Good Friday, 18 April 2014, St Mary, 12.00noon

Preacher  Revd Nicholas Roberts

The Seven Last Words of Christ

Richmond, St. Mary Magdalene.

Good Friday, 18 April, 2014

 

 

‘Introduzione’: Joseph Haydn, Die sieben letzte Worte

                                         unseres Erlösers am Kreuze

 

  1. Father, forgive them… (Luke 23:34)
  2. Today you will be with me… (Luke 23:43)
  3. Woman, behold your son. (John 19:26-27)
  4. My God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)
  5. I thirst.
  6. It is finished (John 19:30)
  7. Into your hands…(Luke 23:46)

 

‘Earthquake’ (Matthew 27:51ff).

 

*********************************************

 

Introduction: The music of Joseph Haydn has always appealed to me because of its extrovert, joyful, ebullient character. Some of us here may have enjoyed singing or playing in an orchestra works like the Creation or the Nelson Mass. And, over a hundred delightfully enjoyable symphonies plus much else. But in 1801 he wrote to a firm of music publishers that he had been requested 15 years previously to ‘compose instrumental music on the Seven last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross’. He writes of the difficulty he experienced in conforming to what was asked of him – to compose 7 adagios lasting ten minutes each, to succeed one another without – in his own words – ‘fatiguing the listeners’. But he succeeded, as we will be hearing today, and the priest who commissioned the work apparently paid the composer by sending him a cake filled with gold coins!

 

In our Good Friday meditation today we are very fortunate indeed to have a live performance of this work in its string quartet version, provided by Kate Wareham and the Cerulean Ensemble.

 

Each musical interlude, originally called ‘sonatas’ will follow the appropriate Biblical reading, and a short commentary from me. There will be a short interval after the fourth section.

 

The purpose of these meditations is to help us to come to the Cross today with all our human burdens, and by leaving them at the foot of the Cross to go home with those burdens lifted…

 

  1. Father, forgive…

Many of you I expect will have been to see the film ‘The Railway Man’ starring Colin Firth, and some of you will perhaps have read the 1995 book by Eric Lomax that was the inspiration behind the film. It is in many ways a monumental achievement. It tells, as you may know, something of the story of the building of the doomed Burma-Siam railway at the end of World War 2, and the thousands of lives – one for each sleeper on the track, it is said  –  that the building of the railway cost, including many British prisoners of war.

 

It is not a story for the faint hearted or squeamish. It records appalling brutality that makes one wonder how any of the prisoners survived, including beating, forced labour, imprisonment – sometimes being shut up in cages only suitable for a small animal, water torture, starvation, appalling heat, and up to 18 hours a day of repetitive and abusive interrogation.

 

But the point of the story told by Lomax – which understandably begins with his sense of rage against his captors and their brutality – is that after being for many years unable to face any person who represented that tragic and dehumanising experience, he comes to see that he must make his peace with the enemy, lest that enemy come to be no longer an external force but the enemy within. ‘The need to identify that person responsible for these … cruelties was reasonable enough’ he writes: ‘but the idea of revenge was still very much alive in me’.

 

And then through a series of events, some of them seeming to be co-incidental, though perhaps nothing ever really is, and with the support of his deeply understanding and compassionate wife, he undertakes a journey back to the place he knew as a prisoner, and to meet the man whom he remembers as his young interrogator.

 

It is a wonderful and deeply moving and, of course, true story.

 

At one point there is what I am sure we as Christian folk would describe as a moment of grace, at which, in his own words, the author speaks about the breakthrough that made the journey and the meeting possible. It has much to do with the realisation that both he and his tormentor had suffered greatly as a result of what had happened, and that for either of them to move on, there would have to be the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, no matter how much it cost.

 

And in a reflection of a similar kind about the concentration camps of the Nazi régime in Europe, Tzvetan Todorov (Facing the Extreme) writes of the way in which the dehumanizing effect of what took place at Auschwitz and elsewhere had an impact not just on its Jewish and other inmates but on the guards who, in ‘simply obeying orders’ became depersonalised.

