If you were to ask just about anyone what is the central symbol of the Christian faith, the answer would inevitably be ‘the cross’. Yet, as a symbol, the cross is also a bit evasive, capable of meaning different things to different people. Worn as jewellery, the cross may be little more than a delicate, diamond encrusted and seriously expensive-looking way of drawing attention to a pretty décolletage. As a secular symbol for mourning, the little white wooden crosses punctuating our highways, or the white cross on the green roadsign warning us that we are approaching a ‘black spot’, speak eloquently enough of grief but don’t convey much sense of hope. On the TV news, rows of crosses sometimes inform us about numbers of military casualties. Mixing their metaphors somewhat, military chaplains sometimes even use an image of an inverted sword as a cross.
Within the church itself, the various styles of cross come down to three main types. There’s what we call the Christus Rex, a triumphant and often crowned figure with arms spread out wide in the shape of a cross that proclaims victory, Christ’s triumph over suffering and death. That’s a perspective of the cross from the triumphant side of Easter, a wonderful, joyous image of the risen and ascended Christ. We have a splendid one of those in this church but today and in fact all through Lent it’s been covered up because we’re not there yet, we’re not ready yet for alleluias and chocolate eggs and champagne. For many Christians the image of the cross that’s easiest to relate to is the empty cross, a bare cross with no human figure on it. The empty cross shows us what Jesus’ suffering makes possible – a world in which human violence is shown to be impotent, a world in which the cross is unemployed, a relic. The empty cross is an aspirational statement, it reminds us of what Jesus challenges us to be. But Good Friday informs us that we’re not there yet, either. Perhaps the Good Friday cross can only be the crucifix, the most confronting cross of all, an image of a crucified human figure that reminds us that human suffering has a face, and that love carries a real personal price tag.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggests, however, that not even the crucifix is an adequate image for us on Good Friday. As an object of piety, the crucifix reminds us of what is already clear – that the inevitable outcome for a prophet who insists on being consistent – demonstrating in words and actions that God’s compassion and forgiveness doesn’t recognise human boundaries, challenging the religious gatekeepers and secular authorities with a vested interest in social inequality – that the way of compassion consistently followed leads to its opposite, a sticky end. The crucifix reminds us that the way of love is inextricably connected with the way of suffering. The way of forgiveness is inextricably connected with the way of violence and conflict. And the crucifix reminds us of the paradox that lies at the heart not only of Jesus’ world but our own – that when the ugliness of human violence and competiveness, the compromised logic of human morality sold out to political advantage, meets with the utter powerlessness of one prepared to absorb human evil in love and without retaliation – that human violence is not only defeated but is offered the possibility of being transformed. This is the way, for example, of one of the 20th century’s most Christlike figures, Mahatma Ghandi, who with his followers defeated the uncompromising political and military power of the British Empire through peaceful resistance and a commitment to remaining in dialogue.
The crucifix is then an icon that proclaims its own opposite. And for this reason it directs our attention away from itself, away from pious reflection on the suffering of Jesus and towards solidarity with those who suffer in our own world. The crucifix proclaims that the agony of a Zimbabwean mother watching her child die from cholera, or of a Palestinian father shielding his children with his own body from the fallout of white phosphorous artillery shells in Gaza – that this suffering is the suffering of Christ. That the suffering of AIDS victims, of small children in remote Aboriginal communities carrying sexually transmitted diseases, of working men and women facing redundancy as a result of a global financial crisis they didn’t cause and don’t even understand – that this is the suffering of Christ. And the crucifix forces us to recognise, to confront and even to acknowledge our own complicity in the suffering of our world.
But the crucifix also speaks to us tenderly. Because the crucifix also shows us our own brokenness. The crucifix reminds us of the wound in our own past that we can’t heal – the ancient failure or betrayal that we can neither acknowledge nor forget. The family member that is lost to us, the diagnosis that is robbing us of freedom and joy. Simply to be alive, and to give ourselves in love to those around us, is to make ourselves vulnerable to misunderstanding, rejection and loss. The crucifix reminds us that the inevitable pain of our own lives, too, is held in the suffering of Christ. And that pain doesn’t have the last word.
Yet there’s also a danger. Our 21st century post-Freudian suspiciousness of everything that appals and fascinates us helps us identify the ambiguity of the crucifix. We’ve come to understand the way in which the crucifix’s image of innocent suffering and endurance can magnify and play on our guilty feelings. We’ve recognised how some ways of understanding Jesus’ suffering can become a tool for persuading powerless men and women to accept injustice or abuse without complaint. And deep down we all recognise the ways in which we ourselves sometimes use the crucifix as means of self-justification or self-pity – imagining for example of all the ways in which life has passed me by, or all the ways in which I feel unfairly used, as the ‘cross I have to bear’. Part of the reason the crucifix is such a powerful symbol, is because it is ambiguous!
And yet, Archbishop Williams suggests, it is also inadequate for this day, of all days in the Christian year, when actually we need to reflect not on the suffering of Christ, but on the final and irreversible fact of our Lord’s death. Good Friday, he suggests, is not primarily about the suffering of Jesus, which may or may not have been a worse suffering than the suffering of the world’s repeated nightmares in our own time, but about the paradox of redemption and renewal that is accomplished by Jesus’ death.
There is a big difference. If suffering is about complaint, and about the dissonance between what is, and what should be, if suffering is about empathy claimed or refused, then death is about absence, about a world collapsed and about silence. Our society denies the reality of death, we see very few images of death, and many, many people try desperately not to believe in it.
Good Friday, says Archbishop Williams, presents us with a contradiction that is absolute. Jesus, the Wisdom and Word of God, the ground and divine promise of renewal for creation, is destroyed by human power that is hostile to divine meaning and hope. God is exposed as vulnerable to human nightmares. And in that moment, if we actually take seriously what we ourselves proclaim - that Jesus is God’s embodiment in human form – then creation as a coherent and unified possibility simply ceases to exist. The ground of creation itself simply ceases to exist.
In the sixteenth century, St John of the Cross wrote that, faced with this collision between divine vulnerability and human madness, all we can do is keep silent. Yet the silence of Jesus, inert and dead on the cross, is fecund, pregnant with power. Creation at that moment balances at the event horizon of a black hole in which negation and new possibility appear as two sides of the same reality, it is a moment in which the world stands still and God is just God. This, perhaps, is what St Matthew is getting at when he writes that at the moment of Jesus’ death the veil that hides the holiest of holies in the Temple is torn from top to bottom. A moment in which the world spirals backwards into its own chaos and returns to the very moment of creation, when God speaks the word that creates from nothing. It is for this reason that Jesus dies at the same moment as the world passes into the darkness of the Sabbath, the darkness of God, the sixth day of creation on which God is silent. According to St John of the Cross, our silence in the moment of uncreation that is the death of Jesus makes room for the word of God that recreates our broken world.
What does it mean? We know how this story ends. Before us is the journey through darkness, from the ambiguity of the cross to the ambiguity of the empty tomb. What is at stake for us? What might this midnight crossing mean for you, this year? What wild and improbable hope in your life demands nothing less than the single word that even now is welling up inside you and clamouring to get out?
But for now – silence.