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Shared agony of Jagger’s Calvary

28 March 2013

Peter Selby enters into the spirit of the dynamic sculptures from the Kelham Rood, now in a south-London church


Living monument: John

Living monument: John

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 work.

Beloved and ashamed - St John
Shame has covered my face(Psalm 44.15b)

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, and friends.

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 scene.

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 peace.

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 18.4)

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 dejection.

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.

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