Paul’s words go to the heart of the Christian religion. Like it or not, the Christian Faith is religio crucis, the religion of the cross. What does that mean? It means that the mystery of the Cross is the mystery of love. We easily forget this and even reject it. The great English mystery writer, P.D. James, in her rather unusual novel, The Children of Men, acutely observes that the contemporary churches at the end of the last century had “moved from the theology of sin and redemption to a less uncompromising doctrine: corporate social responsibility coupled with a sentimental humanism” which leads in turn to the virtual abolition of “the Second Person of the Trinity together with His cross.” To some, if not many, “the cross, stigma of the barbarism of officialdom and of man's ineluctable cruelty, has never been a comfortable symbol.”
Yet the Cross for all of its disturbing qualities is the essential symbol of the Christian religion. It sets Christianity apart from other world religions and yet, more importantly, connects with them in terms of the realities of the human experience. This is especially true with respect to suffering. The Cross symbolizes redemptive suffering. It is crucial to how we think about suffering and to the forms of our engagement with other world religions including the culture and religion of secular atheism. The Cross speaks to our present distresses, to our fears and worries about all the forms of suffering in our global world, not the least of which are our current and continuing concerns about COVID-19.
Preaching Christ crucified has always been central to Christian witness and practice. The traditions of Lent, of Holy Week and Easter belong to a deep and profound reflection upon the Passion of Christ and to the ways in which the Christian Faith is represented artistically and aesthetically. The practice of preaching or meditating upon the Seven Last Words of Christ, something deeply embedded in the modern Protestant and Catholic imaginary since the eighteenth century, was actually a service devised in the Americas, in Lima, Peru, by the Jesuit missionary, Fr. Alonso Messia Bedoya, just after the devastation of the terrible earthquakes of 1678 and 1687. The devotion inspired eighteenth century composers such as Haydn in Europe.
The Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross complement the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, though not in any systematic sense. The words from the Cross begin and end with the prayer of the Son to the Father. Both the Our Father and the Cross are essential to the Christian understanding. Simone Weil, the 20th century passionate philosopher of attention and an activist devoted to the poor and the suffering, says that “the Our Father contains all possible petitions; we cannot conceive of any prayer which is not already contained in it. It is to prayer what Christ is to humanity. It is impossible to say it once through, giving the fullest possible attention to each word, without a change … taking place in the soul.” The theologian Anthony Boers observes the intimate connection between the Our Father and the Seven Last Words of Christ. Both “ably condense and collapse into one set of short passages the essentials of our faith.”
“The whole of our life says Our Father,” the Patristic biblical theologian, Origen remarks, noting that nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures do we find any prayers to God the Father, and, of course, precious few references to God as Father or as Mother. It has entirely to do with Jesus. The “infinite power, wisdom and goodness” of God, traditional and philosophical attributes of God, are now seen through the spiritual lens of God’s self-relation as Trinity. It is what is made known to us by Christ. His last words are for us even as in the Lord’s Prayer, his Father is now Our Father, though not in any earthly or worldly sense but spiritually.
The connection between the Lord’s Prayer and the Words of Christ shapes our Good Friday meditations. They do so in the context of the world’s suffering. We live, it seems, in rather apocalyptic times, though more in a secular sense than a spiritual one. Yet for Christians the times are always apocalyptic in the sense of always recalling us to God and to our life with one another in Christ. The conjunction of the Our Father with the Seven Last Words is wonderfully concentrated in a sonnet by John Donne which recalls us to the Cross and to meditating upon the Cross. It does so in the awareness of how the sufferings of Christ redeem the sufferings of our humanity.
“What if this present were the world’s last night?” the sonnet begins. What if now, right now, were the end of the world, whether for you individually, facing your own death, or for us all, collectively speaking? “Mark in my heart, O soul, where thou dost dwell/ the picture of Christ crucified.” Look into your heart, into the core of your being, into your soul, and see there an image of Christ crucified. From the description of that image, I think that he has in mind one of the many rather grotesque representations of the crucifixion that arose after the Great Bubonic Plague, the Black Death, which destroyed close to half the population of Europe between 1347 and 1351. The artistic representations of the crucified identify Christ with the sufferings of the plague victims. The emphasis is on Christ’s embrace of human suffering which belongs to his Incarnation. “Tears in his eyes quench the amazing light,/ Blood fills his frowns, which from his pierc’d head fell”. The soul in recalling this image is asked “whether his countenance can thee affright?” Does the picture of Christ crucified frighten you?
The poem then shifts from what is seen on the Cross to what is heard, asking the soul to remember what Christ said. “And can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell, which pray’d forgiveness for his foes fierce spite?” The reference is to the first word of the Cross, a prayer to the Father. Both questions are rhetorical; the answer is “no, no.” No to both. Neither what is seen is meant to frighten you nor what is heard is intended to condemn you. What is seen and heard reminds us instead of the inner beauty of the Cross precisely in its outward ugliness. In this sense, the sonnet’s content is sacramental. “This beauteous form assures a piteous mind,” a mind like ours which is in need of grace and mercy. We look at sin and evil made visible on the Cross of Christ but what we see and hear is love. That and that alone is the good of Good Friday which brings us to the joys of the Resurrection. I wish you all a blessed Easter.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy