torn us, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind up our wounds’ are given their ultimate truth in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ – and our witness today to the pain and the promise of the Cross should give us heart in our loss and bind us increasingly to him.
The Cross was an instrument of torture, a device conceived in cruelty not only to kill but to humiliate and disfigure, to destroy the body of the victim and deaden the spirits of those made to watch. It was an emblem of the sin that ‘silences’ all hope, ‘prevents’ all promise, ‘cuts us off’ from relationship with, even apprehension of, a loving God.
And yet by submission to it, Christ has made of it not the haunting shadow of a depraved humanity, but the silhouette of a human being fully alive and in the image of God, arms open to the world, inviting embrace. Of those rudely crossed bars he has made our truest and most intricate compass; our North, our South, our East and West indeed.
Today we remember and engage with that Friday of blood and abandonment and defiantly call it ‘Good’. Amidst our awareness of the pain and separation which W.H. Auden so authentically evokes, our knowledge that Christ met it for so utterly allows us to take up and cherish that happier instinct which in this poem he abandons. In coming here today we show that we too thought ‘that love would last forever’. In beholding that Cross, we know that we were right.
Father Alan Rimmer is the Assistant Curate at the Parish of St Stephen, Gloucester Road.