 

Lomax says of his eventual meeting with the man Nagase, who had been his tormentor:

Even if I could not grasp the theology fully, I could

no longer see the point of punishing Nagase by a

refusal to reach out and forgive him. What mattered

was our relations in the here and now, his obvious

regret for what he had done, and our mutual need

to give our encounter some meaning beyond that of

the emptiness of cruelty. It was surely worth

salvaging as much as we could from the damage to

both our lives.

 

And in a letter which he delivered in person to this man in Tokyo, a meeting described right at the end of the book, Lomax says that ‘While I could not forget what happened in Kanburi [prison] in 1943, I assured him of my total forgiveness’.

 

So where does that leave us?

 

I suppose that Jesus too, in his absolutely real and genuine humanity, must have realised exactly that same thing as Eric Lomax – that to hold on to rage, bitterness, hatred and the lust for revenge, however justified in human terms, is to leave oneself in a prison. And for Jesus the way out of that prison was clear, and it is summed up brilliantly in that brief saying reported only by Saint Luke in his account of the Crucifixion, – ‘Father, forgive them’.

 

Later in this service we will have an opportunity, if we so wish, to come forward to the cross, and make some kind of reverential gesture towards it – maybe with words, maybe in silence. But it will not just be a gesture, or an empty gesture, if we manage to think of someone we ourselves have not yet forgiven for something they did to us – perhaps like the Jews in the story of Jesus, not knowing what they were doing. To bring that burden and lay it at the foot of the cross here and now, whether literally or in our hearts may be for any or all of us here today a way out of a prison in which we have been holding ourselves for some time.

 

Maybe for some of us the person we need to forgive – is actually ourselves.

 

Maybe all of us will then leave this church today with at least one burden removed from our hearts.

 

2.     Today you will be with me in Paradise.

 

The Anglican community of friars called SSF – the Society of Saint Francis, or just ‘the Franciscans’ – have a wonderful piece of sculpture depicting three men being crucified. We may perhaps see it as a representation of the story we are recalling today – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. If so it is deeply shocking, because unlike so many pictures and sculptures of the scene which tastefully, modestly, cover the genitals of the men being put to death, this sculpture spares us nothing: the three dying men are all stark naked.

 

But what is very striking once you get past the slight shock of this rather aggressive reality is the demeanour of the three men. The middle one, Jesus, is shown with his hands stretching up to Heaven. But his face is turned downwards, towards the man on his left, whom he seems to be regarding with great compassion. And the man is looking up to him, perhaps asking for help and the possibility of something to be rescued from this ghastly experience.

 

What is clear from the sculpture though is that the other man is looking away from Jesus: he seems to be overcome with despair, and cannot reach up to the saving words of the man who proclaims forgiveness and hope. At times of suffering perhaps we find ourselves having to choose which way we respond to Our Lord’s invitation.

 

The words spoken by Jesus are words of reassurance, that within a very short time their suffering will be at an end, and they will be together in what is referred to as Paradise.

 

This is a word that is hard to define. It can refer to the primitive Garden of Eden, the place where Adam and Eve lived until they were expelled for their disobedience.

 

It can be the prophet Isaiah’s place of earthly redemption associated with the city of Jerusalem: it can be a reference to the ultimate place of salvation in the future, although this is not strictly speaking a biblical idea. It is perhaps close in meaning to the place of the souls of the blessed after death, which Jesus as reported by Luke in his gospel talks about in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

 

At all events, what Jesus is saying to the man is that he himself, the martyr who dies unjustly, has a place waiting for him in the place of the Blessed, and he generously takes this admittedly guilty man to be his companion.

 

Paradise – a glimpse of life after death – ‘Death in Paradise’ to quote the title of a well known detective series set in the gloriously sunny Caribbean! But – what about paradise before death – what might that look like? Can we have  glimpse of paradise while we are here – how can human beings create their own paradise?

 

My vision  of that earthly paradise, that foretaste of an eternity of being with Jesus as his companion, that I suggest to you is what Church is really about. We are commanded to offer to the world precisely that, a glimpse, a foretaste of paradise that incorporates all that we think of as kingdom values, values that turn ordinary human aspirations upside down.

