Seven Last Words 07



Recently, when I was writing a Crucifixion scene for 2007, I kept thinking of an image, no doubt a composite of vaguely remembered paintings and churchware, of a Crucifix with a Jesus in glittering gold set in the rubies of His blood. Apart from the incongruity of the materials, given his incarnational mission to the poor, what struck me was how this image represented the radical transformation from realism to a form of decorousness, almost decoratedness.

For my writing, of course, I had to concentrate on the language rather than the image but they share this reluctance to come to terms with reality.

Ever since I have been able to understand churchy language I have thought of Jesus not beaten so that the skin was roughly torn from his back but scourged; I have thought of Jesus not being cruelly assaulted with a thicket of wicked thorns but crowned; I have thought of Jesus not pulverised with coarse bolts but nailed by his hands and feet; and, O, that final mercy of not having his legs broken, nor being stabbed in the side with a blunt dagger or sword, but being pierced with a lance; and this last, at least, foretold so beautifully in the words of Jeremiah and Simeon, as if the narrative continuity, the inevitability of the cruel events, somehow made them better, as if the nobility of Jesus and the drama of His death somehow raises it above the physical pain that the cross involved.

When I came to buy my own cross so that it would always be close to my heart, I chose a simple design with no figure. I was not sure then why I did not want a graven image of Jesus; but I know now. It is more than fifty years since I began to live with the story of Christ Crucified, lived in churches and museums, in picture books and Bibles, in spectacular movies and passion plays, in Stations of the Cross and Seven Last Words, in painting and sculpture, in Bach and most recently in the rock re-telling in Manchester last Good Friday, annually focused on Holy Week but never far away. It was only when I went to Calvary last year that I realised how the reality had slowly lost its real life. The conclusion I drew for myself, not for anybody else, is that this murder in which I am complicit will die as a reality in me unless I can escape from all the reverential baggage and re-tell the story to myself so that the account makes me wince.

So when I started to think about the death of Jesus as it might take place this Good Friday, I thought about torture, about broken glass, glowing cigarette ends and sulphuric acid; and I began to think about humiliation, crouching figures dressed in orange jump suits, isolation cells and sleepless nights, extra rendition; and all the means of humiliation and torture we have developed as the physical manifestations of our complicity in the murder of all murders.

But, other than recognising and being sorry for our complicity, there isn't much point in bringing ourselves to a pitch of private, unbearable pain unless we are simultaneously, in the great mystery of the world's existence, on the watch for the new dawn of the Resurrection.

There is a liturgical convention, perhaps to keep us aware of our sinfulness, perhaps to pile on the agony, perhaps simply as an acknowledgement of the way our culture worked before the breach of the dramatic unities, that we don't mention the Resurrection on Good Friday; but I can't help it. For me there is always a faint glimmer of the new dawn on the distant horizon behind the Cross, making its outline yet more sharp and black.

And, like the cultural accretion that surrounds the Crucifixion, the Resurrection imagery and language almost totally lack immediacy. Only John's half line about Mary Magdalene mistaking Jesus for the gardener (a phrase frequently omitted from the Easter Day reading) and the Emmaus episode in Luke have any dynamism. It is as if the real link is between the Crucifixion and Pentecost when the Holy Spirit gets cracking. And, as for the images, I can't take seriously - and therefore cannot rejoice through - the fussily androgynous angels, the dazzling napiery, the European pastoral verdure and the general air of Olympian frolics and Holman Huntism.

As for the significance of the event, we can surely understand the somewhat flat-footed reactions of the Disciples and the women - I doubt we would do any better - but in our language today, with almost two thousand years to think about it, Jesus has not torn a massive post incarnational hole in the fabric of human time, he has risen; Jesus has not smashed the forces of evil and made an irreversible promise of salvation to all humanity, he has achieved a victory o'er the grave; Jesus has not lived the greatest transformational event in world history, he has risen indeed. Alleluia.

As a quid pro quo for acknowledging on Good Friday the glimmer of light behind the Cross to sharpen its impact, I would burn palm crosses in the fire of the Easter Vigil, the palms of fickleness which ultimately form the foundation of our penitential act on Ash Wednesday. After the Light of Christ is brought into church and the Exulted has been sung, we slowly climb towards our greatest joy, beginning with the creation and tracing the history of our salvation; O how easily we have forgotten the Cross as if we have had too much of it in Holy Week. Perhaps seen from the radically different liturgical angle of the Vigil, the cross might regain its true meaning.

We renew our Baptismal vows with St. Paul reminding us that in the Cross we have all died and in Baptism we are all brought into a new life. But as long as we are so full of the reverential baggage of history, art, literature and ceremony, it won't be much of a new life, just another personal metaphor dressed in corporate liturgy. For surely the point of the Easter Vigil is to remind us all of our life and death story in terms that will make us, like Jesus, suffer and die - and live again. Alleluia!