At the Foot of the Cross 2008


Jesus has said his last words; and now there is silence. The historian has nothing more to record than the actual time of death. The film maker has one last shot to get right and only one chance of getting it. The seller of spices is standing in the middle distance, still looking at the man. The soldiers have stopped gambling. Jesus said something but it was so indistinct that nobody understood what he was saying. And he will say no more. There is silence.

To understand this silence we need to remember that from the time of the arrest of Jesus up until his Crucifixion there has been nothing but noise. We are so used to background noise from traffic and machinery, computers and phones, radios and televisions, that we have forgotten what real noise is like. When we walk in the mountains or bathe in a distant lagoon, we hear the noise of the train or aeroplane that brought us. We have lost the noise that contrasts with silence because we have lost silence. And because we have lost the silence we have lost the noise.

Yet there is more to silence than physical silence. There is the silence of self denial, the refusal to make a noise, the refusal to speak. George Steiner famously wrote in the mid 1960s that after Hitler's mass murder of Jews it was impossible to use language with integrity; it could not, he said, adequately report what had happened with the degree of intensity that was required; in which case it was better to say nothing. Because the SS had listened to Schubert we had to ask what the culture was worth and whether going into the permanent mourning of silence might not be better. He was not, of course, thinking about such trivia as asking somebody to pass the salt; he was thinking about the way we use language to convey significance.

Whether Steiner was right or wrong, we are now burbling our way out of significance, murdering our language through the traditional cruelties of forced labour and malnutrition. Even if Steiner were wrong, we make part of his point for him by hurling accusations of Nazi at trivial infractors and tiny political factions call themselves Nazis. This makes it ever more difficult to understand what it meant to be a Nazi under the control of Hitler; the word becomes devalued. Almost every day of our lives we hear life's little misfortunes described as "A nightmare" "A shambles" or a "Disaster". We have stopped using hyperbole as hyperbole. Yet, like fast food and pop music, there is a kind of noise that becomes addictive, that becomes part of the backdrop of our being or, to put it negatively, it is the kind of noise that stops us from feeling lonely. We might ask, on the other hand, whether we are most lonely when we are surrounded by people and noise and things; and most at peace with ourselves when we can find silence.

Here, now, after all the noise of the trial and the climb, we are at the end of the journey.

Talking about silence is one of life's unavoidable paradoxes. What kind of talk about silence is germane to where we are now?

In this silence, as Jesus has finished talking, we need to review all that he has said. For the greatest man who ever lived it is a slim collection. After all, between 1/3 and 1/4 of each Gospel is an account of his death which, incidentally, tells us of its importance for the earliest Christians. Then there are the passages that repeat. But what distinguishes the Gospels from the books that never received Canonical status is that the Gospels were all about a man who preached the kingdom of love on earth, whereas the books that were ruled out were only interested in a kingdom of love in the sky and they were not interested in the death of Jesus. We have tried to connect the Kingdom of Love on earth with the significance of the death of Jesus and so there is room for only one more thought: if Jesus had been born both divine and human, as he was, and proclaimed the same Gospel, and had ascended into heaven, without the kind of death he is dying now, what would we think? What would we know and what would we not know?

In this silence we need to review our own way of talking to ourselves and to each other about Jesus. Part of the way we talk slipped into our way of witnessing in the second half of the last century. Until then, we had thought of God as impassible, of never changing. We were apt to slide over Old Testament remarks about God changing his mind or being sorry for what he had done. We were very much caught up in the doctrinal cat's cradle; if we let go of one loop of string the whole lot would collapse; which doesn't show much real faith in the Jesus enterprise. Then came the horrors of the 20th Century, made real by the mass media; and we began to think that Jesus, the incarnate God, had a passable aspect, that he was not somewhere in the sky watching us suffer but that he was suffering with us. It is as if we have come to realise that God through Jesus understood the imposition of Creation and would not change it for anything but saw how difficult was the mandate created for us. And it is difficult. So difficult that when social conformity was relaxed in the 20th Century, most people stopped trying to live the life we try to live.

