Friday, 18 April 2014

The Cross of Christ

Christ from the Cross: Garth Bayley
On the front of the service paper for this service is the painting which our Artist in Residence, Garth Bayley, has produced for today.  We are used to looking at the cross from the front, or even if we walk round it from behind, but Garth has painting the scene as if it is the cross itself looking at Jesus.  Rather than us being the spectator of the events, looking from a distance away, even if that is just a few feet, this picture makes us a participant.  There is nothing between us and the Jesus who hangs in front of us.  In fact, we have become what he hangs on.  This is a remarkable shift in perspective and it has set me thinking since I first saw it.  What does it mean to be the cross of Christ as opposed to merely looking at it?

We see his back, tortured and raw from the whipping, the scourging.  We see his head bowed away.  We see his muscles taut and strained.  This Jesus has endured extreme physical suffering.  It is not clear if he has just died or is exhausted; quiet before uttering his last words.  He wears the crown of thorns upon his head; the mocking symbol of the true king from temporary passing rulers whose power is a mere pale imitation of his.  There is a solidarity in viewing this from behind because he is in front of us and we are following.  There are many moments when we can feel we are being crucified and sharing in the wounds of Christ.

We are the cross on which he hangs.  It is our humanity that he is embracing in being there and which holds him there.  It is the fallenness of the human condition that is the reason for his needing to be there.  In taking on the death he is able to bring the life.  Easter when it comes does not come without Good Friday.  The pain is given a place in this scene and it is our pain that is borne there because we are the cross.  This is not to blame us rather it is a solidarity and a taking away.  Christ died for us, not for some other arbitrary, incidental reason.

As we look into the distance, beyond Christ, we see nothing.  Is this the vastness of eternity, all time and nothingness?   Is this the mystery of everything which can only be gazed through Christ and without him we have no hope of gazing or entering or encountering?  It is as though all time with the clouds of the day and night in fast forward sequence passing over or before him as he hangs there.  Salvation becomes a moment in time and the critical moment of time.  This event judges and redeems in one moment.  Are there any figures there on the edges?  Can we make out Mary or John or the soldiers?  Have they all shrunk away out of sight?  Is this a lonely figure in the utter loneliness of death and so we gaze on our own ultimate utter loneliness before God with no pretence, no barriers, no hiding.  We are who we are as we enter into the full mystery that is God.

Because this image looks at the cross through the cross itself it reminded me of the Anglo Saxon poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’ (see below).  This is a long poem and so I abridged it for this service.  It is a dream and in the dream there is a vision of the cross and the cross talks.  It tells its story from being felled as a tree and crafted into an instrument of torture.  There is the glory of God in gold mingled with the red of Christ’s blood running down its side.  Think of the cross in our cathedral with the gilded Christ figure and the red of the cross, it is reminiscent for me of this poem and the Saxon origins of the abbey.  Because of the saving effect of Christ’s death and resurrection, the cross becomes honoured as a symbol.  When we become the cross, we share in that honouring, honouring which comes from the Christ who hung on it.  Through this hope is renewed with dignity and with joy.  We can call today Good Friday and not Bad Friday or Black, dark, evil Friday which might seem more natural.

A different angle from which to view the cross of Christ as if we are that cross.  We view his pain, our humanity is intimately joined with the saving act and we are drawn into a glimpse of eternity.  May this life giving cross become for us the source of joy and peace.  Amen.

Address for Good Friday evening at Peterborough Parish Church, 18th April 2014

The Dream of the Rood

Anglo-Saxon, Abridged by Ian Black

1            Listen, I will tell the best of dreams,      
that came to me in the middle of the night,
when voice-bearers dwelled in rest.     
It seemed to me that I saw a more wonderful tree 
5            lifted in the air, wound round with light,
the brightest of beams. That beacon was entirely 
cased in gold;
All those fair through creation       
10          gazed on the angel of the Lord there.
              Nevertheless, I was able to perceive through that gold
the ancient hostility of wretches, so that it first began    
20          to bleed on the right side. I was all drenched with sorrows.
I was frightened by the beautiful vision;
Yet as I lay there a long while        
25          I beheld sorrowful the tree of the Saviour,     
until I heard it utter a sound; 
it began to speak words, the best of wood:  
"That was very long ago, I remember it still,  
that I was cut down from the edge of the wood,     
30          ripped up by my roots. They seized me there, strong enemies, made me a spectacle for themselves there, commanded me to raise up their criminals.
Men carried me there on their shoulders,
until they set me on a hill,              
enemies enough fastened me there.
I saw then the Saviour of mankind        
hasten with great zeal,
as if he wanted to climb up on me.       
He stripped himself then, young hero
- that was God almighty -     
40          strong and resolute; he ascended on the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many, when he wanted to redeem
I trembled when the warrior embraced me;
even then I did not dare to bow to earth,       
fall to the corners of the earth, but I had to stand fast.
I was reared a cross. I raised up the powerful King,      
45          the Lord of heaven;
They mocked us both together.
I was all drenched with blood        
poured out from that man's side
after he had sent forth his spirit.   
50          I have experienced on that hillside many
51          cruelties of fate. I saw the God of hosts
violently stretched out. Darkness had   
covered with clouds the Ruler's corpse,        
the gleaming light. Shadows went forth,        
55          dark under the clouds. All creation wept,      
lamented the King's death. Christ was on the cross.     
80          Now the time has come       
that I will be honoured far and wide       
by people over the earth and all this glorious creation;
they will pray to this beacon. On me the Son of God     
suffered for a while; because of that I am glorious now,
85          towering under the heavens, and I am able to heal        
each one of those who is in awe of me.        
May the Lord be a friend to me,            
145        he who here on earth suffered previously               
on the gallows-tree for the sins of man.         
He redeemed us, and gave us life,                
a heavenly home. Hope was renewed          
with dignity and with joy for those who endured burning there.                

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