We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you,
because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.
One of the most startling things about the Gospel according to St John is its attention to small details. John gives by far the most accurate descriptions of time and place in any of the four canonical accounts of the life and death of Jesus. Much of our speculative chronology for his life is derived from John’s obsession with recording the passing of the Jewish fasts and festivals, and Jesus’ strict observance of them. And he frequently includes in his narrative those close observations which the other three Evangelists are unaware of, or choose to omit.
One of the most striking of these details is the breaking of the legs of those who were crucified with Jesus that afternoon just outside the city walls, on what was far less a green hill far away, more a rocky outcrop very near indeed, on the poorer side of town. The breaking of bones is a practice we know was common to both Roman and Carthaginian crucifixion methods, adding to the excruciating agony suffered by the convict but mercifully hastening their end, so it seems that this moment is historically credible. Jesus’ legs were not broken – he had already died – his time on the cross was unusually short, his death hastened by the severe tortures he endured in the hours immediately preceding.
Another of these Johannine details is the offering of sour wine, vinegar, as it used to be translated, on a branch of hyssop. It seems somewhat absurd in the context of the narrative of an unimaginably painful death lasting many hours, that an author should choose to remember the species of twig used for a stick. The effect of taking that vinegar, even for the Christ who had managed to choke out ‘I am thirty’, cannot have been one of relief. Remember, it’s about 30 degrees Celsius in Jerusalem at the moment, and Easter, the date of which is fixed by the equally-moveable Jewish Passover, is fairly early this year – it’s more than hot enough to lead to serious dehydration after hours of torture, and now, exposure to the heat of the day. Rather, it seems that the sour wine would probably have made him gag, his writhing exacerbating the pain already caused by the nails which pierced him, and his gaping wounds.
It is, in fact, the details such as this which bring home the horrifying reality of crucifixion, a form of execution reserved for the lowest-ranking members of society, ‘foreigners’ – those who do not enjoy the privilege of Roman citizenship – and it is a statement of subjugation to the might of Imperial Rome, a symbol, as Bishop Tom Wright once described it, ‘with a clear and frightening meaning.’
Yet, for all the detail, we do not really understand. That’s true on two levels. At the more obvious level, few (if any) of us have any experience at all of that kind and degree of pain, and pray God, we never shall. But our incomprehension is more acutely true at a deeper level. Simply, our words fail us. Language is totally inadequate to describe what happens on the Cross. And not just our words, but all our modes of communication fail. Meditation on the Passion of Christ has produced some of the most profound music and art ever brought forth from human creativity, but it is all as a blurred reproduction of a tiny corner of the canvas which is the divine reality in this moment. All the song, the frescos and sculptures, all the poetry and music and mosaic of the human imagination, all together, gives us only a tiny glimpse of the meaning of the death of he who is the artist of all creation.
Good Friday, much like Easter itself, is really a silent, imageless day. Our church is stripped of its furnishings; the sanctuary of the Temple is bear; the holy table, which is the symbol of the Body of Christ, the true altar of our salvation, is naked before us; the tabernacle, the Holy of Holies in which the Living Presence of God dwells with us, is empty. Our church is a void. The sacred liturgy which is the source and summit of our Christian life is pared down to stark simplicity. All that we say and do is a poorly painted icon of the meaning of the Cross. Even to gaze on the wood of the Cross itself, to venerate the image of our salvation, is to look upon a formless absence, the utter desolation that is the rejection by humankind of the God who dared to stoop to us in love.
Today, like Easter, is a day when the action happens off-stage. The benefit of hindsight, the knowledge of the resurrection which is to come, affords us little more comfort than the first disciples must have had that Passover night. We, like them, are left numb and wordless by the total defeat of Life itself – we are left to contemplate the gaping wound in God’s creation, the absence of Love itself. And, we are complicit, like the disciples, like the Marys, in that wound. For if we are to have any faith in the Incarnation, then yes, we are consubstantial with the Christ who suffers on the Cross, the God-Man whose death will accomplish the recapitulation of all things to God, but we are equally, if not more so, consubstantial with those who nailed him to the Tree.
All that we can do in the light of our participation in the Cross, is to contemplate the absence, the silence, and the darkness. We can only have faith that this will not be just another death of another low-life subject of the Roman regime; that he who stoops in love will by love conquer death. We can only trust that, off-stage, God is working-out his purpose in Christ in this moment. We can only believe that the details of the narrative, which seem to trivial and yet so real, mean something is happening, rather than nothing.
Our correct, indeed our only reaction, in the face of the death of Love itself, is sheer silence. Our words, our images, our music, none of these can convey the overwhelming love which is the very life of God in Christ crucified, the love which covers all sins. Our response must be to know God’s terrifying silence for ourselves: the silence out of which all creation comes into being, the silence of Isaac as he is bound for sacrifice, of Mary at the moment of the conception, of Jesus in the grave, of the empty tomb, of the life in God which awaits us. And in the silence, we must allow ourselves to become one with Christ crucified, and in the silence of the life of the Holy Trinity, to become that love which is perfect self-giving.
We leave this liturgy in silence, not only out of reverence for the mystery and respect for the solemnity of the occasion, but because to speak, to attempt to express ourselves, will, at this moment, only cause us to diminish the startling reality of the Cross.
We will soon be face to face with the image of Christ crucified. It is an image which does not have words for us: it does not cry out or weep or moan as he did. It is silent. It is an image which cannot convey the horror of the scene, or the agony of the man. It simply confronts us, in our space, in naked truth. It does speak to us, but to our broken, disordered humanity, which longs to return to God. It leaves us utterly barren, alone, unable to speak, completely without hope, in the silence of our own unworthiness….