 

A place where the King (or just a rich man as in Luke’s version) gives a banquet, and when those who have been invited snub him, he responds by going out into the most unlikely places along the roadside, and gathers in not the wealthy, the powerful the strong, the celebrities, but the ‘poor and maimed, and blind and lame’ – in other words no-one can claim any special status in the Church, and no-one is to be excluded. In fact now it is the helpless, the wounded, the marginalised who take the place of those who rejected the original invitation.

 

In a recent statement, the Archbishop of Canterbury has rightly drawn our attention to the danger that might come from the Church’s temptation to accept the idea of so called ‘gay marriages’ because in the light of the appalling prejudice, persecution, and physical violence that comes to minority groups such as gay and lesbian people in some parts of Africa, and Pakistan such an acceptance of this liberalising change would expose Christians and others to further danger. He is absolutely right to make this comment, as did his predecessor Dr. Williams: but of course in our quest to build God’s kingdom in the here and now, the earthly paradise, this is only one step. A prophetic voice needs to be heard strongly from the Church, denouncing all forms of violence, against women, children, gays, refugees, and people with any form of physical or mental disadvantage. This is a prophetic ministry, which the Archbishop and the whole Church, that is, you and I, needs to engage with.

 

‘Thy kingdom come’, Jesus taught us to pray. Yes, it would be wrong for our Church not to support our suffering brothers and sisters in other lands: equally it would be wrong for us not to oppose political oppression in these places. As my parents use to say ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right’.

 

As a start, perhaps on this Good Friday and before Easter Day dawns, we might each want to look at our own attitudes and see whether we, in our own small way, contribute to oppression, prejudice and persecution?

 

As we come to the foot of the cross, can we take the risk of laying there just one prejudice of our own?

 

3.   Woman, behold your son…

 

This is one of the most human and memorable moments in the story of the Crucifixion. Let us remind ourselves of the characters in this cameo scene within the plot of the drama. Here we see Mary, the mother of Jesus, who at his Presentation in the Temple as a baby was told by the old man Simeon that ‘a sword would pierce her heart’. And here is that moment. Some of you will have read the book The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin. Like it or loathe it, it tries to get into the emotions of Mary and understand something of what this experience was for her. Any mother, or indeed father, who loses their child, knows the heartbreak of that loss. To see your son helpless, being put to death in most cruel and horrific manner like crucifixion, and to be helpless to help him except by staying with the pain at the foot of the cross must be unbearable.

 

It’s worth perhaps pausing for a moment to think about the scene a little more. Many commercial Hollywood type films have shown us their interpretation of the scene, but they are often glamorised and sanitised so as not too shock us too much. You may well have seen the Monty Python film Life of Brian which has recently had something of a revival. Here too, the scene can seduce us in to seeing the death of Jesus as taking place in a nice place on a sunny April morning.

 

So these films usually show us a hillside outside Jerusalem, all very green and fertile – after all, we often sing the hymn ‘There is a green hill far away’ without stopping to wonder whether it was really like that at all.

 

In the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book this year, Looking through the Cross by Graham Tomlin, we are given what I suspect is a far more accurate picture of the crucifixion, not on a verdant hillside, but in a small, abandoned quarry. This is how he describes what it was really like:

We are to imagine a desolate

scene, a bare stretch of rock which had been left by the

earlier stone cutters because it was cracked, which

stood out from the rising gradient of the hill, and which

provided a convenient location for a set of Roman crosses,

clearly visible from the city… A set of tombs was

conveniently located nearby, where corpses could be

laid out and left until they had finally decayed, at which

time the bones would be put into ossuaries, small caskets

which were then finally buried. It was a place that reeked of

death, a place of wretchedness, despair and defeat, a place

that emphasized the utter power and implacable might of

Rome… No halos, no doves, no divine glow, just the slow,

low groaning of a long-drawn-out excruciatingly painful

death reserved, as Tomlin wryly observes, for ‘failures’.

