Unvarnished Truth

It is the thing which shouldn’t be there. High up in the crossing above the worn-smooth stones of the Cathedral floor. It is visible across the nave of the building, raised in front of newly refurbished organ pipes resplendent in gold and bright vermilion. Millions were spent bringing this huge instrument back to a state of excellence. Every note sounding pitch-perfect, and accompanying a choir of international renown. Below the organ pipes is the screen. Elaborate stonework and gilded kings – the work of master masons long departed this world. The Cathedral harvests the best that can be had, filling this barn of a building with the finest sculptures, carpentry and glasswork. During Lent, into all this splendour, is lifted a rough-hewn cross. As basic as you can imagine, two planks of unpolished, unvarnished and uninspiring timber hanging in space below the central tower.

Liturgy, and the context it inhabits, has a knack of creating paradox. When it seems that the church has been enthralled by worldly standards, with a hierarchy of clergy, the splendour of an Archbishop or Pope is cast aside on Maundy Thursday as they kneel to wash people’s feet. All the grandeur is subverted by the truth that the least will be greatest in the Kingdom of God, and the last shall be first. Stitched into our services is the recurring message that things will not always be as we expect. God can, and does, disturbs us in surprising ways.

The Lenten cross is yet another jarring sign of this unsettling truth: just when we think everything is polished and perfect, the rough and the ready is what we need to tell us what God is about.

“But lying there long while, I,
troubled, beheld the Healer’s tree,
until I heard its fair voice.
Then best wood spoke these words:
“It was long since – I yet remember it –
that I was hewn at holt’s end,
moved from my stem.”

The Dream of the Rood

Theology could not function without paradox. Christianity is not – and can never be – something that reconciles every aspect of human experience in a divine plan. Our worship requires us to recognise and name the most difficult aspects of human living. In baptism we say that this new life will one day die. At every marriage ceremony we are reminded that the commitments are made ‘until death us do part’. There is no shying away from these fundamental truths of human life. Yet our commitment to the limits of human existence is held in tension with a great hope. A hope which, on Good Friday, we affirm even in the shadow of the cross; the Healer’s tree. We cannot disregard the injustice, suffering and humiliation of this public execution. We see it and name it.

For some people it will not be Good Friday that is difficult. Human suffering is obvious and ubiquitous. The step of faith to Easter Day is the part of Christianity that stretches their credulity. Yet for those who follow the way of Christ, our response to suffering is lit with a hope that radiates from the empty tomb. Yes, suffering is real – but it is not all.

He hung there limply on the frame,
His body beaten black and blue.
Exposure was the thing; humiliation, too;
To which the nails seemed superfluous
When all you had to do was die of shame;
Quietly expire, a minimum of fuss.
But what a noise you made, Silent Messiah,
Your humbling death, so nakedly exposed,
Conquered forum, basilica and the choir
Of poets with the love you interposed.

N. S. Thompson, ‘Silent Messiah’ in ‘The Poet’s Quest for God’ Eyewear Publishing 2016

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