Because the life we live is both difficult and precious we need to mind our language. We need to do two things: we must always remember that 'god talk' is hopelessly inadequate; but we must ensure that our 'god talk' is earthly talk, talk of the here and now, of the Kingdom of Love on Earth.

As we stand here in the moments before the death of Jesus, between his last word and his last breath, what might we say to ourselves? That Jesus has shown his love; that he has lived out for us the imperfection of our love; that we can now without doubt understand the degree of difference and the fundamental identity, consubstantiality, of his love and ours; for love is undifferentiated; God is love, we were created to love; our roles are different as Creator and creatures but love is our only concern. As we stand we may think of the indescribable triumph of love in Jesus or the all too describable failure of love in us; but even if we have put him up there on a cross, he is still down here standing with us.

There is a time for theology and a time for silence. There is a point at which words fail in the face of mystery, just as they fail in the face of a beloved. the mystery of Jesus the beloved draws words out of us in the way that the earthly beloved draws words out of the lover. We are caught between words and wonder, between skill and silence. And that is where we almost always need to be, caught in the middle, alive to both our human gift and our human failing, between God's human form and mysterious being. And just as there are times when we instinctively feel it is better to say nothing than to say anything, no matter how beautiful or loving, this is the time when we are moving, inexorably, towards silence, towards a contemplation of a mystery that has eluded all our words. This man who is there, above us, is also down here, with us, watching himself. In a way that words will never master, he is helping us to bear his passion.

We need to ask ourselves what it is that we are bearing. Is it a feeling that we ought to be sorry because it is the kind of event that evokes sorrow? Is it a feeling that we are somehow complicit and that if we had acted differently things would have turned out differently? Or is it the sorrow of the steady state of our relationship as creatures with the creator? Is it the sorrow of our condition rather than of our individual behaviour? I like to think that our sorrow is of this last kind because I like to think that Jesus is with us now, sharing the sorrow of La Condition Humaine because we are what we are and he is who he is. The febrile accountancy of good and bad added up, of guilt apportioned and debts written off, seems a totally alien set of transactions to what is happening now as we stand together with Jesus, up there and down here.

What, finally, might we say about silence? We need to give ourselves mental and emotional space to come to terms with the mystery of God's love and our terrible transgression. Today we have thought about the murderous treatment of the Jews and other groups and tribes that the Nazis wanted to eliminate; we have seen genocide in far away places like Cambodia and central and East Africa and as near as the Balkans; and as we stand here now, countless people are being killed in the Sudan. There is plenty to make us protest and plenty to keep us silent. And God preserve us from making the same mistake with Muslims as we made with Jews. Whenever we are in danger we must stop shouting with the crowd and cross the empty ground to Jesus as he stands condemned. And we must never forget as we stand by him, that we once shouted in the crowd.

We need to be careful with the truth that we tell ourselves. The relationship we have with God through Jesus in the power of the Spirit must not resemble the truth of the film maker who packages elegance and architecture, who creates the kind of reality which makes the complex simple and which provides us with a route to escape. We need to keep ourselves grounded in our untidy dialogue with God. We must not be persuaded by easy words either to sell out or to think that we have overcome our difficulties in establishing a relationship with God. If we think that we will never communicate again then we should look at Jesus as he hangs now, in silence; if we think that our communication is smoothly effective then we are deluding ourselves. If we want to know how difficult it is, we can think of the lives of the saints; or, better still, watch the life of Jesus uncut.

More often than not we are like the seller of spices; we take small steps towards God and away from God; our life is not one of heroic gestures but of constant, tiny efforts. Such striving can be exhausting and even we, faint heroes, need time to recover, to say nothing. To look carefully at the man, to look and never stop looking, to behold and never stop holding.

As soldiers of Christ who knocked in the nails, we must remember that everything is forgiven, even this, not because Jesus paid some kind of supernatural debt but because without unfailing forgiveness the human purpose of choosing to love is too much to ask. We must remember that our crime and our suffering are a common element of our humanity; we are soldiers, not here to judge but to do the will of our Commander as best we can, our Commander the King of Love.


Heavenly Father, you sent your son to suffer with us so that we might better feel the strength of your compassion; as he lingers between his last word and his last breath, help us to love Jesus in joy and in silence until the very end. Amen.