Empty: Good Friday 2021

Christ Carrying the Cross
Christ carrying the Cross: attributed to Marco d’Oggiono, c. 1467–1524

Today, just before 3.00 p.m., we shall go into the oratory and either prostrate or kneel before the altar for a minute or two before celebrating the Solemn Liturgy. That silence, that abandonment of our usual posture, expresses what could never be put into words: the utter transcendence of God and our complete reliance upon him. Today, of all days, that is brought home to us by our reverting to a primitive form of liturgy made up of long readings from scripture and prayers in which we pray for all the world’s needs. For us, there will be no Communion of the Presanctified. With the death of Christ on the cross we enter a world devoid of sacraments, a time of waiting, of radical emptiness.

And then? More emptiness. There is only the soft soughing of the wind as it passes over Calvary to remind us of the epic duel between good and evil we have witnessed, the unadorned cross in the oratory and a lassitude of spirit that goes beyond the ordinary. We are numb with shock and horror, yet even at this moment, we know that this is not the end of the story. As day passes into night, a great change is being worked but we are as yet unaware of it and its consequences. For us, there is only the waiting, and the emptiness.

Last year, I was drawn to write about the mothers of Jesus and Judas and their experience of the crucifixion. It may be worth re-visiting. If so, please click the link below (opens in new tab). There is an audio version at the end.

Lovely Tear from Lovely Eye: the Mothers of Jesus and Judas


Lovely Tear from Lovely Eye: the Mothers of Jesus and Judas

Painting of the Mothers of Jesus and Judas by Nicholas Mynheer
The Mothers of Jesus and Judas by Nicholas Mynheer
Image copyright. All rights reserved. Used by permission

How often the poet and  painter see what we do not! Or perhaps it is simply that recent generations have seen too much blood, too many horrors, to think of the crucifixion in anything but the most brutal terms. Of course it was brutal, but the modern film-maker’s lingering on torn flesh and gaping wounds misses something an older age understood instinctively: how to enter imaginatively into the drama of the cross not as spectacle but as participant. From the Dream of the Rood to the Harley lyrics, the poet’s vision of the duel between good and evil is intensely personal. The cross is no mere gibbet but speaks of its hour of glory when it bore creation’s lord; Christ questions us, demanding to know how he has erred that we should treat him so; and the dropping of that ‘lovely tear from lovely eye’ is like a lance to the heart of the onlooker. With Julian, most poetic and most homely of theologians, we see the blood falling from his pierced head as raindrops fall from cottage eaves after a shower and feel the wind that blows over Calvary and dries his flesh. 

Our vision shifts and changes. We see the soldiers casting lots for Christ’s clothing, driving home the nails; taunting him, or maybe offering him some kind of sedative on a hyssop stick; we hear the thieves crucified with him and that gracious promise to the one popular tradition names Dismas to be with him in paradise; we watch the tender scene where he entrusts his mother to John and John to his mother; and finally, there is that last great cry, when Jesus gives up his spirit and the veil of the temple is torn in two as heaven and earth groan with one voice: the Son of God has died. What escapes us is the significance of what we see. It is too vast. Two thousand years of theological endeavour have not yet exhausted the meaning of what happened on Calvary, but I think Nicholas Mynheer’s painting captures one important element. 

The mothers of Jesus and Judas embrace. Both have lost a much-loved son; both know the grief of being outcasts. To take one’s own life is against the Law; to be crucified as a common criminal is beyond the pale. But there is more than that. These two women know that their sons are eternally linked, that the actions of the one led to the death of the other, but there is no room for accusations, no desire to perpetuate a hostility in which neither they nor their sons shared. They knew that Jesus and Judas were friends. They had probably fussed over them and the other disciples on their rare visits home, delighting in their companionship and banter. They knew the humanity of their sons, and were not afraid of their own. The cross stands as a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation and we see in Mary and the mother of Judas that forgiveness and reconciliation at work. There is nothing but love between them, nothing but the desire to comfort, to lessen the agony each feels. 

The cross now stands empty, having done its work. Jesus descends into the underworld to seek and save the dead. Among them, surely, is his friend, Judas.

Audio Version


Good Friday 2019

The cross at Notre Dame de Paris after the fire
Stat crux dum volvitur orbis } The cross stands while the world turns

Good Friday can sometimes seem remote, but surely not this year. The sight of the cross at Notre Dame still standing after the fire has reminded us all that the events of this day are eternally significant. God in Christ has forgiven us. Nothing can ever change that. Now it is for us to forgive others, and if we are hesitant or inclined to limit our forgiveness to certain groups we approve of or even to put others on probation, as it were, we should remember the forgiveness so quickly and readily expressed by many of the Muslims affected by the Christchurch mosque shootings. Good Friday doesn’t give us options; it gives us a command.

