I know the hymn by heart. It’s one that we repeated during my youth as the ‘Communion Hymn’, but to a different tune than we find in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982. Now when I sing it at St. Paul’s, I show off by not referring to the hymnbook for any of its stanzas, ama
zing anyone standing beside me. Once someone asked me if I knew all of the hymns by heart, having watched and heard me sing every word of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” from memory and without a single mistake.
Showing off like that is a trap. I’m concentrating so much on getting the words right that I don’t pay much attention to what they mean.
That is, until two nights ago during Good Friday Service.
There is something so startling, so profoundly frightening and horrifying, so undeniably heart-wrenching when the ‘the wood of the cross’ is brought before us and then allowed to hit the bottom of its stand with a great and booming thud. It was as if I could feel the pain of that moment when ‘the young prince of Glory’ must have felt unutterable agony as the weight of his own body tore at the nails that restrained him.
It is a moment in the service that rips at every emotion, that breaks down every barrier that I like to think I have set up between me and real feelings, that dissolves before my eyes all that I imagine is so very precious in my pompous life, and at that moment, I ‘pour contempt on all my pride.’ I was reduced to tears, not only because I shared his agony, but because I saw my own.
It has taken me some time over the nearly thirty years of being an Episcopalian to come to terms with some of the church’s rituals, but when I went forward and touched the wood of the cross, kneeling in tears before what it represented, all notions of being aloof and decidedly outside that particular ritual vanished, and I didn’t care who saw my naked emotions displayed. They were honest ones, and they had two parts.
“See from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down!” That line from the hymn only begins to describe the violence and cruelty, not to speak of the unutterable pain from a beating that likely tore off a great deal of his skin (see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ for a graphic portrayal of how Roman punishments took place), and then to be nailed to the cross, naked (yes, naked. That loin cloth that shows up in art to cover Jesus’ private parts wouldn’t have been allowed according to Roman sources that describe the procedure), all concentrated my vision of what he gave up, the sacrifice he willingly made. It is the horror that is recreated in the darkened church on Good Friday when ‘the wood of the cross’ makes that horrifying thud that brings the finality of death to reality.
But it is a good death, mine I mean. I feel the passing away of attitudes and notions that I have built into the walls and cornerstones of my life, and I watch them crumble. Verse 3 of the hymn comes back to me: “Did ere such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?” Now I am glad that my memory serves me, and instead of showing off to a pew-mate, the words sink into my mind, and I cannot stop the tears. Unabashedly weeping.
Something more than two years ago, I sat in church still recovering from the pain of having been struck by a car, the pain kept barely under control. I was lucky not to have been killed, and death, according to several doctors, had been closer than I thought. Still I survived, a kind of resurrection. Just as there are many kinds of death, even as we live on, there are many kinds of resurrections. I have already commented about the love given to me during that time by my church family and others not in the church, and that too is a kind of resurrection, one of my being reminded of how love works.
If St. Paul did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and many scholars agree that he did not, he did affirm that the resurrection occurred in a way that transforms us, and that truth marches into our consciousness first as the wood of the cross and its awful finality thuds into place, and then on Easter by the light emitted from the empty tomb.
All we have to do is allow ourselves to die to our pride, or sense of self, our puffed up ways of thinking about other people, our barriers that prevent us from seeing the possibility of love. I let myself die two nights ago in the presence of the wood of the cross, and I acknowledge a resurrection that was celebrated on Easter, but only one of many resurrections that happen every day, allowing me to bask in a love ‘so amazing so divine, (that it) demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Easter Day 2014