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Artillery Row

Behold thy King

A Good Friday reflection

In my little church beside the Thames, we will be celebrating Good Friday as we have since even my oldest parishioner can recall — with three hours by the cross. We will be led by The Book of Common Prayer, a jewel in the Church of England’s crown. It is famed for its language, treasured by Scrutonians and reactionaries throughout the land, but its theology and focus on the passion is the real gift. Today no communion will be celebrated, there will be almost no ritual. We rely on traditional texts and hymns, and pray for the inspiration of the Spirit. In this church, which has never even flirted with the modern language liturgies, the traditional language and its reformed theology gets under the skin.

This is an all too human cry for an all too human need

It’s funny how things can begin to affect one’s character so quickly. On this Great Day, something lurks in the corner of my mind — I’ve already put up a bottle of fizz to chill for Sunday evening. After a dry Lent, and a busy Holy Week, today I can almost taste the end — as Our Lord himself said on the last Friday of Lent, “I thirst.” 40 days off booze, I find, has made me stricter, a little more critical and less sympathetic than perhaps I should be to the foibles of others. Jesus’ own critical mode, quite different to that of the Pharisees and Scribes who brought garbled, jealous nonsense against him to Pilate, was more inclined to the breaking of shibboleths and false pieties. A Lenten fast is no bad thing — it reminds us of the plight of the poor and teaches us what it feels like to be hungry and unable to satisfy that hunger. It must come to an end before that seductive sense of self-righteousness shoots up the spine and elevates us, in our hearts, above our peers.

There are theologians who believe that the “I thirst” was simply a narrative fulfillment of the words of the prophets, perhaps uttered in the tone of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, who being tortured and asked if he had any last words might reply, “I’ll have a dry Martini, if you don’t mind.” No. There is no irony or calculation here. This is an all too human cry for an all too human need.

Theologians, however, should not be too readily scorned. People suspicious of theologians are the same people who are often suspicious of “rhetoric”. For both, John’s Gospel is a nightmare. One device he uses again and again is “Behold”. This is used each time to show us something particular about our salvation. “Behold the Lamb of God.” “Behold the man.” “Woman, Behold thy son” and so on. Today we behold the cross. On that wood hung the saviour of the world and it was not a pretty sight. The Prophet Isaiah describes the Christ as; “so marred, beyond human semblance, his form beyond that of the sons of men. A man of sorrows; and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. Like a Slaughtered Lamb.” Not an image in which we may naturally find comfort or hope

We humans spend our lives looking about ourselves for salvation — most often in vain. In the 21st Century many of us have taken our quest for meaning online. We scroll through Twitter, Instagram. Facebook. We seek comfort in Netflix, connection on Zoom. We gaze on facile, inconstant, worthless images and texts, which endlessly vie for our attention, devotion and worship. This is the moment to stop looking around, to leave the superficial, shallow, self-gratifying world aside, with its distractions and empty promises, and to live in the soul and body alone. This is the only place where we will find salvation looking back at us. The only sight that can transform and save us. And it is on Him that we focus our gaze. 

Christ showed us how to live and how to die

But standing at a distance doesn’t distance us from this death. Pilate at his distance knew that blood was still on his hands, and in vain he washed from them that phantom stain. And we, at a distance know, too, that his blood is on our hands. He was, after all, “wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities.” As John Donne put it: “They kill’d once an inglorious man, but I crucify him daily, now being glorified.” Donne reminds us that the crowd simply bayed after the blood of a bloke from Nazareth who got a bit above his station. But he, and you, and I, know this man to be the glorified Son of God, risen from the dead and Ascended into heaven. Yet day by day, by our own transgressions, wilful or negligent, we forsake and betray his selfless act by our selfish ones.

However, guilt is not the final word. In his life and death, Christ showed us how to live and how to die. The crucifixion compels us, commands us, to forgive: just as Jesus interceded for those who crucified him. Here we are seeing the dawn of a New Kingdom. One which values meekness, not strength. Service, not lordship. Forgiveness, not punishment. In which a King is lifted up, yes, but on a cross. 

Christ, for all the world to be seen, hanging on a tree, uses this exhibition to beg mercy for us who have pierced him, for us who have stricken the one who loved us first. To appropriate Auguste Rodin: “The body is a cast that bears the imprint of our passions.”

Behold thy King.

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