There is something about Good Friday that I cannot get used to. It always comes into our lives so strangely new. It is more than the quietness of our small City or of the stillness of the fields that stretch out towards the Yorkshire Dales. It is as if creation itself participates in some kind of turning of the light – a light that touches the heart of each person and even of the cosmos itself. There was a brooding presence about the tradition of Tenebrae which many of you will remember. To be a part of that ominous moment, to capture some of that universal mystery requires our stillness, our openness and a surrender that is rare enough.
I remember a recent Good Friday afternoon watching our parishioners remove their shoes and file slowly towards our hand-held cross at the altar. One by one, young and old, they reverently pressed their lips, in a strange gesture of intimacy, against the cold comfort of this bronze symbol of pain. I was moved anew at the mystery happening before me. I was astonished, yet again, at the depth of a faith that could perennially draw people into such a rich and profound ritual. How could they embrace this symbol of death? How could they kiss the very source of the destruction of a God made human? And in doing so, how could they meet, greet and welcome all the destructive elements in their own lives?
On this dark day, how amazing it was, how full of terror and beauty, of graced insight, that we publicly and deliberately, mostly blindly but yet hopefully, knelt down in adoration before the gaping wounds of love that destroyed the One who saved us, and that are still kept open and bleeding by our infidelity and our sins?
As I watched the shuffling queue, something inside of me lurched. For one reason or another, in my heightened state of awareness, I could identify the trials and traumas of so many of our community, as they humbly waited their turn to kiss the cross. I noticed a man who had told me he’d lost his faith. (And then I remembered a bishop I met in the USA in 1999. He told me about the daily agonies he endured while going through the motions of ministering to his flock, knowing that, in his heart, he believed in nothing anymore.) I prayed for them both.
The queue continued. A man in a wheelchair; a woman with crutches. I partly envied them. Their crosses were visible; mine were invisible. The source of their pain was, in a sense, outside them; mine was within. So I prayed for all those who were disabled inside, like me. There they were, shuffling along in silent sorrow. I knew so many of their stories – a couple whose children had gone astray and the self-blame they heaped upon themselves, a husband who could not forgive his wife’s infidelity, neither could they regain any harmony together, and so, for them, the days and nights of living hell burning in an ordinary house in an ordinary street.
Inappropriately perhaps, I continued to drift from my presider’s role into my own inner world. I realised, a little deeper than I already had, that, one way or another, we are all spiritually and emotionally crippled. At some level and at certain times we are all, as the poet says, living lives of quiet desperation. I wept inwardly for the world of pain, but I wept, too, for myself. Is it possible, I wondered, as a priest, to be the most religious person in the parish and yet, to be the least spiritual? Nobody is more susceptible to be trapped into the trappings of religion than the priest himself.
It was at this point that I wanted to throw off the weight of the vestments I was wearing and reveal my raw and trembling spirit. These days, most priests will confess to feeling the icy grip of fear around their hearts. Many of us inwardly rage against the way we are currently perceived and treated by those we serve. “Ecce homo”, I wanted to shout. “I’m not a clerical machine, a clone of the institution; I am, like Jesus, a man, a human being, with needs and cravings and desires to express myself and to be free.” What else, I wondered, is today’s ritual of shadow and death about, if it does not touch the deepest part of my own sinful, fragile and beautiful soul?
It was then I noticed a young mother with her small child waiting in the queue. She knelt down and kissed the cross. She then lifted her baby so that her tiny mouth would meet the hard nail sticking out from the feet of the cold, dead Jesus. My heart contracted. Why? I’m not sure. I think I saw, in an instant, the future life of this small baby. In some unusual way I felt the inevitable pain that lay ahead in the destiny of this child. And then the pathos, the heart-wrenching pathos of that tiny kiss, when, all unknowing (or maybe not!), with a fierce wisdom that defies the sophisticated doctrines of a thousand religions, this fragile little creature instinctively embraced the dark shadows that would, somehow, one day, break her and make her, hurt her and heal her, and then, as Jesus promised, guide her way to heaven.
Was this her first ‘yes’, I wondered, to the inevitable paradox of being in love with God, to the necessity of pain for new life to happen, to the mystery of the womb and the tomb that she had participated in, a year or two earlier, at the moment of her birth and baptism? In some mysterious way that we will never understand, maybe some instinct in her wise wee heart already knew that ‘if you dare to love, you must be prepared to grieve’.
