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Horror, admiration and outrage

17 April 2014

A visceral response to the crucifixion is understandable, but this needs to be transcended to find its true value in ministry, says Stephen Cherry


"A spectacle to horrify others": crucifixion, depicted in Christ is nailedto the Cross, one of the Stations of the Cross painted by Rob Floyd for Manchester Cathedral

"A spectacle to horrify others": crucifixion, depicted in Christ is nailedto the Cross, one of the Stations of the Cross painted by Rob Floyd for Ma...

THE first word that springs to mind when I start to think about the cross is "horror". The sight of a life-size cross makes me think of the pain and the desolation of the one pinned to it. Medical accounts of what happens to a person strung out as a spectacle to horrify others horrify me.

I am not sure whether this is good for my spirituality or ministry. It puts many minor things in perspective, but gives me the chill feeling that the possibilities for suffering that lie ahead in my own life are limitless. It reminds methat I just do not know what is to come.

It is rare to think that. Mostly, I live with the assumption that my life will come to an end through natural causes, with pain reasonably under control. But the cross makes me realise how naïve this is: which again kindles my horror.

This horror draws out my admiration. Whatever Jesus's attitude towards his own death - and we can let the scholars squabble - he must have known what to expect, after a certain point. He would have seen other men being crucified. It was not unusual under the Romans. And, because it was intended to intimidate, we can be sure that every effort would have been made to make a spectacle of it. It was the most public of public executions. You have to admire someone who does not run away from that.

Having experienced horror and admiration, my next reaction is "outrage". The killing of the wandering rabbi from the country, who had earned a reputation as a healer, is simply outrageous. And yet I wonder about my own outrage. It is a strong feeling, and yet it is not an emotion that is going anywhere. So the cross makes me cross; there is no merit in that. Indeed, the worst of ironies might be for the cross itself to blind me to the love that it is meant to represent.

I FIND it hard to get my attention away from the horror and outrage of the cross. I want to make more connections with life and ministry, but they are too easily eclipsed.The cross is just so vivid, so compelling.

The spectacle is so severe that identifying with it seems ridiculous. My life is lived in other places. My ministry is hardly touched by the horror and admiration I find here.

Then I think of a holding cross. I have given many of these away. One lady in hospital, who was all but blind, called it her "little miracle", such was its power on her recovery. My dying father told me - with genuine surprise and sincere gratitude - that it gave him comfort.

One Sunday, a teenage girl came to our parish eucharist with her mother, and barked like a wild dog throughout. It was very alarming. I gave her a little time, and some prayer. Then I gave her a holding cross. The next day, I visited their flat. The cross had not left her hand. It was completely black. But she was much calmer.

I asked whether they had any occult or disturbing pictures or books. They had already cleared the pictures, but showed me some books, and asked me to take them away. One was The Encyclopaedia of Serial Killers. A few years later, I saw the girl again. Unrecognisable, she was fine.

NOW other words come to mind as I hold the cross in mind: "brokenness", in particular. "We break this bread."

Indeed we do, and know that the body was broken not only on the cross, but by the cross. Priests know the breaking of the body in ministry, because it is their hands that break it. We snap it dramatically but all too routinely. It is impossible to feel the pain and resonance of it time after time. It is just a wafer disc. It is just a bun. It is a just loaf in our hands.

Except that it is also the focal point of hopes and fears. It is the place where personal brokenness connects with the brokenness of all who gather, all who give it their attention in this sacred nanosecond of crack. And not only the brokenness, but the desiccated, crumbling brokenness of all we know about in others; and all we have heard of third- and fourth-hand; and all that we can imagine.

The brokenness of the universe is there in that one deft push of my two thumbs. Crack! The bread is broken for the life of the world. Not a nuclear explosion, but a spiritual one. It is a wonder that the windows don't fly out, or the walls tumble to nothing with the blast of it.

But it is much gentler than this. The cross brings nothing to shatter us any more. Rather, it gives us more healing and teaching than the young rabbi could ever share. And exorcism, too. The cross drives the demons away. It stills and calms us. That sounds forceful - but no force is here, only gentleness. Like the gentleness of forgiveness offered.

THEN there is friendship. "Today you will be with me in paradise." "Feed my sheep." A garden rather than a scruffy hill-top; that is the promise of the cross. Company, not isolation. The vertical pole grounds us solidly, and also points us to the heaven, which is open. The horizontal bar mimics the outstretched arm, the extended hand.

I take that hand, pierced, blood-stained, and torn as it is. I hold it firmly in one hand, reaching out with my other to share the love felt here with any who pass by.

In the end, then, the love that led to the cross becomes apparent through the cross, even if it is not the first aspect that arrests our attention. The horror and outrage of the cross have to be transcended if the true wonder of the cross is to be recognised and known in healing, if it is to become an engine of compassion and love.

The love seen on the cross, and felt as the cross is held, is amazing and divine not because of the depth of physical suffering, but because its power lives in those who let it touch their own vulnerability.

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