Friday, April 14, 2006

At the foot of the Cross

Station of the Cross
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
In a thoughtful piece in yesterday's Guardian, Giles Fraser talks about " the slow break-up of the last great nationalised industry: the Church of England." Much of what he has to say contrasts the genteel figure of fun that is the trad English vicar with the power and the energy of the Good Friday story. It is this complacent gentility that has always put me off a certain kind of church - and yet such a church, an "establishment" institution, might well have been filled for the traditional "last hour" service on this day.

In the church in which I worship, there were five people present for Christ's last hour on the Cross. It was not always so - I can remember a time not so long ago when visitors would come, and a decent handful of regulars. Today, it seems, the demand of visiting relatives, or shopping, or washing the car or whatever takes precedence. For a moment I felt ... despairing? resentful?

But look at the picture I have posted here. It comes from the stations of the Cross in the cloisters of the College at Cumbrae, and seen close up is is a crude representation. But how many people are at the foot of the cross? Five. John's Gospel seems to suggest that there were five there - though the punctuation makes it slightly ambiguous. Everyone else had gone, either from fear of association or - the majority - from indifference. Crucifixion, under Roman rule, was no big deal. It happened frequently. People would be with friends, seeing relatives, tending their donkey .....

We Christians are so close to the story of Jesus' suffering that we find it hard to realise that most people, in Roman times and now, were indifferent to his fate. However, I find it still more difficult to understand how people who would claim to be Christians do not want to stand at the foot of the Cross. Presumably they will be there to sing hosannas on Easter morning - the joy without the darkness.

But I would not have missed being present in Gethsemane garden, and at Golgotha.


  1. Boy, I like to think I would have been at the foot of the cross too, but I think the Good Friday story is an indictment of us all and how we fall short of God's glory. Christ knew we would let him down, but he never faltered in doing what his Father asked and expected. I am living in a U.S. culture where virtual violence on TV, in movies, and in video games is very common-- and definitely in some areas and homes physical violence is common too-- but we don't see state-imposed violence in public-- first hand, like I sense the Roman world of Christ did. So it can be really hard to imagine the brutality and extreme violence of crucifixion. Mel Gibson's "The Passion" movie made as good an effort as I have seen of portraying this. I am wondering if part of the traditions my wife and I follow during Easter week shouldn't be watching that movie, and praying about the extreme sacrifice as well as dramatic import of the cross. I don't think the Presbyterian denomination, which I've been a part of my entire life, spends much time (traditionally) focusing on these issues. Our church has had a very powerful Good Friday service (Tenebrae Service of Darkness) for the past several years, and I think it provides a much needed opportunity to focus on this important part of the Easter story that many seem to gloss over.

  2. Presumably they will be there to sing hosannas on Easter morning - the joy without the darkness.

    And this is, I think, the key. For years I was this kind of Christian. I didn't think too much about the services - the readings, the hymns - I enjoyed them at the time but that was all. I took little notice of the church's year, maybe just to note that in lent the hymns were long and dreary and there seemed to be a lot of Sundays associated with Trinity. I certainly never attended weekday services and or anything associated with Holy Week before Easter. The breakthrough came when I joined the Sanctuary Guild - it seemed like something which required the least amount of effort on my part, just tidying up and picking wax off candles once a month or so - but we used Good Friday morning to do the big 'spring clean'. Of course afterwards I felt duty bound to stay for the services, a three hour marathon in those days, and I was hooked. I came back for the 'quiet day' on the Saturday and it was there I read Richard Holloway for the first time and realised it was actually all right to think about things and question. I saw how much I'd been missing and I've been making up for it ever since. Still thinking and questioning but at least active :)

  3. Thank you both for thoughtful responses. I always feel really empty on good Friday afternoon, after the service - and at Holy Trinity we've not been in the habit of doing anything later in the day. I can't bear to go into the town where everything is "normal" - so maybe yesterday's solution of wrestling with a berberis and being scarred by its thorns was an appropriately penitential activity!
    Wesley - you're right about the MG movie. I bought it, and watched it one evening when I was alone. I could hardly bear to look at the screen for big chunks of it. These images are now immovably imprinted on my mind. But for me, the most powerful account of Jesus' life is Pasolini's B/W movie "The gospel according to St Matthew" - in Italian, simply the words of the gospel with no additions, subtitled. You can still get it on Amazon.

  4. What a powerful post, Chris. I hadn't realised that you are a Christian. I want to say 'I used to be', but maybe I still am, somewhere deep down. I can't say I have felt anything this Easter - but then I didn't latterly when I was a practising Christian - one of the reasons I felt 'out of it'. Anyway, good to read your post and you will really deserve to enjoy the joy on Easter morning!

  5. Annie, Easter morning was indeed wonderful - and included some tears as well as the joy. Cathartic! We've just been singing our hearts out at a combined Songs of Praise, so the day has been well rounded off.