St John the Evangelist, Shirley
The View from the Cross
A Sequence of words and music for the start of Holy Week fashioned around the ‘Seven Last Words’ of Jesus on the Cross. Each is traditionally given a one word descriptor, as follows:
Forgiveness – of the Roman soldiers who were just doing their job in nailing Jesus to the cross; Salvation – for the penitent criminal who was crucified next to Jesus; Relationship – even in the depths of his mortal pain, Jesus is thinking of his mother, a widow in need of future protection and support; Abandonment – in quoting from the first verse of Psalm 22, Jesus may have been making a final point to his Jewish hearers that he is the one prophetically referred to throughout the Psalm in which his sufferings and sense of desolation are graphically foretold; Distress – the similarity to the plea of the Samaritan woman at the well (John ch 4)is striking. In both instances, the humanity of Jesus is movingly illustrated; Triumph – one interpretation of the iconic phrase is that Jesus accepted that his life’s work had achieved its prophetic consummation: ‘a cry of victory’ in anticipation of the Resurrection; Reunion – Jesus finally at one with, and returning to, the Father who sent him.
Palm Sunday Evening, 14 April 2019, at 6.00pm
We sing the praise of him who died, of him who died upon the Cross
Words: Thomas Kelly
Music: Bow Brickhill, Sir Sydney H Nicholson
Comfort the soul of thy servant: for unto Thee do I lift up my soul
Words: from Psalm 86, verses 1-4
Music: Sir Sydney H Nicholson
First Word from the Cross: Forgiveness ~ Luke, chapter 23m verse 34
‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’
Poem Edwin Muir
The royal banners forward go, the Cross shines forth in mystic glow
Words: Venantius Fortunatus, translated J M Neale
Music: Vexilla Regis, Mode i
Second Word from the Cross: Salvation ~ Luke, chapter 23, verse 43
‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise’
‘Christ and King! Bloody fine mess you’re in!’
Mini-drama Dorothy L Sayers, from the radio play ‘The Man Born to be King, part 11, adt SPH
The sun is sinking fast, the daylight dies
Words: Latin, 18th century, trans Edward Caswall
Music: Exminster, Stephen Harrow, arr Michael Graham (tbc)
Third Word from the Cross: Relationship ~ John, chapter 19, verses 26-27
‘Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother’
‘He is going out into the night, and has taken the sunlight with him’
Mini-drama Dorothy L Sayers, op cit
Solus ad victimam
Words: Peter Abelard, translated Helen Waddell
Music: Kenneth Leighton
Fourth Word from the Cross: Abandonment ~ Matthew, chapter 27, verse 46 & Mark, chapter 15, verse 43
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you rescued them
Psalm 22, verses 1-11, 14-19 Principal translations consulted: REB, NRSV, NIV, NJB **
All they that see Him laugh him to scorn
Words: from Psalm 22, verse 7
Music: G F Handel, from ‘Messiah’
He trusted in God that He would deliver Him
Words: from Psalm 22, verse 8
Music: G F Handel, from ‘Messiah’
Fifth Word from the Cross: Distress ~ John, chapter 19, verse 28
To know just how much he suffered would be dear
Poem, from ‘Time and eternity, XIX’ Emily Dickinson
I hunger and I thirst: Jesu, my manna be
Words: John S B Monsell
Music: Eccles, Bertram Luard Selby
Sixth Word from the Cross: Triumph ~ John, chapter 19, verse 30
‘It is finished’
Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis
Poem Denise Levertov
Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows
Words: from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, ch 53, vv
Music: G F Handel, from ‘Messiah’
Seventh Word from the Cross: Reunion ~ Luke, chapter 23, verse 46
‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’
Poem Daniel Berrigan
[on separate sheet]
When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died
Words: Isaac Watts
Music: Rockingham, melody adapted by Edward Miller, harmony probably by Samuel Webbe
[ ** Glossary of initials: NIV: New International Version; NJB: New Jerusalem Bible; NRSV: New Revised Standard Version; REB: Revised English Bible]
The View from the Cross : a commentary
There are a million images – paintings, prints, cartoons, engravings and photographic reconstructions – of the crucifixion of Christ, as seen by the prurient rubberneckers, the soldiers, the two Marys and miscellaneous passersby with little interest in or comprehension of what they were witnessing. Every painfilled, tragic step along the Via dolorosa, from the Last Supper to the last rites has been chronicled and depicted. Close-ups; wide angle; long range; ground level to bird’s eye snapshots.
Almost no artist, however, and few writers have tried to portray the crucifixion narrative from the viewpoint of the Victim. Poets – for example, Andrew Hudgins, Scott Cairns, and Emily Dickinson, whose musings on the subject are part this evening’s Sequence – have had a go, come closest to getting into the mind and feelings of Jesus on the Cross. But visual representations of what the dying Man was looking at as the hours crept by on that first Good Friday are rare. Which is why the extraordinarily imaginative crane shot over the Calvary scene painted in 1890 by James (Jacques) Tissot from the presumed eye level and line of Jesus is so striking, and why I chose it to feature on the flier for this Palm Sunday Sequence. And why it consequently provoked the notion that a Sequence fashioned around the spoken thoughts of the dying Christ, as recorded in the Gospels, might serve as a preface to this year’s Holy Week.