 

The second person in this mini-drama is the unnamed disciple referred to by the author of the Gospel of Saint John as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. We must not of course make the mistake of assuming either that Jesus loved him and not the others, or that his relationship with this man was in any way exclusive or even explicitly sexual. The word love in this context is the Greek word agape which according to C S Lewis refers to the kind of love that is characteristic of God, and the love within God, the love of the persons of the Holy Trinity for one another which flows out from them to us, personified in the narrative by this disciple.

 

Jesus is therefore offering to humanity, in the person of the beloved disciple, a share in that love and the command to love others in the same way.

 

But for Mary there is the pain of being forced to suffer helplessly as her son dies. The feminist Christian writer Nicola Slee worries about the role of suffering so often thrust by others onto women, as it was on to Mary at the foot of the cross, as if somehow it is natural for women to suffer in this way. But is it really, in an almost Aristotelian way, a biological reality that women are destined to suffer whereas men are not? The danger then is, she says, that their suffering can seem to become an end in itself, somehow self-justifying. (see The Book of Mary, p.91f).

 

This is a healthy warning not to stereotype women in this or other ways.

 

But on Calvary, when all the others had run off in terror, just a handful of people remain: some women, one disciple. And Mary is there till the end. Her faith is being tested. Only the women and one man stay – courageously – to the end.

 

All of us who follow the way of Christian discipleship will have our faith tested perhaps many times. The world often tries to ignore, disparage or ridicule religious belief. Many churches struggle to keep going. In parts of the world there are hardly any priests to offer the Eucharist or other sacramental ministries. One Roman Catholic Diocese in the rainforests of Brazil currently has 800 parishes and 700,000 worshippers, but only 27 priests – so mass is offered only two or three times a year. How can faith survive where there is so little encouragement and support?

 

And on a more personal note of reflection, in 1983 I was appointed by the Bishop of Birmingham to be vicar of a parish in the northern extremity of the city, in a very monochrome working class area, with a high rate of unemployment , and all the social deprivation that goes with that. Children as young as 4 would be left out in the street on Friday evenings while their fathers went to the pub and their mothers to Bingo. When the bishop and his suffragan came to institute me, both their cars were vandalised. My position was at the intersection of two communities, the church goers, who had left the area but came back to church every Sunday, and the local people who felt excluded from the Church. The churchgoers seemed to dislike me because I tried to forge links with the local community, and the local folk didn’t like me because they thought that I was only interested in the churchgoers. This made for an interesting life, caught in the crossfire. And that experience was far more testing of my personal faith than any intellectual debate.

 

And the trials and tragedies of our lives take their toll as they did for Mary, often in unpredictable ways, maybe through illness, accident, or the breakdown of human relationships.

 

Perhaps when God seems remote, even uncaring, we can dare to utter the words of prayer to Mary, in the darkest places of her humanity suggested by Nicola Slee in her meditation on the mother of Jesus on Easter Eve:

 

Pray for us now and at the hour of our death

Pray for our mortality

Pray for our vulnerability

Pray for what can’t be healed

Pray for what won’t be cured

Pray for what refuses to be raised.

 

As I approach the cross today, I need to lay down there the burden of the guilt for those times when unlike Mary I have failed to do the utmost for someone else in his or her time of suffering, and not been there all the way through to the end, perhaps because of business, or laziness, or my fear of being inadequate. Others too may feel the need to come to Jesus with that burden of guilt, to lay it down at his feet and, knowing his forgiveness, leave it here today.

 

Why have you forsaken me?

Where is God?

Go to him when your need is desperate,

when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A

door slammed in your face, and the sound of bolting

and double bolting on the inside.

After that, silence.

(C S. Lewis, A Grief Observed.)

   The cry of abandonment is in a way the most awkward and embarrassing of the sayings of Jesus from the cross.

 

Taken at its face value, it suggests that in this cry of anguish, the fully human Jesus really believed that God had literally abandoned him.  Reflecting on what may well have seemed to him to have been a failed ministry, coupled with his agonising experience of captivity, beating, insults, false accusation, desertion by his closest friends, the walk carrying his cross and finally crucifixion we can well understand how he might have felt exactly that. He had been abandoned, humiliated, left to die in agony on a scorching day in the midst of dust and stink and filth and mess.

