The Very Reverend Dr Wesley Carr Dean of Westminster
Friday, 9th April 2004
The custom of the Dean of Westminster preaching at the Chapel Royal on Good Friday dates from the time of Lancelot Andrewes, Dean 1601-1603
Sitting at the dinner table after the concert of sacred music in the Abbey last Tuesday one of the guests said, "I can't cope with the extreme language and the notion that Christ's suffering was somehow greater than that of others, and the fact that in order to make that point some writers exaggerate their claims. We had just been listening to some ancient and modern music, all of which used medieval-style words which certainly emphasised the wounds of the suffering Christ. I haven't yet seen it, but I understand that the new film "The Passion of the Christ" over which there has been a skirmish, takes a similar line.
Both attitudes are right: crucifixion is a horrible death. Studies have shown that the victim suffers and dies by drowning in his own fluids. It is a slow and painful death. But to say that Jesus suffering was any worse than that of others is to make a claim which is clear but not one that can be easily evaluated. I doubt, for example, whether the thousand slaves whose crosses lined the Appian way when Nero had them slaughtered would agree. Crucifixion is, after all, crucifixion.
But if it is not a matter of extreme pain, what is the significance of the death of Christ? What is symbolised in the world is easy to explain. At a crucifixion, a man ceased to be a person and became an object. The final straw was when the soldiers went round at the end of the crucifixion to make sure that the victims were dead and casually speared their side. If he was alive, he was not much longer. The body was usually cast into some common grave and forgotten. It was a particularly gruesome form of death. May be partly the sadomasochism in each of us makes us look to this leading figure on the cross. Or, how come we can ask what it was that the people who wrote it believed and thence apply it in our language and our age?
The enormity of evil and sin can only be recognised emotionally as well as intellectually. You cannot just be critical about evil: you have to take some moral stand on your own authority, even if it only sitting on the fence. So the expression of the power of evil is likely to be in the destruction of one's fellow men. Whether it be millions in gas chambers in Germany, or Siberia or in Rwanda, or just three on crosses outside Jerusalem, it makes little difference. All such acts are evil, can be recognised as such and can be presented as such. The more realistic the depiction, which is what films do, and incidentally make it less believable, the more we turn away.
There are difficulties these days in thinking about the cross and Gods sovereignty. But that scarcely matters: down the ages missions have regularly shown, people are not converted to faith so much by argument; they are caught by the imagination. This example is the former slave trader, John Newton:
I saw one hanging on a tree
In evil long I took delight
Unawed by shame or fear.
Till a new object struck to my site
and stopped my wild career
I saw one hanging on a tree.
In agonies and blood;
He fixed his languid eyes on me
As near his cross I stood
Sure never till my latest breath,
shall I forget that look!
It seemed to charge me with his death;
Though not a word he spoke.
A second look he gave which said
"I freely all forgive."
This blood is for thy ransom paid;
I die that you might live.
Thus while his death displays
In all its blackest hue
such is the mystery of grace,
it seals my pardon too.
Since the crucifixion and resurrection are central to Christian faith, it is inevitable that there must be some sense of sacrifice lurking. It is not a concept be used too easily these days, although we are quite familiar with the notion of a scapegoat which is often regarded as sacrifice. The point of sacrifice, however, is that you cannot sacrifice yourself: someone other has to finish and that therefore the notion that God offered some has gained ground. Whatever the crucifixion and resurrection are about, they must be about God's actions. The point of a sacrifice, however, is that it is done in place of you. You offer the animal beast (or these days that money or some aspect of your life), instead of another or in place of another. Similarly with the pain. The idea that he bore pain instead of me is not too fanciful to the sufferer.
Above all we have these days an idea which I think appeals to a community such as this: this is that we have in Jesus Christ an example of the consequence of integrity and sticking to task in a role which was given not chosen.
Peter Abelard was the Professor of Theology in Paris and is now famous for his love affair with Eloise. What he understood, however, is more profound than many appreciate: if Christ suffered because it was somehow required of his integrity, and then somewhere or other God must be behind it. For God alone is the final source of Truth, the ultimate endorsement of any commitment to integrity. He realises that pain is necessarily involved in that sort of transaction and that if it is not borne by Christ, it will be borne by us. Why should that be? Because the basis of our human existence is a mixture of joy and pain. Someone may be relieved if their partner or friend has died and thus enjoy it, while at the same time not feeling any relief from the pain. There is no learning without suffering
We are here into the roots of our faith. Today we perhaps feel for Abelards position. His argument becomes stronger when we realise that the Christian use is not that God acts instead of us" but on behalf of´ us. Christs death occurred once for all, but is also a process which begins and continues.
Lets return to the representation of that the crucifixion and its impact on us. There is the story of Baron von Hugel. He found himself looking at a picture of Christ hanging on the wall. The eyes bored into him hard and Jesus seemed to say to him, "All this I have done for you. What have you done for me?"
Another story nearer our own time is that recorded by Studdert Kennedy, a chaplain in the first world war:
On June 7 1917 I was running to our lines half mad with fright, though running in the right direction, thank God, through what had once been a wooded copse. It was being heavily shelled. As I ran I stumbled and fell over something. I stopped see what it was. It was an undersized, underfed German boy with a wound in his stomach and a hole in his head. I remember muttering " You poor little devil, what had you got to do with it? Not much great blonde Prussian about you". Then there came light. It may have been imagination, but that does not mean that it was not also reality, what is called imagination is often the road to reality. It seemed to me that the boy disappeared, and in his place there lay the Christ upon his cross and cried "inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my little ones, ye have done it unto me". From that moment on I have never seen the world as anything but a crucifix.
The immediate impact of the incident directs him not to his head but through his heart to his imagination -- that which makes us humans distinguishable within the animal world. Good Friday remains a time for imagination, when before the cross we too may see the world as a crucifix and respond accordingly.