We Anglicans are creatures of habit; a point brought home to me a few days ago when Canon Dart mentioned a particular parishioner to me, identifying him as “sitting on the Gospel side.” I suspect that had I asked, he could have told me which row and what side of the pew that gentleman occupied every Sunday.
Indeed, Canon Dart might describe me to others as the older bearded guy toward the front in the Epistle side—invariably on the outside of the pew, where I can rest my foot on the kneeler support brace, and have easy exit when I need to read the Epistle. But a few Sundays ago I straggled in a wee bit late, and sat in an unaccustomed place. That not only displaced me from my accustomed seat, but had a ripple effect: instead of attending to communion in the first wave and well over on the Epistle side of the rail, I found myself dead-center in the middle, which gave me a very different perspective on the altar than did my “regular” spot at the rail.
Thus it happened as I looked up, that the Cross on the wall was perfectly aligned with Canon Dart, who at that point had turned to face it. For a brief moment, it was as if the cross was perfectly balanced on his head, even as it was yet thrusting upward, heavenward.
There was a perilous moment where this juxtaposition of priest and cross might have struck me as more humorous than not, and diverted me from the serious task at hand. Fortunately, that moment did not come to pass; instead and quite to my surprise, the cross suddenly seemed to stand tall; its wooden lines defined with uncommon clarity; thrusting upward, heavenward; visually and symbolically linking priest below to God above.
Indeed, the cross seemed so starkly defined that it brought to mind an article I read quite some years ago, in which a Roman Catholic and a Protestant debated their theological differences over salvation. Toward the end, the Protestant took a swipe at his opponent: referring to the dominant use of the Crucifix in the Roman tradition, he declaimed that “your cross is too bloody”—a way of saying that his sparring partner had too low a view of grace. But the Catholic rejoined: “your cross is too clean….”
I’m not going to go into the theological thicket of the Reformation here, but I think both of them had a sound point. With Good Friday coming as a harbinger of Spring; with new life in the air, Easter dresses at Mass; kids neatly turned out; the birds of spring greeting us all as we depart, it’s easy to forget that the carefully planed and sanded and varnished and polished cross on the wall represents a death most bloody and brutal. We call it Christ’s passion, but even our modern understanding of the word—alluding to things so diverse as Eros on one hand and somebody’s hobby on the other hand—has certainly diluted its theological meaning.
But Passion comes to our English language via a 12th century French term, which in turn was grounded in a 10th Century Latin term, which meant “to suffer” or “endure.” While its common meaning has softened with age, we as Christians, at this moment on Good Friday, should pay heed to its classic meaning, and recall what it is that Christ suffered.
To be sure, His suffering was brutal physical punishment—scourged and flayed, then driven to his doom under the weight of that crude, rough cross; pinioned to the wood; hung high and left to suffer as gravity slowly weighed him down; muscle, sinew and joints joined in agony; death on the cross was much like death on a rack.
In a word, it was a horrid death; our imagination cannot do justice to the true agony He felt. Yet I wonder sometimes if the physical pain was perhaps the lesser part of his Passion, his suffering. All of us have had our moments of physical pain—for me, a finger crushed by a hydraulic ram and the screaming misery of an intestinal blockage come to mind—yet once physical pain is past, it’s hard to re-imagine exactly what it felt like.
But all of us also have our moments of emotional pain—the unwanted parting from a loved one; the death of a parent, sibling, or child—and even much later, when those hurts hit home, it seems as though they are timeless. Some unexpected reminder will trigger you; the pain is instantly rekindled: suddenly you are back in the moment of that loss and you know exactly the way you felt then, because you feel exactly that way now.
So I wonder what it was for Christ, when after many hours of physical torment on that Cross, he suddenly confronted a divine parting of unimaginable weight: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” All of us know what it is to be deprived of a beloved human relationship. What then the weight of divine deprivation; of separation between the one and greatest Son and Father in all of the universe? Could this have been the penultimate suffering; might its gravity be confirmed by Christ’s physical death which swiftly followed that moment?
I do not know. But on Good Friday, we should be most mindful that the Cross was a bloody instrument of torture and death. Yet like so many of men’s plans that are meant for ill, the cross became the greatest symbol of hope for mankind—indeed, perhaps the only true hope in human history. It was the work of the bloody cross that gave us the clean and clear hope for the future: sins forgiven, the resurrection of our body, and eternal communion with our Lord.