 

Perhaps that is one reason why people who have written about the Cross tend to try to find a way out of the paradox of the one who as the Son of God is abandoned by God – because God does not come and rescue him. But theology is paradox, and we need to engage with the problem before trying too easily to domesticate the story so that it doesn’t offend, frighten or just bewilder us.

 

I well remember a Mirfield father, Philip Speight, giving the addresses on Good Friday at a Church in the Midlands where I was then a curate in 1973. He spoke about a nun who had befriended a young woman, whose life had dissolved into a chaos of addiction and prostitution, and whom the nun had been to visit when she had been admitted to hospital.

 

In her despair she could find no place for faith, God or religion, despite the loving care that the nun tried to give her.

 

After one of those visits, the nun said to herself ‘If only she had my faith!’. Very soon afterwards, she entered a period of terrible depression and spiritual desolation: she could not pray or do any of the things she usually did, and this lasted for a number of weeks. At the time she had no idea what this could possibly mean: she just felt hopeless and, like Jesus on the cross, abandoned by God. But the fog eventually cleared, and she resumed her usual very ordered nun’s life. She went back to the hospital where she had visited the young woman. When she got to the ward where she had last seen her, she asked what had happened. They told her that the woman had died, but that during the last weeks of her life she had found a new faith, that very faith that the nun had mysteriously gifted to her, and had died peacefully.

 

In the moment of abandonment, Jesus takes on himself our abandonment, our despair, our failures, our moments of faithlessness, our inability to see the way forward, our sense of being abandoned by others. These may come perhaps through bereavement or an ended relationship, the loss of a job, or a sudden illness or feared diagnosis. Those of us who work in the area of drug and alcohol addiction are well aware that three threatening things happening closely together – the loss of a partner, a job, a home – for example, might be enough to send any of us ‘ordinary folk’ in to a period of dependence or drugs, alcohol, or other forms of addiction.

 

On the cross, at least for a moment, Jesus knew the whole story of what it is like for you and me to have those experiences, and he shares that experience with us, even though we may not be aware of it at the time, like the nun. We may even, in time, see the incident, horrendous as it was, as a blessing, because out of that death came some new opportunity.

 

But we must not rush too easily or hurriedly into that kind of solution. As a hospital chaplain I have often heard Christian, prayerful churchgoing people saying things like – ‘Right now when I need God so much he seems further away than ever. I can’t find him’. And of course C S Lewis, in his very personal memoir A Grief Observed, that I quoted from at the beginning of this address, explores this experience of feeling literally deserted by God in his hour of greatest need, after the death of his wife, Joy.

 

Maybe that is an experience we have had, maybe not. But perhaps the greatest gift we can give to another person in their time of trial is the gift of staying with them in their ordeal, not offering empty promises or easy comfort, but staying with the pain in loving patience and prayerfulness. ‘I sat where they sat’, says the prophet Ezekiel, (3:15) ‘and stayed there’. Not easy – but a great blessing when it can be managed.

 

Theologians, I suggested, have found this saying awkward, embarrassing, challenging, and so they have tried to get off the hook by suggesting that Jesus was simply quoting Psalm 22, which ends on a note of triumph. But before the triumph comes the darkness, the pain, the waiting. Short cuts may simply not work.

 

So what can we bring with us to the cross today in response to all of this?

 

Perhaps it can be the honest acknowledgement of my doubts: I bring with me to the foot of the cross the moments when I can’t find God, or even feel abandoned by God. And so I offer myself to be alongside others in their time of darkness.

 

 

5.   I thirst!

 

When I was 11 and a choirboy, I decided to ask my local vicar in Birmingham if I could be confirmed. He didn’t seem to think there could be too many objections to this (perhaps he hadn’t noticed me and my chums in the choir nicking apples from the trees in his garden) and I was duly prepared for the sacrament: and the service, conducted by Bishop Leonard Wilson, took place on 15 February, 1959.

 

I was given a small volume called A Plain Communion Book, which contained a section on self-examination, based on the Ten Commandments.

 

One of the questions I was required to ask myself, in relation to ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain’, was whether I had laughed at anything in the Bible. Obviously God does not have a sense of humour, which is either untrue or very alarming!

 

Actually I find much to laugh at in the Bible and particularly in St. John’s Gospel, where, for example, the aspiring disciple Nathaniel has a highly comedic interview with Jesus, who retorts to his cry that Jesus is the Son of God by saying – ‘You say that because I saw you under the fig tree – well, you ain’t seen nothing yet!’ or when Nicodemus taunts him by saying ‘Are you telling me that a man can be born twice?’. And of course the interview between Jesus and Pontius Pilate (I wonder who wrote it all down?) which is stuffed with delightful ironic humour.  But perhaps this saying of Jesus – I thirst – sitio in Latin which conveys a dryness and coldness that the English version fails to do – is the greatest irony of all. You will no doubt recall another encounter between Jesus and someone else, this time a woman, at a well.

 

The story focuses on the water that the woman comes to draw, and when Jesus speaks of another special kind of water that he alone can provide, she comically suggests that if her household could be connected to this main supply, she wouldn’t have to come to the well every day with her heavy buckets and carry the damn things home.

 

Of course what the writer – St. John – is putting in front of us here is the idea of Jesus as being the one who can provide the water of life, available through faith in him. And yet here, ironically, the giver of that water himself cried out on the cross – ‘I thirst’. This is of course irony of a different kind: not humour or comedy but the gasped request of a dying man. He is the Son of God but, to use the words of one contemporary theologian, he is the ‘Crucified God’, because in the human situation that is so often characterised by sin and violence, ‘only a suffering God can help’ (J. Moltmann: The Crucified God).

 

But what is the thirst of Jesus? Throughout this fourth Gospel, the gospel attributed to someone called John, every aspect of the story can be understood at a number of levels. A man comes to him who is blind. And we are being perhaps asked to see that blindness as the blindness of those who reject Jesus as the Jewish people of his day were to do. They could not see, their eyes of faith were shut.

 

And in the same way, when we hear of the thirst of the One who gives the water of life, living water, we are being invited to understand this too at a deeper level.

 

There are echoes here of so many aspects of Jesus’ ministry. We think of him as the one who ‘pours’, empties himself out in service to God, an idea which in turn reminds us of St. Mark’s saying about Jesus as the one who comes not to be served but to serve, thinking no doubt of the theme of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. And in an ancient Christian hymn, used by St. Paul in his letter to the Christians at Philippi, we learn of the one who, although of divine status, empties himself of all status and embraces a life of service to humanity. And in John’s gospel, in another implicit link with the theme of living water, we hear of him at the last supper with his disciples, pouring water into a bowl, and performing the most menial and earthy of tasks of service, by washing the disciples’ feet, an act which, for one of them at least, is so horrifying, so counter-intuitive that at first he protests – ‘You shall never wash my feet’.

 

What then are we being invited to place at the foot of the cross today?

 

My answer to that is every one of us, male, female, young, old, rich, poor, black white, married or single, gay or straight and all stations between, has some service that God is asking of us, and we are to offer ourselves again today in response to that calling.

 

John Henry Newman, 19th century vicar of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, then Roman Catholic priest, founder of the Birmingham Oratory of St. Philip Neri, and later Cardinal, had this to say about our service, and the often hidden nature of it, hidden even from ourselves:

God has created me to do Him some definite service: He

has committed some work to me which He has not committed

to another. I have my mission – I never may know it in this

life but I shall be told it in the next. I have a part in this great

work, I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between

persons….. (Newman: Hope in God, some thoughts

                      on the purpose of life).

 

We can give thanks today then at the foot of the cross for our own individual uniqueness, which is precious and valuable to God. And as we learn over and over again to value ourselves as God’s beloved children, then we leave behind that kind of imprisonment which prevents us at times from seeing that same, uniqueness, that same worth, in one another. Our blindness is healed, and we see with something of the vision of God.

 

We will discover and rediscover our vocation over and over again in our lives – until the end. As we come to the cross today we are invited once more to pledge ourselves to the service of God and our neighbour, wherever that may lead us.

