Good Friday

Listen here to the address by Canon Angela Tilby for Good Friday.

The transcript is here below:


Hymn: When I survey the wondrous cross

READING: Luke 23. 26-38


When I was at school I used to find the story of the crucifixion almost unbearable.

‘See from his head, his hands, his feet,

Sorrow and love flow mingled down’

Such language embarrassed me. It made me feel awkward and exposed. I recognise this now as the response of shame. It hurts to be in the presence of the cross. Not any cross; the empty cross was OK, quite pretty really against the sunset. No, the cross which alarmed me was the crucifix, the cross which bears the Prince of glory, the suffering Christ.

If Isaac Watts, the author of the hymn ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ had been a Catholic he might not have needed to describe the cross of the suffering Christ in words. That cross would have been all too visible as it is in many Catholic contexts today; the cruel nails and crown of thorns are in the home, at school, in the pendant crucifix given at confirmation, and perhaps and most significantly in Church, on the rood screen or above the altar. Blood and thorns and wounds: the traditional Catholic imagination is full of the violence and pathos of the cross.

For years it was a shock for me to go into a convent or a school and see the crucifix on the wall; it was shocking that is, to my Protestant self. But I knew there was another story, for my mother had been a convert to Catholicism and I knew there were things like rosaries and stations of the cross and other fascinating perhaps even horrifying aspects of Catholic devotion. It surprised and intrigued me how easily Catholics seem to live with this daily depiction of torture. What disturbed me was found by them to be familiar and reassuring. But of course, what was really disturbing for my Protestant self was the upsetting of the clean and empty cross; the bringing of all that suffering and pain into the present, into now, with its inescapable challenge and demand.

The crucifix makes us look on Christ’s suffering. We see him dying before our eyes. We see him offering up his life to the Father. And though this is a past event it is also something which is still going on. Where the Protestant imagination sees Christ alone on the cross – think of the much-loved hymn, ‘In Christ alone my hope is found…’ – the Catholic imagination sees Christ surrounded by his friends and enemies. It is extraordinary how Luke’s account of the crucifixion draws in all these onlookers and strangers as Christ goes on his way. There is Simon of Cyrene, who is forced to carry the cross behind Jesus; there are the crowds of wailing women who come out to meet him on the way like a Greek chorus in a tragedy; and finally the two thieves crucified on either side of him. It is as though Luke is saying: as you look on Christ’s suffering you are also seeing the suffering of the whole world. It is also a mirror into the suffering that life has imposed on you. My own gradual movement towards the crucifix came as I grew older and began to realise some intractable things about myself, some of the depth of childhood wounds – nothing exceptional – just the normal stresses and humiliations which mark us all.

It was then that I began to respond to the crucifix as something profoundly comforting. When you are in mental or physical pain it simply helps to know that Christ went through it too. It helps to visualise him bearing his cross, as you struggle to carry your own; or when you can’t carry your own and must rely on someone else – a Simon of Cyrene – to do it for you. When we see Christ nailed to the cross we realise that our own pain is recognised. Not healed or taken away but recognised, acknowledged. That in itself can bring a real measure of relief. There are no answers, but the crucifix shows me I am not alone.

The transition from the empty cross to the crucifix marked the transition from what my younger self had always tried to avoid, to what my older self found I had to accept. And not only for myself. When we look at Christ on the cross we also recognise his suffering in the suffering of the poor, the tormented, the grieving. And of course there is a challenge in that, a real demand. Am I prepared to walk in the way of the cross? To give my life as Christ has given his? His life for me, mine for him? In this way of looking at the cross his death is not only a substitute for mine, it also challenges me to take up the cross in his company.

This is the Christian call to costly witness, the pouring out of our lives in love and service. This is what has motivated the long line of saints and martyrs from the earliest days of the Church to our own time. It has enabled Christians to work in the most desperate and appalling situations, to see the crucified Lord in the least of his brethren.

There is something so moving and so powerful in this way of looking at the cross that I almost hesitate to voice a reservation. But I do have a reservation nonetheless. The call to follow Christ is always a call to life. Life through death, of course, but still a call to life, not a call to death. The believer who longs for martyrdom is a dangerous person to have around. They can destroy themselves by the lust for a sacrificial death, and take others with them, whether they mean to or not. The cross can also be used to repress the question of justice, to keep people in their place, humble and compliant. Think of those children in Catholic schools and institutions abused and betrayed under the watchful eye of the crucified Christ. Or think of those weird holy Anglo-Catholic slum priests who lived lives of astonishing austerity and sometimes secrecy; caring for others round the clock, while suffering inwardly from desperate depression or addictions of one kind or another. There is a martyr complex which encourages people to feed others while starving themselves. This is like the anorexic, who loves to prepare food and watch others eating while standing back, secretly consumed by their own hunger. If our only valid and valuable life is a crucified life, if the authenticity of our service and commitment to Christ is measured by how much it hurts, then there is going to be grief and distortion, not life, not joy. The Church is right to identify Christ with the poor and the needy but it is wrong if it does not also work for the poor to be unpoor, for the needy to have what they need in abundance. Otherwise it is just sentimentality.

So we need to be careful that the constant presence of the crucified Christ does not turn into a fascination with suffering, a kind of spiritual snobbery which patronises those who find life, real life, in ordinary things; in a job well done, a happy enough family, a good enough marriage, a working faith. Those are real Christian vocations and ways of fulfilling God’s will; and if we follow them faithfully the cross will find us on its own terms and in its own way. We do not have to borrow a cross of particular austerity because the one life has actually dealt us is not good enough!

These are heretical thoughts, I know, and perhaps not worthy of Good Friday, but I want here to stick to the sane wisdom that I have also inherited from our Anglican heritage. The cross is part of the whole, the key to life, but not the whole of life. Without it, there is no life at all; but the point is salvation, not hell, not torment. There is an end to pain.

Meanwhile we can contemplate the crucifix with thankfulness. We do not have to be perfect. We do not have to be well. We do not have to be strong. Christ on the cross accepts what we are and who we are, as he accepts Simon of Cyrene, as he accepts the dying thief. All our lives are here, our sins and failures as well as our gifts and talents. ‘The chances we have missed, the graces we resist, Lord, take and redeem’.

So in the silence, reflect on the crucifix, be still in the presence of Christ on the cross. Let is be in silent conversation with the Lord in our hearts. What does he ask of us? What does he give to us? What in us calls out his forgiveness?

Portsmouth Cathedral