Tissot’s watercolour depicts a gallimaufry of images excavated from the mind of the crucified Christ: memories of events past – are those the three magi on handsome horseback; or Jewish civil servants come to see that Pilate’s sentence is properly carried out? – jostle with premonitions of events to come. In the middle distance, the tomb awaits, guarded by two figures in white. In the foreground, Jesus’s family and closest friends watch in palpable distress; one woman – Mary Magdalen? – lies prostrate, literally at the pinioned feet of Jesus. Triangulating the family group, three squaddies squat, spears at the ready. On the left, a higher ranking soldier cloaked in red stands ramrod straight with an expression of baffled anxiety on his face. Is this the centurion whom Matthew records (chapter 27, verse 54) as exclaiming “Truly, this man was the God’s Son!”?
In tonight’s Sequence, each of the Seven Words is linked to a reading loosely illustrative of the sentiment expressed in the relevant utterances of Jesus. Edwin Muir’s The Killing is a dispassionate but graphic description of the ‘day they killed the Son of God’, given by a stranger to the city, possibly a visitor from another country altogether:
‘I… could not read these people / Or this outlandish deity. Did a God / Indeed in dying cross my life that day /
By chance, he on his road and I on mine?’
Two ‘mini-dramas’ drawn from the eleventh part of Dorothy L Sayers’ 1941/2 radio play ‘The Man Born to be King’ accompany the Second and Third Words. The playwright is far better known as the creator of aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey; but the range of her writings was considerably broader: poet, theologian, translator of Dante – and advertising copy-writer! ‘The Man Born to be King’ is a monumental sequence of twelve full-length plays designed for broadcasting, recounting the life, works and death of Jesus. The first of tonight’s two extracts from Sayers’ script for play no 11 (entitled King of Sorrows) covers the conversations between Jesus and the two criminals being crucified with him. The second recounts speculation by bystanders and soldiery on how long Jesus will take to die; and focuses on the concern shown by Jesus for his mother’s future, without the protection of either husband or eldest son, even as his earthly life nears its end.
Verses from Psalm 22 set the context for the Fourth Word. Some commentators have suggested that Jesus might have recited the whole of Psalm 22, by way of helping to take his mind off his pain, as well as making a prophetic point to Jewish observers. But the dramatic impact of what seems to have been a cry of total desolation and separation from God has unnerved Christians ever since.
Emily Dickinson’s poem speculates, somewhat whimsically, it has to be said, on the inner thoughts of Christ as his life drains away:
To know just how much he suffered would be dear / …was dying as he thought, or different? /
What was his furthest mind, of home, or God…/ And wishes, had he any?
The Fifth Word might imply that Jesus wished for a drink (having previously declined to accept a narcotic in the form of vinegar laced with myrrh [cf Mark 15, v 23 and Matthew 27, v 34]). Or was this yet another occasion when Jesus, the fulfilment of prophecy, was quoting from scripture, in this instance Psalm 69, verse 21: … for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink…?
Is the Sixth Word on the Cross a ‘cry of victory’ – of Triumph? Denise Levertov in Salvator mundi: Via crucis has a left field interpretation of Christ’s penultimate utterance. To her, it speaks of Jesus’s humanity contending with his divinity; the latter finally winning that cosmic battle:
The burden of humanness… extracted from Him / that He taste also the humiliation of dread, /
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go / like any mortal hero out of his depth /…
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to be welled / up from those depths where purpose /
drifted for mortal moments.
Incidentally, Levertov thinks that even the greatest painters – Rembrandt is her archetype – pull their punches when it comes to depicting the sheer ghastliness of the crucifixion. A Jesus who was not a divinity, but merely human, would surely have suffered more than artists dare to show. A quick survey of the myriad images of Christ’s agony on the cross suggest that she can’t have been looking at the right pictures! Her point, of course, is that no representation of the Passion narrative can adequately portray the innermost tension within the doomed Christ between his fear-filled humanity and his absolute, divine determination to carry out his Father’s will, the reason for his whole life and mission.
Daniel Berrigan – Jesuit priest, educator, jail bird, Nobel Peace Prize nominee – has a much more cynical take on the Passion sufferings of Jesus the Man. If the Seventh Word (another allusion to the Psalms: 31, verse 5) can be characterised as the moment of Reunion with the Father God, the prelude to a joyful Easter resurrection, Berrigan the consummate pessimist sees only the horror and the chaos and the waste of the crucifixion proceedings:
‘It was a hollow death; men / dread it like the plague…./ O for an act of God! we cry, before death
utterly / reduce to dust / that countenance, that grace and beauty..
The case of Jesus Christ is closed…he lies / stigmatised, a broken God / the world had sport of.’
‘Risen?’ Berrigan sighs; ‘we have not turned that page.’
Maybe not tonight. Good Friday is still to come. But ours is a resurrection faith. And the Easter triumph will brook no human impediment or delay.
sph / 8 April 2019