 

6.   It is finished.

I once attended a conference for sixth formers who were beginning to express an interest in the possibility of ordination. It took place at Christ Church College, Canterbury, as it then was. One of the speakers was Archbishop Stuart Blanch, who was then archbishop of York. He was asked about the role of bishops in the C of E, and he explained, among other things, that there are three types of bishop in our Church: those who are bishops by divine providence, those who are bishops by divine permission, and finally, those who are bishops by divine oversight

 

On a slightly more serious note, he told us of a conversation he had had recently with a friend. He asked his friend ‘Do you sometimes get depressed?’ The friend answered, ‘Yes, I do’. ‘And how do you cope with your depression?’ asked the good bishop. ‘I pick up my Bible, and I read the book of Ecclesiastes’. ‘Why on earth do you do that?’ ‘Well’, the friend replied, ‘when I read Ecclesiastes, I think to myself, I may be depressed, but at least I am not as depressed as that!’.

 

I don’t turn to Ecclesiastes in such dark moments. But I often do turn to the amusing and often very insightful writings of the late Bernard Levin. In a collection of articles he published in 1988 entitled All Things Considered he included two lengthy reflections on Jesus Christ. The first of these, entitled ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ draws a comparison between Jesus and the then current celebrities of the world of entertainment, and in particular the Beatle John Lennon, who of course had been murdered  in New York several years previously.

 

A German artist had recently painted a portrait of Lennon in a Christlike pose on the Cross, complete with a crown of thorns and this picture had been exhibited in a Liverpool museum, to the annoyance of many Christians, not least the then Bishop of Warrington.

 

Levin – not a Christian himself  – observes that although Lennon’s death was ‘a particularly senseless and horrible one… it is still necessary to point out that Lennon did not die on the cross; to wear a crown of thorns you have to earn it’.

 

By the time of Jesus’s cry ‘Consummatum est’ – a very difficult saying to translate adequately into English, he had most certainly earned that doubtful privilege. He had lived in unbroken spiritual union with his father. He had preached the Gospel of the Kingdom, embodied in love, forgiveness, compassion and self-forgetful acts of kindness. He had given the world three new commandments – yes three, not two, because the last and most radical commandment after ‘Love God’ and ‘Love your neighbour’ was ‘Love your enemy’. And here on the cross he preaches that sermon not in words so much as in action, by going to his fate without protest and with no thought of revenge. So he gives us a model, one which we all probably find impossible to live up to all the time. The consummation is truly the completion of his life’s work in which quality of relationship not quantity of time is the key note.

It is hard, perhaps impossible, for us to follow fully in his footsteps. But we are all called to try to make the best of our lives in response to the calling of that same Gospel, no matter how long or short our individual lives may turn out to be.

 

The great English composer Gerald Finzi, writer of many wonderful songs, included in one of his collections a setting of a short poem from an Arabic original entitled On Parent Knees, attributed to Sir William Jones, who lived from1746 to 1794.

 

On parent knees a naked new born child

Weeping thou sats’t while all around thee smiled

So live, that sinking to thy life’s last sleep

Calm thou may’st smile,

While all around thee weep.

 

This poem perhaps sums up what it might mean for any of us to reach the end of our lives, however long or short, with a sense of achievement, of personal fulfilment, meaning and value.

 

But the word ‘consummation’, the literal translation of the Latin, has a special significance for me because it reminds me of the theology of marriage, in which a man and a woman consummate their relationship, and in many or most cases, the fruit of that union is a new life…. The blood of Jesus then might be seen as the seed of a new life, the possibility of a totally new way of being with God and with one another, as members of the Church.

 

May we then bring to the Cross today a new sense of our own individual value and worth, and a dedication to seeing those qualities in all those with whom we come into contact in our daily lives.

 

7.   Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

Some years ago an uncle of mine died after a short illness. He had never been a very regular churchgoer, and I think he was rather relieved when his local vicar said something that upset him as that seemed to give him a perfect excuse to stop attending altogether! I am not of course recommending this procedure for general consumption! But I know that churchgoer or not, he was a man who had very considerable spiritual depth. He kindly wrote a reference for me when I was applying to be accepted for ordination training, and as is often the case, a substantial reference of this kind, which I still have and treasure nearly fifty years later, says at least as much about the writer as the candidate. And it is a testimony to his deep understanding of Christianity and of what it takes to be a good priest.

