ON ANY Sunday morning when I am not officiating, I worship a few
feet from Charles Jagger's life-size Kelham Rood, completed in
1929. It has been hosted by St John the Divine, Kennington, since
it was moved from the Priory of the Society of the Sacred Mission
(SSM) at Willen, Milton Keynes, having originally stood over the
chancel arch of its chapel in Kelham Hall.
The Society, which commissioned the work, generously decided to
place the sculpture at St John's, the Church from which SSM was
founded, on permanent loan. These reflections are some that have
been elicited by worshipping there, close to this very powerful
Beloved and ashamed - St John
Shame has covered my face(Psalm
TO PUT your own body in the posture of St John, as Jagger has
sculpted him, leaning forward with his hands covering his face (as
I have asked groups to do when leading reflections on the Passion),
is to be taken in heart and mind into what may reflect the
experience not just of the beloved disciple, but of Jagger himself.
A veteran of the First World War, who had seen service in the
Dardanelles, he presents in this and other more immediately
military sculptures his experience of that terrible war.
Entering physically into this sculpture brings home something
else, too: the First World War turned out to be the most radical
interruption of the hopes that had informed and inspired Europe in
the early years of the 20th century. The terrible slaughter of that
war was one thing: we have the legacy of the war poets' reflections
on millions of wasted lives, and the terrible cruelty and suffering
that the war imposed, and we know the swath it cut through a
generation of those who were deprived of sons, husbands, fiancés,
But, as well as that, we know the impact of that great
interruption of the economic and cultural lives of nations, and its
setting in train the events that were to engulf the world in
another terrible war within decades.
To maintain the posture of St John as he is presented here
produces an aching discomfort; and for some, at least, there is a
sense that what is depicted here is not just a grief beyond words,
but the shame that we have every reason to feel about what
humankind has done to the world, represented in the crucifixion
The grief may be too much for words; the shame of it makes it
all too much even to look on; it has covered our face, and made
reality impossible to look on, held us in an aching tension for
which we can see no resolution. Shame is in the awareness of what
might have been, but is not; and it is the ache in John's body. Try
it and feel; try it and see.
Beloved and longing - the Lord's Mother
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs
for you, O God(Psalm 42.1)
THE ache that comes from holding Mary's posture is different.
Her arms and hands are stretched up- wards in longing for contact
beyond her reach with the one she loves, and is about to lose. To
try to hold that position is to experience all the ache of a world
seeking wholeness, and to know in some measure what it costs those
who persist against all odds in the quest for justice and
We can see here the women of the First World War generation in
the loss of those whom they loved, and in their being deprived of
the loves that they would have celebrated had there not been this
awful interruption of their hopes. With them are the whole company
of mothers and sisters of earlier and later generations,
represented in Mary's reaching out in longing for the one who was,
and remains, her child.
Pictures fill our television screens of women in places of
conflict, expressing that longing sometimes with outstretched arms,
and sometimes with uplifted voices, mourning the children they
could not feed, fleeing homes they could no longer inhabit in
safety - these are pictures of the maternal longing that Jagger's
Mary calls to mind. It is the picture of a humanity that aches with
longing for the world to give birth to a better future.
The roots of the longing we perceive in the tensed posture of
Mary lie in two prophetic statements - one by her cousin Elizabeth:
"Blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfilment of the
promise spoken to her by the Lord" (Luke 1.43); and one by Simeon:
"A sword will pierce your own soul, too" (Luke 2.35).
The ache that you can see, and feel, if you seek to stand as
Mary is standing, is the ache that comes from faith in the future
in the face of suffering in the present. Try it; and feel it.
A new family is made - Christ on the cross
The cords of death held me fast(Psalm
TO STATE the obvious: there is no possibility of our positioning
ourselves as the body of Christ is positioned in the sculpture. He
is, after all, where he has been put, not where he has put himself.
Not only is he where he has been put: he is held there. Jagger has
the Crucified tied to the cross with ropes; the nails would not
support the weight of a person's body, but are there to pin his
hands and feet to the cross.
So this is not the Christ of action, who heals and teaches and
confronts: this is the Christ of the Passion, the one who is "done
to", as when we say "passive". Yet, for all that helplessness, this
Christ is still presented as in charge: he is crowned with thorns,
and adorned with a halo. He is upright, and no picture of
This is appropriate for a Rood, a picture drawn from St John's
Passion story, where the crucifixion is the exaltation. "I, when I
am lifted up, will draw all people to myself" (John 12.32). This
begins here, in the moment that the Rood depicts: "Mother, this is
your son; son this is your mother" (John 19.26,27). The group
around the cross, according to John, includes two other women:
Mary's sister, and Mary Magdalene; but what is depicted here is the
creation of a new family: "From that point on, the disciple took
her into his home."
This is the moment when the new family of God is made - not a
community of blood descent, but brought into being by "adoption and
grace". This is the moment when Christ enacts from the cross a
central New Testament theme: new community created not of a
blood-line or merit, but by an act of gracious inclusion.
The shame expressed in the figure of John, and the longing
displayed by the aching arms of Mary represent the human
predicament - Jagger's and ours. God's response in the moment
portrayed by the Rood - "Mother, your son; son, your mother" - is
to cover the shame and fulfil the longing in a new, adoptive
family, into which we are all invited.
The world at the foot of the cross
EACH Good Friday, the members of the congregation of St John's,
from many nations and circumstances, experience the Rood with their
body and not just with their eyes. You see those who kneel and
kiss, as well as those too infirm to kneel; little children
silently wait their turn; a mother holds her baby against the wood
of the cross.
As we come, we bring, perhaps, some shame - certainly many
longings. Above all, we come with the hope of taking into ourselves
the grace of living out daily the vision of the new community which
this sculpted scene portrays.
We do this by sculpting it with our own bodies; by the way we
allocate our time; by the people we seek to cherish; by the way we
spend our money; by the justice we promote; by the peace we make.
Our prayer is that, as a community of response, we might share that
grace and vision with a world that, for all it has to be ashamed
of, longs to see and to experience what renewal might mean.