Modesty Woven by Prayer
Meditations on Jesus’ Last Words from the Cross
Canon Jim Irvine
Good Friday, April 10, 2009 - Noon - 3:00 p.m.
Christ Church (Parish) Church - Fredericton, New Brunswick
Luke 23: 33-34
Luke 23: 39-43
John: 19: 26-27
Mark: 15: 33-34 and Matthew: 27: 46
John: 19: 28-29
John: 19: 30
Luke 23: 44-46
Now I lay
down to sleep;
The White Crucifixion (detail)
I pray the Spirit my soul to keep…
holy and mighty,
holy immortal one,
have mercy upon us.
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Spirit my soul to keep…
My Father pushed the heavy door inwards and I climbed up the stone step to the threshold and entered the vestibule. The overcast sky and the drizzle of the day were exchanged for the darkness of the porch and once in, our eyes had to adjust to what little light there was. Another door and we entered the nave. My earliest memory of Good Friday goes back nearly six decades.
Your memories of Good Friday may go back further. Or perhaps you began your pilgrimage more recently. Whatever the case, we have joined company today as we continue our pilgrimage. We will travel together for the next three hours. Some of us will tire and break away, too weary to go further; while others will join us on the way.
The journey has been the same for some of us – we have rehearsed the words of Jesus written faithfully by the evangelists. But while Jesus’ words have been the same, our experience of the brief encounter has been different for many of us. My first memory has me in a red cassock, holding a brass Boat containing incense, as the thurifer and I led the crucifer and Canon John V. Young – I knew him as Father Young – from one Station to another. The alabaster Stations lined the aisle walls of the Mission Church. By the solemn procession from Station to Station I knew that this was different; this Day was different.
A verse of a hymn glided us along the narrow aisle. Father Young said a versicle and the congregation made the response. Exchanges like that, I knew, brought priest and people together and gave us a focus. I held my Boat of incense. The Station was censed and a prayer offered aloud. There may have been other prayers offered in silence, throughout the assembly. The music began again and as a verse was sung, we moved on.
Other occasions found me at first in pews and later in pulpits marking the Watch by the Cross in the customary form we are engaging this afternoon.
Whether the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday, or the Seven Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, we have rehearsed the familiar expressions associated with our Lord during his final hours on Golgotha. Whether as a layman or a priest, I have rushed to tell the story, confident that it was mine to tell.
We might all rush to tell the story, confident that it is ours to tell when, in fact, it is ours to hear. Forasmuch as I have told the story, this afternoon I am going to listen. While I know the story, and while the details have been part of my observance from my youth, I have come to the last words of Jesus today from a place I least expected.
Two pieces assist me here: first, a poem, Prayer, by Rebecca Campbell, and second, a painting by Marc Chagall, The White Crucifixion.
The delightful poem by Rebecca Campbell is wonderfully woven into the lyric of The Cart by Three Sheets to the Wind, an a cappella trio from the Ottawa Valley. The familiar children’s bedside prayer is graciously adapted to lead us as it shall today. Rebecca Campbell meets us where we are and takes us further. By each couplet we will advance through the intervals and hear Jesus’ words again – possibly for the first time.
Marc Chagall, from his studio in Paris gave expression to the sufferings of European Jewry that coincided with Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. The year was 1938. This assimilated Russian Jew inexplicably places Jesus in the very midst of contemporary suffering – on a truncated, T-shaped cross; his loin cloth a prayer shawl. Prayer provides a focus and takes up the theme. Irony abounds in such an image, for in the litter of shattered windows lies more than bits of glass: Kristallnacht testifies to a deeper breaking of basic human continuities. Shattered windows leave faith in fragments and pierce the wholeness of the human spirit.
Vignettes of shattered lives surround The White Crucifixion – all are unredeemed, caught in a vortex of destruction binding crucified victim and modern martyr. As the prayer shawl wraps the loins of the crucified figure, Chagall makes clear that the Christ and the European Jewish sufferer are one. On all sides there is frenetic activity: a Red army attacking, a burning synagogue and village, a man carrying away the holy scroll of the Torah, people fleeing in a boat, elders floating above, covering their eyes in dismay at the horrors below. Chagall has here appropriated our Christian mythology… and heard something that perhaps we have failed to hear.
A powerful tableau, this scene provides expression that scandalizes, that makes us stumble over our own expectations and knock down the comfortable prop we have made of resurrection faith.
Midi: Schindler’s List