 

And he once gave me a small book called The Roadmender, by a woman who called herself Michael Fairless, published originally towards the end of the 19th century, a beautiful meditation on God as seen in the world of nature.

 

Having spent a short time in a hospice near Lichfield, where I went to visit him, he came home and was looked after by his wife, my aunt. But he was getting gradually weaker. One day he got out of bed to go to the bathroom, and although he managed to get there, on his return to the bedroom, he collapsed on the floor.

 

He looked up at my aunt and said ‘If only I could just die!’ And, amazingly, he did. ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’.

 

I imagine that Jesus must have offered that prayer too on the cross, ‘If only I could just die’. We can’t get away from the primal horror of what that experience was like. To quote Graham Tomlin again:

 

 

Stripped naked, usually beaten as a prelude to the main act of

Savagery, shorn of all dignity and honour, the victim was

nailed, arms spread wide to a cross beam, with a further

nail through the ankle bones, and left to die. Death

usually came eventually not through loss of blood or the

sheer pain, but through asphyxiation, as each breath

involved lifting the body up on the nails to give room in

the lungs for an intake of air. In the end, the effort

simply became too much, and the victim suffocated

to death.

 

So what was the point of all that horrific suffering and pain – did it really achieve anything at all? In the first chapter of his gospel, John records the arrival of Jesus at the spot where his cousin John the Baptist was preaching and baptising folk in the River Jordan. On seeing him The Baptist yelled, in what I always imagine to have been a big booming bass voice – “See, there is the Lamb of God who is taking away the sins of the world!” I can’t even begin to imagine how often I have said or sung those words over the years. But it’s all there, in a nutshell. Jesus, the Word of God, the divine agent of Creation, has come to renew that Creation by taking away our sin. It’s as simple and profound as that. Many religious writers have tried to explain it either as a penal substitution, whereby Jesus literally takes on himself our punishment for sin, or as an example of self-sacrificial love for us to emulate, among other theories, each of which has its own particular merits and problems. However we understand it – and it is of course ultimately a mystery – the narrative of the Cross is the concluding act of the earthly drama of that taking away of sin and the beginning of a new relationship with God.

 

It recognises in a deeply realistic and yet compassionate way that, as Saint Paul had written many years before John’s gospel, ‘All have sinned, and all have fallen short of the glory of God’. And here is God’s response – not punishment, but forgiveness and new start.

 

What might that start look like?

 

All three synoptic gospels that is to say, Matthew, Mark and Luke, tell us that at the moment of the Lord’s death the veil of the temple was ‘ripped in two, from the top to the bottom’. This of course has symbolic meaning as well as describing what actually happened.

 

What I think it must mean, at this deeper level, is that – at that moment – a line of communication was opened between God and human beings, Jew and Gentile alike, that had not been available before, and that occurred definitively in the moment of Christ’s death.

 

A well known English novelist of middle of the twentieth century, Christopher Isherwood, although not a Christian, was someone who set aside part of each day for meditation. He once asked some friends whether they thought his spiritual discipline of surrender to God on a daily basis made any real difference. One of his friends replied ‘Well, we can all tell when you haven’t done it’.

 

It seems to me that the tearing of the veil is a clue to the fact that we can all benefit from what Jesus has done for us by engaging in some form of Christian meditation. For me, that practice is about just one very simple thing, which I try to do every day. What it entails is finding time, quiet, and space before getting down to work, making or receiving that first phone call, email, tweet or text, to focus on God and, above all, to ask God to fill me with his love. So simple, but so easy to forget or avoid!

 

And as we come to the end of this reflection, maybe we can bring to the foot of the cross a renewed commitment to finally surrendering our own lives to God whenever the moment will come, with the faith that lets us believe that, whatever comes next, we will, like Jesus, be in God’s hands, so ‘all manner of thing shall be well’.

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