It was now time to prepare the altar for Holy Communion. Many thoughts around this afternoon’s ritual came into my head as we processed to the sacristy for the ciborium. Teilhard de Chardin said that if we could but gather together, in one instant, all the suffering of our lives, the explosion of love would transform the whole world. The mystics hold that our love-filled pain is the fuel for the journey towards enlightenment. The Buddhists advise us to use suffering to end suffering. The Jewish Zohar tells us that the gates of the Holy Palace open only to human tears.
As I climb the altar-steps it occurs to me that it isn’t really the cross that we kiss; it is the love that shaped it. It is not by the suffering of Jesus that we are redeemed. We are saved by his love, not his cross. What we are really kissing is the living, loving flesh of a passionate and beautiful man, not the bleeding wounds so callously inflicted on him by his thoughtless persecutors.
Incidentally, that is the precious revelation which Mel Gibson has missed in his The Passion of the Christ . The film is about the happenings of the first Good Friday, and is already having a huge influence around the world. The production is theologically flawed. The emphasis is in the wrong place. Shocking brutality can never save us. Only love redeems. And the focus of redemption today is the bloody body of Christ that we call our beautiful, broken world. Why do I suspect that in some mysterious way, the little child I noticed last Good Friday, carried the whole truth of Christ’s passion in her brief and fragile life. So great a wisdom in so small a kiss.
I turn the key in the tabernacle door. The bronze door is etched with the image of the crucifixion and opens, in the center, along the vertical line of the cross. And just as once in history, and far away, the stone was rolled from a certain tomb, to make way for the terrible beauty to emerge, so too, at this very moment, and in this very church, the opening tabernacle door splits the cross at its centre, to reveal within its shadow, the Bright Bread of Heaven.
There is a subtle religious seduction that tempts us to increase our knowledge of things liturgical rather than to search deeper for a richer meaning in the ‘ordinary’ way of doing things, the perennial traditions that have stood the test of time. This quest for novelty may well hide a reluctance to pursue a more daunting journey into the dark and bleak parts of our souls, into the shadows and light that colour our personality, into distinguising between our true and false selves. There is a nourishing resonance and fulfillment in going below the surface, in reflecting in depth on the ordinary, perennial rituals of a Catholic parish. Many of these liturgical moments drive deeply into the senses and into the soul.
Leaving Lent aside for the moment, but staying with our reflections on the dangers of getting too used to things, it often amazes me how uneventfully Christmases, Easters and Pentecosts come and go. No one goes crazy with excitement at what is revealed in these major celebrations. There are no outcries of wonder, reactions of disbelief, outbursts of astonishment at the beliefs that a God has become a baby, that the baby became a man who saved the whole world by loving us all enough to die a horrible death, and that somehow the heart of this most unusual man burst into a light that guides the universe forever.
A Christian is on his way to Mass on a Sunday morning. A Martian asks him what people do there. “Oh we eat and drink the body and blood of God” he casually replies. “Oh,” the amused and disbelieving Martian replies, “and what happens then?” “Well, we are all filled with the very power of God’s own self. We then set out to transform the world.” There are times when I pinch myself to check out the truth of these assertions. Here we are in the land of mystery. We are immersed in the world of darkness and light, of demons and angels, of evil and grace, of cross and freedom. Have we any idea of the mysterious forces that are moving in these places?
Or do we reduce the whole amazing mystery of a God incarnate in bread and wine, to the trivial pursuits of lifeless rubrics and petty preoccupations? Is the excessive repetition, the easy availability and a widespread misunderstanding of the real meaning of the Eucharist gradually eroding its uniqueness, its wonder and its mystery? In our over-attention, for instance, to how the priest says Mass, how well the people sing, how clear the reader is, how good and entertaining the homily, how the children perform, how many stay on for coffee, is there a danger of forgetting the awesome significance and power of the Eucharist? All kinds of worlds collide, and the deepest forces of light and darkness are drawn into war and play at Mass.
The wondrous essence of God, on the one hand, and the desperate yearning of humanity and of all creation, the other, perennially endeavour to make connection and hypostatic union, symbolically on the table of communion. Annie Dillard, top-selling USA writer, warns about our casual, routine approach to our week-end worship. She feels we need to fasten our set-belts and wear our crash-helmets in church on Sunday morning, because of the shocking, dangerous and life-long impact of the Mass on our personal lives and on the development of the universe. “The sleeping God,” she cautions, “may wake up and reveal the TNT that we are playing around with!”