In this devotional article for Lent, Robert Ladds reflects on one of the instruments of the Passion
Ron Carter was a remarkable person. Besides a successful professional career, he had a passion and interest in blacksmithing. He owned an ancient forge in rural Lancashire. He became nationally and internationally known for his wrought ironwork; undertaking projects for the National Trust, the Queen Mother and the President of the United States.
What Ron really liked, however, was work in churches. He felt he had found a way of expressing his life-long, direct and pragmatic faith in that particular form of art and beauty in the, apparently, un-yielding iron. He particularly liked the symbolism of the ancient Blacksmiths Guilds based on emblems of the Passion and biblical symbols, flowers, leaves and branches.
Good Friday tradition
Among his characteristics traditions was that of Good Friday. He would rise early and go to his forge. He would go through the methodical process of lighting the forge: the small bundle of straw and wood shavings; the creation of a core of fire with finely crushed coke, bringing it to life with gentle working of the bellows. Then the building of the full and blazing hearth.
He would then select some bits of iron from around the place – perhaps from the floor, which was littered with, almost made from, odd bits of metal from the years and years past. He would then set about his forging. The sparks; the roaring of the forge, the ringing of the anvil; the hiss of the hot metal quenched in the water trough.
There, on the bench, three large, traditional, nails.
He would then let out the fire, close the forge and, later go off to Church – one he and his wife had determined on in advance – and before the Solemn Liturgy of the Day, would have presented the parish priest with the gift of the three nails. ‘It is my duty’, he would say, to work in this way and to this purpose on Good Friday, because ‘it was a Blacksmith that made the Nails with which Our Lord was Crucified’.
Jesus, carrying the Cross himself, went forth to the place called ‘the Scull’, in Hebrew called ‘Golgotha, where him they crucified.
All four Gospels use terms based on stauros when referring to the Lords Instrument of death; terms usually translated as relating to ‘Cross’ and ‘Crucifixion’. Proseloo, to ‘fasten with nails’ or ‘nail to’ is not used in the Gospels, yet is specifically the term used in Paul’s Letter to the Colossians: ‘Having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it the Cross’.
Focal point of pain
Death by Roman crucifixion was all too well known and recorded to need particular description. Nails were used to fasten the body on the stake or cross. Nails sufficiently long to pass through the limb and secure it to the wood. Nails sufficiently strong not only to support the hanging weight of the body but also to withstand the agonized writhings of the victim; that pulling up by the arms and that pushing up by the feet to relieve the inability of the chest to draw a breath under the downward weight of the suspended body.
Nails suspending the body. Nails being the very focal point of pain. Nails the epicentre from which the cruel bleeding and causes of death radiated.
Thus it was to be the marks of the nails that Doubting Thomas needed to see, touch and feel: ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’ Which desire and need, the Risen Lord was not to deny Thomas: ‘Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.’ Through the nail-marks and the Lord’s call, Thomas can answer him: ‘My Lord and my God!’
There is a remarkable verse, hidden away in the prophecy of Ezra (Ezra 9.8). In modern translations this verse is usually translated as: ‘Now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious to us, leaving us some survivors and giving us a foothold in his holy place’. The interesting thing here is that this provision is expressed in the oldest texts as a metaphor, an allusion to a specific form of handgrip: it has pleased God ‘to give us a nail’ to hold on to.
At his crucifixion, the Lord Jesus is given nails by which to hold, to embrace and to reign from his Cross. After the Resurrection, Thomas is given the marks of those nails as a handgrip to faith and to believing. Ron Carter, in forging three nails on Good Friday, realized a dynamic and tangible link with Christ’s Cross and Way of Salvation. A nail to hold on to. Forging them a way of witnessing. The gift made of those nails a sharing of faith with others.
O dearest Lord, thy sacred hands
With nails were pierced for me
O shed thy blessing on my hands
That they may work for thee
O dearest Lord, they sacred feet
With nails were pierced for me;
O pour thy blessing on my feet
That they may follow thee
(Fr Andrew SDC)