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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Creeping to the Cross

Good Friday is a time for passion in every sense.  It's hard to be dispassionate on the day that lies at the heart of our redemption. 

For me and I suspect for many others, the heart of the service today was the veneration of the cross.  A great wooden cross draped in red hangings was processed into the Cathedral as we sang the ancient passiontide hymn 'Sing my tongue the glorious battle'.  The cross was set up on a platform in the middle of the crossing, our own hill of Golgotha underneath the tower.

Then we were invited to come right up to it and touch it, kiss it, embrace it, stand or kneel before it - whatever you wanted to do to express your own response to the crucifixion.  In medieval England this was called 'creeping to the cross'.  Almost everyone in the nave seemed to want to do this.  Some came tentatively as if unsure if they were worthy or welcome.  Others came briskly as if there was business to do at Golgotha and they wanted to do it.  All came willingly; many were clearly moved.  I was. 

Some people stayed at a distance from the cross, on the kneelers that lined the platform.  Others came closer, knelt on the steps up to the cross.  A few prostrated themselves.  Many went right up to the wood.  Some touched it reverently but lightly as if it would not do to be too intimate with it.  Some seemed to wrap themselves around it, clinging to it as if they did not want to let it go.  Some carressed it tenderly. Some stayed near the ground at the foot of the cross as if to stay as low as possible; some seemed to reach up for the body symbolically pinned to it. 

Three memories are imprinted on my mind at the end of this day of pain and mercy.

The first is a young woman who laid herself face down,  motionless, on the steps in front of the cross.  It was her stillness that I remember, the eloquent beauty of a person utterly caught up in the passion and its meaning, unselfconscious, oblivious to anything and anyone else.

The second is of a teenage boy (an ex-chorister, as it happens) who stopped in front of the cross and stood still there, as if to attention, saluting it.  His way of honouring it was formal and dignified, yet it was touching in its honesty and simplicity.  Then he kissed the foot of the cross and quickly turned away. 

The third is of an elderly and infirm woman who walked with great difficulty.  One of our Bedesmen took her by the arm and slowly, ever so gently, walked her towards the platform.  I did not think she would manage the steps but she did, went right up to the cross and with great devotion kissed the wood.  The journey back needed equal patience and determination.  It was a real pilgrimage of grace, I thought, with the Bedesman doing loving service like Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus' cross for him.

During all this, the choir sang the Reproaches: 'O my people, what have I done to you?  Answer me.'  This was followed by King John of Portugal's exquisite Crux Fidelis.  Then we all sang 'When I survey the wondrous cross', and still they were coming forward.

Such a simple ceremony, yet deeply powerful and affecting. Acts like this have a sacramental quality: they are words in action when spoken words run out.  'Faithful cross above all other' indeed: what would we not do to express our gratitude on this day when we celebrate 'love's endeavour, love's expense'?

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