Words on the Word
Isaiah 52:13-53:12: See, my servant will rise to great heights.
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9: Let us be confident that we shall have mercy from him.
John 18:1-19:42: Pilate wrote out a notice and had it fixed to the Cross.
Today, on Good Friday, the cross commands our full attention. Through the words of the Beloved Disciple, we have followed Jesus every gruelling step of the way from the High Priest’s court to Golgotha. We have heard the monotonous knocking of hammers driving nails into flesh. We have seen our Lord raised up on the wood of the tree, in fulfilment of prophecy. In a moment we shall venerate the cross with a kiss. The cross, of course, is intimately familiar to us. We make the sign of the cross many times each day. We may have a cross in our bedroom, in our car, on our piano. Centuries of devotion have made the cross intrinsic to our sensibility. Artists have depicted it as an object of beauty. It has been throughly domesticated. Once, years ago, I visited a friend in Austria. It was summer. We went out to supper. We found an open Heuriger, a vintner’s garden where new wine is served from the barrel. The atmosphere was convivial. There was a warm breeze. There were families and dogs; good, simple food; green grass and oompah-pah. I was perplexed, in this setting, when I noticed the smiling waitress emerge, in a Dirndl-costume with a tray full of wine, from underneath a huge crucifix, positioned high in the garden wall. The mixture of images was incongruous. In a way it was a comfort to find the cross there, watching over us. At the same time it felt strange, even a little disrespectful. I asked myself then: have we got too used to the scandal of the cross? It is a question I ask myself still.
The earliest representation of the crucifixion known to us is an inscription carved in plaster near the Palatine Hill in Rome. Its precise date is uncertain, but it may have been made as early as the early second century, when there were Christians about in Rome who had heard the Gospel preached by Peter and Paul. The inscription portrays a human body with a donkey’s head, fixed to a cross. In a corner, there is what seems like a Y-shaped tau cross, so dear to St Francis of Assisi. To the left stands a man dressed like a solider with one hand raised in homage. A caption announces in barely literate Greek: ‘Alexamenos worships god.’ The graffito is a caricature. It intends to ridicule the worshipper. The joke is timeless. ‘Does he worship a crucified man? You can’t be serious. What an ass!’ It is sometimes said that, to appreciate the symbolic charge of a crucifix in antiquity, we moderns should think of a hangman’s noose or an electric chair. I think this insufficient. The gallows and chair were thought up as humane means of execution. The cross, meanwhile, was designed to cause a maximum of drawn-out anguish. Also, death by crucifixion is messy and humiliating. Alexamenos is presented, in the drawing, not just as a fool, but as an indecent man.
Horrifically, this past year has given us a fresh perspective on crucifixion as vindictive humiliation. The terrorist movement that calls itself ‘Islamic State’ has posted clip upon clip on YouTube of Christians they have crucified. The fate of the apostles Andrew and Peter is a real prospect, now, for Christians in Iraq and Syria. It is unconscionable, but it happens. If we have seen such images, our crucifix at home will never look the same. It will never again be just part of the furniture. It will remain a terrifying monument—a reminder of what Christ suffered, and suffers still, through the members of his Church. Brothers and sisters, we profess that God is love. We read in Scripture that Jesus loved his own to the end. Today we see what that means in real terms. How can we begin to fathom the meaning, the cost, the extent of such love?
Today we weep with the women at the tomb. We weep for Christ. We weep for our world and its tragic urge to destroy what is good and holy. We look soberly at the darkness we carry ourselves. At the same time, we give thanks. Taking our sentence of death upon himself, Christ destroyed death from within. Today, at his cry, ‘It is accomplished’, we already look forward to the joy of the Third Day. It was part of Christ’s proclamation from the first: ‘The Son of man must suffer many things, be rejected and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ Hope is as intrinsic to Good Friday as grief. Finally, let us not forget those members of the Church who share in Christ’s sufferings today. I think often of a prisoner’s letter smuggled out of one of Stalin’s labour camps in 1933. It carried a message to the Christians of the West, free to practice their faith. It asked them to ‘keep burning on the altars of their hearts the flame that is tortured out of ours. If only some of them keep it burning, we will find it in our prayers, in our sleep and in our flight away from our tormented bodies. It will shine to us as a beacon of light in the numbing darkness, and we shall be comforted and Christ will rejoice.’ Let us take those words as addressed to us now, as a challenge to shun all mediocrity. ‘Christ’, wrote Pascal, ‘remains on the cross until the end of the world. We shouldn’t slumber during that time.’ Let us keep watch, then, and pray, firm in faith, fervent in love. Let us not be ashamed of the cross. Let us glory in it.