Address given during Devotions at the Cross, Good Friday 2011
22 April 2011 at 12:00 pmThe Reverend Robert Reiss, Sub-Dean and Canon Treasurer and Almoner
The Cross and Us
There are all sorts of routes into thinking about the Cross, but one of the routes in is to think of it as a way into a response to the horrors of this world. Of course there are lots of wonderful and good things in this world, thank God for that, but there is a lot that is wrong as well, and there are enough of those wrong things to engage our imagination if we think at all clearly about them. And it may be sensible on a day like this to reflect a bit on what is wrong, but not just the wrong about other people or other places, but the wrong that might be there that affects us in our own lives, including, perhaps the contribution, however wittingly or unwittingly, that we have made to that wrong. And on Good Friday we can think about it in the context of what the Church has also traditionally spoken of, that the cross is in someway related to God’s forgiveness of us. And it may be in that way that the meaning of the cross can come closest to at least some of us as individuals, so I want to reflect a bit on that notion of forgiveness in this first address.
But forgiveness for what? An earlier generation would have had no doubt about the answer to that. They would have called it sin, and they would have dwelt on the nature of human responsibility. But attitudes towards sin have changed over the years, and as we have grown in our understanding of human behaviour through disciplines such as psychology and sociology we have begun to realise that we are not quite as free as we might have liked to think we are. Even the Bible knew that the sins of the fathers are visited on the third and fourth generations of those that hated God. Much of the wickedness that exists in the world, wicked though it undoubtedly is, often owes its origins to patterns of wickedness that have been established well in the past. Of course individuals and communities still must bear responsibility for the evil they do, and I am not wanting to provide excuses, but we must, I believe, be honest to the facts, and recognise that breaking an inherited pattern of evil is far more difficult than resisting new temptations. Our evil acts are certainly our responsibility, but we do not bear that responsibility alone, some of it lies in the circumstances of our lives over which we have little if any control.
But although the origins of our sin may be complex, that doesn't remove the fact of guilt, and although guilt is probably an unfashionable feeling in our present society it remains, at least for some sensitive people, a reality. Counsellors say that guilt can come in two forms. Sometimes it is guilt at having harmed someone, someone whom we cared for, perhaps, but someone who is now alienated from us so we are effectively unable to make any reparation. Such guilt is quite common, and many have just to live with it. It is only if it becomes morbid that we need counselling help. But the simple fact of such guilt remains for some.
The other sort of guilt is the failure to live up to standards we set ourselves. I am not talking here about the standards others try to set for us, we may break them, openly or covertly, and not feel guilty about it because, secretly at least, we reject that standard. But when we have set ourselves a standard and then break it, then guilt can be acute.
Now the first thing that needs to be done about guilt is that it needs to be acknowledged. Unacknowledged guilt that is nonetheless felt deep within the soul can be very destructive. And so we need something to help us face the fact of our own guilt. Shakespeare gives us an interesting clue in Hamlet. A major theme of the play is about conscience and guilt, and at one point there is a play within the play. The actors come to court and Hamlet plans to use their play: 'The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King' he says. And then he continues:
I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions.
Seeing the play in front of them activates their conscience. Well, maybe the cross is just such a play. In the Passion story we see it moving inexorably to the climax of the cross, and although we would like to be able to pin the blame on someone, it was all Judas's fault for betraying him, or the Jews' fault, or Pilate's fault, the simple fact is that no one person can bear the whole blame. They all played their part, but ultimately they all also appear powerless because it all looks as though it had to happen. And as we read the drama of the passion story and then reflect on our own lives we can see the way that we have contributed to evil and yet been its victim as well, and 'the very cunning of the scene' can help us 'proclaim our malefactions.' One of the ways the cross can bring us forgiveness is that it can first of all help us to face the truth about ourselves, and the complex interactive worlds we each live in.
But the cross does more than that. Jesus doesn't blame anyone in the passion story, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do' is directed to the executioners, but it could have been said to all the other guilty actors in this drama. And what we see on the cross is Jesus absorbing the evil that is being done to him, and not responding to it with recrimination, or resentment, or fresh evil with the desire to get even. He takes and accepts, without resentment and without rebellion. And I believe we see there God accepting what men and women have done to him without reproach. We can even, I think, say that we see him accepting his responsibility for the world in which we live. And that recognition can be liberating. For if he accepts and forgives the sin that people did to him there, then he accepts and forgives our sin, individual and corporate.
But before forgiveness can be operative for us three stages have to happen. First, there has to be an awakening of guilt. In Shakespeare's words we must be 'struck to the soul'. Facing the truth about ourselves is never easy, but here, at the foot of the cross, it can begin to happen as we reflect on the drama that led to Calvary, and we can strip away the pretence and dishonesty and half-truth that so often characterises our lives.
But then, secondly, must come the judgement. If the cross is about anything it is about judgement, it shows just how terrible the consequences of sin can be. Like ripples in a pond after we have thrown a stone in it the consequences of our actions spread outwards, and are immediately out of our control. How many people have tried to get out of public humiliation by lying, and then found the pit only deepened and the choice was between yet more dishonesty or even greater humiliation? Judgement comes when we recognise just how complex and interwoven things are, and we try without evasion to get a grip on just what we have done and its consequences. But of course we never can get a complete grip. Some things we know we have done, we know all too terribly, but at other times we may have unconsciously contributed to someone else's hurt, yet we never even knew. And when we try to think of the things we didn't do but could or should have done it gets even worse. We know we have played a part in the human tragedy, but we cannot explain exactly how. So judgement will always go wider than we understand.
And then, thirdly, there must be confession, the 'proclaiming of our malefactions'. Of course we do not know all our malefactions, but what we do know we can confess. And for confession to work I suspect it should be to someone else. I don't mean we should all engage in introspective navel gazing, and then public self-humiliation, that's not good for anyone. But being open with someone else, a spouse, a friend, a priest even, can lance the boil of suppressed guilt, and make us ready for the forgiveness God offers. Forgiveness can't remove the consequences of our actions, that would be to diminish our responsibility and to make us less than human, but it can help us re-order our own internal mind set, so that we are free from the destructive power of guilt. That's why forgiveness can be so liberating and that's why the cross is not just a symbol of God's passionate involvement in his world, but also a symbol of hope. ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ is addressed to us all.