At this time of year I often turn to poetry to help me gain a fresh insight into the tremendous events we celebrate. Inevitably, I turn to old favourites, The Dream of the Rood and many of the poems in the Harley Collection. There is a warmth and humanity about them that brings the Crucifixion very close, making us no longer spectators but involved, participant.

Lovely tear from lovely eye,
Why dost thou look so sore?

sings one medieval lyric on the Crucifixion. It is we, alas, who make the cross to be what it is not; who ignore the love and compassion that held our Saviour to its beams; who was and is ‘never wroth’. As we sing the Reproaches this afternoon, that love and compassion should be uppermost in our minds. May it become our own response to God’s extraordinary love for us.


Good Friday 2016

Cristo crucificado.jpg
By Diego Velázquez[1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4214227

People sometimes ask why I add to some of my posts the year in which they were written. It is because we are bound by a linear understanding of time. Today is Good Friday, but it is a Good Friday unlike any other; and although I think all I’ve said about Good Friday in the past is still valid, this Good Friday brings with it its own challenges and graces.

This morning I look at the Crucifix and think of ‘the battle with the dragon black’, the tremendous vision of The Dream of the Rood, ‘the lovely tear from lovely eye’ of one of the Harley Lyrics, and know myself a charlatan. The Crucifixion wasn’t noble or beautiful. It was bloody, brutal and shot through with despair. We have made it beautiful with our words and images, our haunting music and our knowledge of what it achieved for us, but two thousand years ago it was simply a squalid exercise in corrupt power. Perhaps we need to remember that when we gather for the Solemn Liturgy this afternoon. The church will be stripped and bare, and our worship will reflect the spare forms of the ancient Church with its lengthy readings from scripture and sequence of prayers. One of those prayers will be for those who do not yet know Christ. In previous years I have always thought of it as the Church intends, as a prayer for those who do not yet acknowledge Christ as Lord and Saviour; but today I shall think of it more personally and be praying it for myself. No matter how great our love and devotion may seem to ourselves, no matter how many years we may have spent in his service, who among us can really claim to know Christ? That bruised and bloodied body hanging on the Cross is a reminder that God’s love and forgiveness are infinite. We can never exhaust them. We can only hope to go deeper and deeper into the mystery — which is my prayer for you and for me today.

Another link:
Some lectio divina for today on the link between the dates of the Crucifixion and the Annunciation: http://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/this-doubtful-day-of-feast-or-fast-good.htmlFacebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Good Friday 2015

The brutal death of those Christians in Garissa who were killed just because they were Christian reminds us what this day is about: forgiveness and sacrifice — a forgiveness and sacrifice drenched in blood and suffering. Here in the West we like our Good Friday sanitized. Our crucifixes are often impossibly pious, plastic representations of ectomorphic figures stretched on equally impossible crosses that inspire little devotion. More rarely, they are beautiful, sometimes even bejewelled, objects of delicate workmanship and exquisite materials.

As we chart the changes in design, we glimpse differences in perception, shifts in devotion, that underline how our understanding grows, takes new forms, throws new light on the death of Christ: the poignant twist of the body (added in the ninth century), the heavy crown of thorns (added in the thirteenth), the head raised towards the Father (mainly since the seventeenth century) find a parallel in the music and poetry of the age that created them. But always there is that distancing from the blood and horror of the event. It takes a Julian of Norwich, writing of the drying wind that passed over Calvary, or the falling of Christ’s blood in drops as large as a herring scale, to jerk us out of our complacency.

Ultimately, of course, it is our own experience that enables us to interpret the crucifix. Do we see it as a hammer with which to bludgeon others into submission? You must believe as I do or you are destined for hell. Or do we see it as a symbol of love and mercy, unmerited love and mercy, that somehow, amazingly, redeems us from sin and death? A miracle of grace meant to be shared with others.

Good Friday 2015 is one with that day on which Christ died for our sins in Roman Palestine two thousand years ago. It asks of us just as much as it asked then. Will we follow in the way of forgiveness and sacrifice, however brutal or messy that may be, or do we choose something else, something less demanding?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Good Friday 2014

The imagery of the Crucifixion has become so familiar it no longer shocks. We look at our crucifixes and see the twisted body, hanging bloodied and bowed, pierced through with nails, crowned with thorns, and barely register the suffering. The historically-minded will tell you that the crown of thorns was added only in the thirteenth century, that the poignant twist of the body is not found before the ninth-century cross of Lothair, but these are mere details. It takes a Julian of Norwich, with her account of the drying of Christ’s flesh on Calvary, or his drops of blood the size of herring-scales, to make us connect our theology and our feelings.

It was not always so. Anyone who reads ‘The Dream of the Rood’ or some of the lovely Harley lyrics on the Crucifixion will know the depth of personal tenderness the Passion and Death of Christ evoked among our Anglo-Saxon forebears. I myself have always loved the prayers in the Book of the Nunnaminster — some of the earliest, if not the earliest, written for and possibly by women in the Benedictine community at Winchester in the late ninth/early tenth century. Here is the one on the Crown of Thorns, always a painful subject for a Benedictine, for our peace is found only within its saving circle — a reminder that Jesus is, as the Song of Songs proclaims, ‘a lily among thorns,’ our saviour from despair, our own true love who forgives our most grievous sins:

Merciful God, my only help, you did not refuse to wear on your wise and lovely head a crown of cruel thorns. I thank you and ask that whatever sins I myself have committed through misuse of my own wicked and senseless head you will forgive, for I am pierced by the sharpness of all my wrongdoing, as if by thorns, unless protected by your help, Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.


Good Friday: the Moment of Truth

Yesterday’s events are still uppermost in our minds. We are weary with watching through the night. The morning brings no relief, only the prospect of a long trudge through hot and dusty streets, then out to Golgotha and the final act of this tragedy.

Today is a day of emptiness, when we are numbed by the experience of suffering and loss. We long for it all to be over, and yet we don’t. Every nerve is stretched to breaking-point, but we do not want it to end, because we know it must end in death. Yet the death we await is not the death of Jesus only, it is the death of all our false ideas of him, our shabby equivocations, our casual accommodations to ‘the spirit of the age’, our self-made religion. The Crucifixion of Christ is a moment of truth for all of us.

The Cross shows us, better than anything else, that God’s ways are not our ways. Our idea of him is too little, too monochrome. We try to edit out the bits we find uncongenial, reducing God to a kind of wishy-washy compassion that cannot encompass the reality of the compassion displayed on the Cross. Jesus on the Cross challenges us to rethink all our ideas, not just those we label ‘religious’. Painful though that is, it is not negative for we have his assurance that ‘the truth shall make you free’. Although we cling to our illusions, deep down we do desire that truth, that freedom, we just lack the courage to be free.

We shall never find the courage we need within ourselves. Only grace can work the miracle. Today, as we look into the eyes of the dying Christ we know ourselves for what we are: grubby, smudged with sin, yes, but loved infinitely, tenderly, more than life itself. Without us, he will not; without him, we cannot; with him everything is possible.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Paschal Triduum 2011

Easter WordleTonight we begin the most important part of the Christian year. The whole week has been full of surprises, stretching our understanding of time and space. Now, as we go deeper into the mystery, the liturgy is a sure guide to what would otherwise be overwhelming. The three days are one; just as the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ are one salvific act; and we must take our part in each. We must taste the bitterness of our own sinfulness if we are to relish the sweetness of our salvation. We must make the journey from death to life.

The Mass of the Lord’s Supper will remind us of Christ’s gift of himself in the Eucharist and in the Priesthood. It will remind us, too, that the priesthood of the New Testament is one of loving and humble service. We shall accompany Christ to Gethsemane, kneel beside him during the dark hours of doubt and dread; feel the betrayer’s kiss on our cheek; endure the long, long night of questioning and abuse.

On Good Friday the liturgy will revert to a very simple, ancient form. We are in a world without light, without sacraments. There is only the bleak narrative of the Passion and the prayers, piling up like the waves of the sea. As we creep towards the Cross we carry with us the burden of a lifetime’s sin, sin that has been nailed to that Cross and forgiven with the death of our Saviour.

Then comes Holy Saturday, empty, still, silent as the tomb. We are waiting, waiting. On Easter Eve, when the new fire is kindled, we share in the explosion of life and joy that is the Resurrection. The Exsultet dares to say what we cannot: ‘O happy fault . . . O necessary sin of Adam’. Only one word can express our joy, and throughout the Easter season we shall sing it over and over again, ‘Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.’

May your celebration of the sacred Triduum be blessed. We shall keep you in our prayers.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail