06 April 2012

Stationary at the Cross: A Good Friday Meditation

The Cross, says John O’Donohue in Eternal Echoes, is a unique axis in time. It is where time and timelessness intersect. All past, present, and future pain was physically carried up the hill of Calvary in the Cross, so that it could face the new dawn of resurrection, and be transfigured. This, he says, is the mystery of the Eucharist, which embraces Calvary and the Resurrection in the one circle:
‘In Christian terms there is no way to light or glory except through the sore ground under the dark weight of the Cross.’
O’Donohue describes the Cross as a lonely, forsaken symbol, with the most terrifying image in Christian theology being a state of absolute exclusion from belonging. We all know that moment from the Passion accounts, of course, the moment when Jesus cries out ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ – My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

This, says Pope Benedict in the second volume of his Jesus of Nazareth, was no ordinary cry of abandonment. Misheard and misunderstood by some of those nearby, the faithful recognised this as a truly Messianic cry, the opening verse of the twenty-second psalm.
‘Jesus is praying the great psalm of suffering Israel, and so he is taking upon himself all the tribulation, not just of Israel, but of all those in this world who suffer from God’s concealment. He brings the world’s anguished cry at God’s absence before the heart of God himself. He identifies himself with suffering Israel, with all those who suffer under “God’s darkness”; he takes their cry, their anguish, all their helplessness upon himself – and in so doing he transforms it.’
Given the suffering that’s ever-present in our world, and how at times we seem awash in a sea of tragedies, it staggers me that I have only ever seen one artistic attempt at expressing this moment of divine agony and isolation.

This may seem trivial, but just as how we talk of things reveals how we think of them, so too does how we picture them. Theology is not simply a matter of what we say. I’ve known Protestant friends purse their lips at the thought of crucifixes in Catholic churches, arguing that representations of Christ on the Cross are expressions of his suffering that fail to recognise that the sacrifice of the Cross is finished, and that Christ is now glorified in Heaven. They’ve misunderstood what the crucifixes represent, but they’ve recognised something very important nonetheless.

Iconography matters.

Before the eleventh century it was relatively rare to see crucifixes on which Christ was not depicted alive and looking ahead, his eyes wide open. Such iconography expressed an understanding of the Cross prominent in all sermons on salvation in Acts and which was, in one form or another, the early Church’s dominant understanding of the Crucifixion: that the Cross was not a defeat, but was the path to resurrection and God’s supreme triumph over sin, death, and the Devil.

While the landscape of early medieval iconography wasn’t as smooth as he thought it was, the Swedish Lutheran bishop Gustav Aulén hit on something very important when he wrote in 1931 of how things changed during the Middle Ages.
‘What was lost was the note of triumph, which is as much absent in the contemplation of the Sacred Wounds as in the theory of the satisfaction of God’s justice. This is reflected very significantly in later medieval art. The triumph-crucifix of an earlier period is now ousted by the crucifix which depicts the human Sufferer.’
There can’t be many of us who haven’t seen myriad representations of the Crucifixion in our lifetime, but almost all of them – cinematic ones aside – will have been variants on a theme: a dead Christ, his head almost always resting on his right shoulder, his side bleeding from the spear driven into it by the Roman soldier when making sure that he was dead.

These pictures and sculptures all serve to express a truth – that God became Man and gave his life for us – that though all-important nonetheless omits something that was central to earlier Christian thought.

Of course, the sacrifice of our Lord on the Cross is a mystery, and it is a mystery that cannot be dismissed with a single neat theory. Tom Wright, until recently the Anglican bishop of Durham, has it right when he points out that ‘when Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal.’

It is through the mystery of the Eucharist that we actively participate in the memory of God; this was brought home to me with great force when in Leeds last November, for the second Catholic Voices training weekend.

Charles I’Anson’s crucifix in the chapel at Leeds Trinity University College is like no crucifix I have ever seen. Completed in October 1971, the crucifix was the fruit of eighteen months of work by the college’s then senior lecturer in sculpture; made from bronze and fibreglass, and modelled upon I’Anson himself, the crucifix depicts neither a Christ looking forward in confidence nor one in gentle repose after having given up his spirit.

People often don’t grasp just how agonising crucifixion was, or how it killed. It was a slow punishment, and killed – in most cases – by suffocation. The crucified needed to stay as erect as possible in order to breathe, and as legs and arms gave out, pressure gradually built on the chest, forcing victims of the cross to inhale constant shallow breaths simply to stay alive, until eventually even the shallowest of breaths proved too much.

I’Anson’s crucifix depicts Our Lord pushing himself away from the Cross, driving himself upward and forward and crying out. It portrays a dying man’s supreme act of will, showing Jesus forcing his limbs to support him so he can gather the air to cry out, whether to ask why his Father had forsaken him, or to commend his spirit into his Father’s hands.

It’s a representation of agony, but it’s not a representation of defeat; on the contrary, it is a magnificent, gritty, idealised rendering of triumph, and not just any triumph, but the greatest triumph there has ever been, that moment when history and eternity were as one, and God reclaimed what was his, defeating sin, death, and the Devil.

Too rarely in my life have I had more than the driest and most academic understanding of what the Mass meant, but on that November Saturday, as the Eucharist was held up before I’Anson’s Crucifix, I understood.


StAubreyBone said...

Actually when you say this:

It’s a representation of agony, but it’s not a representation of defeat; on the contrary, it is a magnificent, gritty, idealised rendering of triumph, and not just any triumph, but the greatest triumph there has ever been, that moment when history and eternity were as one, and God reclaimed what was his, defeating sin, death, and the Devil.

I am very wary of the theology and the readycut slogans it summons up, history and eternity one and so on.

I think the cross was a defeat. That was rather the point. The defeat was overcome on the Sunday and outside of history.

John H said...

A rather belated response to this post, and to StAubreyBone's comment.

The Cross as a triumph is definitely there in Scripture. For example, Colossians 2:

And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed* the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

And Our Lord's words moments before his death: "It is accomplished".

It's not that the crucifixion was a defeat and the resurrection a triumph, but that the crucifixion was a triumph-in-apparent-defeat, a triumph that overturned the human understanding of defeat and triumph - and the resurrection is then the proof and vindication of that triumph.

As for the post itself: thanks (as I said on Twitter earlier) for drawing I'Anson's work to my attention. Will definitely check it out next time I'm at my parents', which is literally ten or fifteen minutes' walk from what to me is still Trinity and All Saints' College.

(Incidentally: is "Trinity and All Saints" an example of hedging one's bets in a dedication? ;-) )