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The pity and the glory

18 April 2019

Mark Oakley reflects on contrasting understandings of the cross

David Lyons/Alamy

Detail from the south side of the Ruthwell Cross (8th c.): Mary Magdalene washes Christ’s feet

Detail from the south side of the Ruthwell Cross (8th c.): Mary Magdalene washes Christ’s feet

AS CHRISTIANS reflected on the cross in the New Testament period and over the later centuries, two apparently contrasting themes emerged. The first was the glory of the cross and its redeeming work: the cross as the workbench of salvation and the hope of humanity.

The second was the pity of the cross: the excruciating suffering; the death penalty given to an innocent man; the heartbreak of his family and friends.

In the course of the Good Friday services, both these perspectives come in and out of view, and — as is often the way in liturgy — we are not asked to decide between them, but, rather, to sit with them both and allow truth to do its work.


NO THEORY of atonement was ever declared by the Church to be definitive. In the creeds, we simply affirm that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried”. Because of this openness to interpretation, and the need to see in the dark, the poets of the world were drawn, early on, to use their imagination and help excavate some understanding.

The two themes of glory and pity were explored. One of the earliest Christian poems in English, from the early eighth century, can still be seen today, carved in runic form on a cross in Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire. It has been given the title The Dream of the Rood. “Rood” was once the only Old English word for the instrument of Christ’s death. The words “cross” and “crucifix” came later, and the early English poetic and enigmatic mind was captured by this Rood of Christ.

In the 156 lines of the Dream poem (whose author remains unknown), the narrator describes a strange dream of a wonderful tree covered with gems. He is aware of how wretched he is in comparison, until he sees that, amid all the beautiful stones, this tree is stained with blood. The tree then speaks, telling us that it was cut down to bear a criminal, but that it was climbed by a young warrior who is Lord of mankind. The rood is not only vocal, but sentient.

Gradually, a mysterious identity emerges between the wood and the warrior, the rood and ruler. The revelatory climax is quickly reached: “All creation wept, King’s fall lamented. Christ was on rood.” The tree speaks not only for the cosmos, but as part of it, and then charges the narrator to share all that he has seen with others. The vision ends; and the man, left alone with his thoughts, finds himself filled with hope.


THE image of Christ in this poem is that of an Anglo-Saxon hero-warrior. The poet even uses for Christ a native phrase that is once applied to Beowulf. Christ is the young warrior actively stripping himself for the fight, hastening with resolute courage to climb the tree, who then rests — “limb-weary” after the exhaustion of single combat — watched over by his faithful followers.

In contrast, the cross remembers how it was pierced with dark nails, drenched with blood, endured many grievous wrongs from wicked men, was wounded with weapon-points, stood weeping, and was finally levelled to the ground. All the sympathy and pathos of the reader are directed towards the cross itself.

Suffering in this poem is caught up with victory, but over what or whom is not spelled out exactly. The impression given is that the victory interprets the suffering, but we cannot quite see how. All we do know from the poem is that the Passion is understood not as tragedy, but as a fulfilment of a divine purpose. Here is a Lord who does courageously what has to be done.

In some early Christian art, this is depicted by Christ climbing up a ladder on to the cross, freely taking on himself the cost of a saviour; shown like a fireman going up the steps to the window through which he will end his life. Here, Jesus is no helpless victim, he is a warrior-hero who — to use contemporary comparisons — is enlisted by God for a cosmic regime-change; a man giving his life as an enlisted peacekeeper. We are reminded of the combat that goes into shaping our soul for good or evil. Goodness does not just happen: it is fought for.


A FEW centuries later, thoughts refocused. From the 12th century onwards, such heroic images are less apparent. Instead of Christ the glorious warrior, we now find an intense meditation that starts with the suffering humanity of Jesus. Medieval piety was characterised by a revolution of feeling: a new interest in a more vulnerable figure of Jesus, and his human life and pain.

Spiritual writers such as Richard Rolle and Julian of Norwich focus on the bleeding wounds of Jesus as objects for devotion; but they are not now wounds incidental to a battle, but, rather, an expression of divine love and pity, which, in turn, awaken pity and love in the observer. The regal crown of Christ Victorious is replaced by a crown of thorns. The love of the saviour is fragile in its beauty.

People acquainted with wars and the plague see now a suffering and death that they understand only too well. Christ incarnates their own pain, and reveals the nature of God as one who comes alongside. Christ the King is now the Man of Sorrows — their sadnesses, as well as his own. We start to find carved figures of the wounded Christ detached from the cross, to enable the believer to focus on his pierced heart and his five wounds, described in one poem as the “wound words” that lie on the book of Christ’s body that opens up to us the view into God’s nature.


IN ART — not least in the rood screens that were being built — Christ’s eyes now close in death. His skin turns white; the blood becomes visible; and, for the first time, the Virgin Mary and St John appear at the foot of the cross. The proximity of family and friends to this suffering makes it even more identifiable with. Tears are now a grace, not a disgrace.

In this period, poetry, music, and devotion begin to address the pain of Christ’s mother, and to demonstrate direct compassion towards her. Emotionally, the poets are now so involved with the scene of the crucifixion that they are impelled even to address Mary herself and to compare her pain — her pierced soul — to that of her son. The hymn Stabat Mater dolorosa is a good example.

This empathy begins to make the crucifixion seem a contemporary event — a continuously present drama in which we are involved — and the prime emotion is now pity. The 15th-century mystic Margery Kempe tells our Lady to cease sorrowing, for her son is now out of pain, and writes that she takes her home and makes “a good caudle of broth to comfort her”.

This is devout creativity, praying as though one was bodily present with Jesus’s relatives, and it continues today in the poetry of the liturgy of Good Friday — a liturgy that, we sense, understands us more than we understand it. A liturgy of pity and of glory.


Canon Mark Oakley is the Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.

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