Easter: Stations of the Cross Reflections

The Revd Brutus Green
Condemned to be Crucified
Jesus Accepts his Cross

The Stations of the Cross are usually, as is the case this evening, accompanied by the singing of the Stabat Mater; a hymn that follows the Way of the Cross from the position of Mary. We witness Jesus’ suffering from his mother’s perspective, a mother losing her first child. It’s an invitation, not an emotional manipulation, but an invitation to come as near as possible; to experience Christ’s love for the world from the position of the person who loved him and knew him best; to allow ourselves to approach the suffering love of Jesus.

John Donne wrote that ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less’. Perhaps it’s only part of our Euroscepticism, but the madding crowd of urban life has diminished our connectedness with one another, and we have largely displaced death out of sight to North London hospices. The whole purpose of this service is to draw us back to solidarity with those who suffer, to connect us with one another, and remind us of our common mortality; to help us consider our humanity and draw us towards the divine love revealed in Christ through this story.

In the same sermon Donne writes that ‘any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind’. How much more then does Christ’s death diminish us when we reflect upon it? And do we feel involved in mankind? Do we feel diminished by the deaths of our neighbours? It’s not easy to look upon suffering. Typically we avert our eyes or walk on more quickly. Tonight gives us the chance, within the safety of a gentle liturgy and beautiful music, to reflect upon those things that trouble us most; to look on death and to believe in life.  And so as we reflect on this story of death, this memento mori, we might imagine the bells also ringing out in Kensal Green and Highbury with Donne’s injunction: ‘never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ ‘NUNC LENTO SONITU DICUNT, MORIERIS. Now this bell tolling softly for another,/ says to me, Thou must die.’

Falls under the Heavy Cross
Helped by Simon of Cyrene
Speaks to the Weeping Women

Suffering is never an individual matter. We often see and think of a single cross, of Jesus alone as a sacrifice before God. That forgets the two thieves crucified alongside him; the innumerable other Jews crucified as rebels against the Roman occupation; the millions who have died for political expedience. Not to mention the women who followed steadfast to the end, the Marys and the women of Jerusalem. And we have one station with Simon of Cyrene forced to share the burden of the cross. All of these people participate in Jesus’ suffering. He was not a man alone, but a person connected by bonds of love and friendship, a man who was grieved over.

How we react to suffering says a lot about our own character and strength of conviction. Artists have long enjoyed painting the three crosses on the hill. The thief who scoffs is usually portrayed as agonizingly contorted, pulling away from Christ, his face in shadow. The good thief leans towards Christ, sometimes with a trace of the peace ordained by Christ’s words: ‘today you will be with me in paradise’. It’s perhaps unfair to be too hard on the scoffing thief. Under the duress of crucifixion, who can blame him? The good thief, though, is remarkable in that his suffering does not drive him within himself. Rather, his attention remains outward, thinking of Jesus before himself. In the same way, the women cry for Jesus, and their concern is reflected back by Jesus’ concern for them. Simon, a foreigner, steps in to help Jesus who has fallen under the heavy cross. Our suffering often provides us with these alternatives: to fall in upon ourselves, and, even if it is not quite self-indulgence, to lament our own losses; or suffering may be a springboard for the alleviation of others’ pain. To find in our own experience of weakness an inspiration to protect and minister to our neighbour. Christ is the pattern here, the man of sorrows by whose stripes we are healed. T. S. Eliot called Christ the ‘wounded surgeon’, writing: his ‘dripping blood our only drink,/ The bloody flesh our only food: /In spite of which we like to think/ That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—/ Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

Stripped of his Garments
Nailed to the Cross for Us

It should never stop striking us as odd that the centre of the Gospel is the death of the man said to be king. It is unlike any other religion. There is no miracle, no magic. It is the most human of experiences, encountering meanness, pain and death. The surprising thing about Christianity though is to say that it’s actually here, in this seeming total lack of God and the supernatural, the strange cruelty of humans, the experience of forsakenness, here that God is actually most present, that God is most revealed. Even 2000 years later we are still tempted to look for Christ where there is power and authority; to think that God is with us when we are strong and blessed and to worry that God has deserted us, or to question whether there is any God at all, when things get difficult.

For us, quite often, religion is an added extra. It is a pleasant thing we might do when we are feeling good about things, something to enjoy for an hour or two on Sunday. Our faith though is something rooted in the most basic experiences. It looks for God in godlessness; it takes a situation which seems unjust, irrational, inhuman and says ‘here is true divinity’. Not in miracles, magic or power, but in love, sacrifice and generosity. Things which we all have access to; and which at any moment we are able to be transformed by.

George Herbert famously wrote ‘seven whole days, not one in seven, I shall praise thee’, echoing St Paul that we should pray without ceasing. In the letter of James we read that true religion is this: ‘to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.’ It is a comfort to find God in beauty and friendship. The crucifixion though is a reminder of where the heart of God really lies.  The Jews expected a Messiah to come in power and were surprised by a God of love. When we are looking for God, we should be careful that we do not do the same.

Taken down from the cross
Laid within the sepulchre

The Stations of the Cross leave us at the threshold of Holy Saturday. The Jewish day, following Genesis, begins in the evening: ‘And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.’ So as Good Friday ends at the tomb in the light of the dusk we are at the beginning of a long day. Dominating the mind is an experience characterized by betrayal, injustice, suffering and death. But the close of Saturday promises our new beginning - a new creation, a liberation and a putting to right of the world. Here is the world we inherit and in which we mostly live. Between the memory of suffering, of a generation, a nation, a person whom we loved and lost, with the fearful knowledge that we are the inheritors of this broken Good Friday World; and the promise, we dare to hope in, that the fragile meaning and uncertain hope will emerge with the dawning of a new day. Saturday is of course the final day of creation, the Sabbath on which God rests. Holy Saturday the day when Christ rests in the tomb.  At any time the agony of the cross, the grief of the pieta, may threaten to choke us with the fear of Good Friday’s return. What makes Christians different, what marks us out from secularism, which can only ever look backwards to the angel of death working its way through history, is the belief that love is somehow eternal. What is sewn in love on Good Friday, for Christ, for us, is reaped in joy on Easter Sunday. That is to say that the agony of the darkness of noon is pregnant with glimpses of light from the coming morning. And for our pilgrimage on Holy Saturday, this means that all our grief and suffering, the falls we have endured and the end we grow ever more conscious of, may be given meaning, may be borne in the hope of resurrection.