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

Friday, 18 April 2014

On Good Friday Afternoon

In the Chapel of the Nine Altars in Durham Cathedral, there is a striking sculpture by local sculptor Fenwick Lawson. His Pietà shows Mary at the end of a long and terrible Good Friday. Stretched out at her feet lies the body of her dead Son rigid after his ordeal on the cross. His left arm is slightly raised, stretching out towards his mother whose hands in turn are opened towards him. In his wrist is the mark of the nail of crucifixion. She is depicted as the woman who has undergone sorrow beyond words. Her face is worn with grief and with the scars of ageing that great suffering incises on the human body. I have tweeted some images today: @sadgrovem.

Large numbers of worshippers come here on Good Friday afternoon for a simple service of evening prayer. A few years ago we decided to make the Pietà the focus of our last act of worship on this solemn day. It is the traditional office of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, very simple and spare with no words wasted and plenty of silence for thought and meditation. It needs to be understated like this, almost empty, coming as it does after three hours of profound spirituality and high emotion in the Good Friday liturgy. In liturgical time, Jesus is being laid to rest. His mother, his disciples are exhausted, numbed, and so are we.

How to bring the service to an end? We do it by listening to the Stabat Mater read aloud. This 13th century Latin hymn enters into Mary’s experience as she watches her Son die.

At the cross
stood the sorrowful mother in her grief
while her son hung there.
The genius of the poem is to recognise that Mary’s grief is the same as any mother would feel. Even if he had not been the Son of God, he would still have been hers, and how could she love him more than in the hours of his suffering and dying?  There’s a moment I find especially poignant:

She watched her own sweet child
dying in desolation

giving up his spirit.

This is ‘the sword that shall pierce your own heart’ that Simeon had warned Mary about when she brought her 40-day old infant into the Temple to present him to the Lord. Death can have the effect of reawakening childhood memories and what mother would not remember her precious son’s infancy at a time like this?
When I wrote my book Lost Sons, I introduced it by meditating on this corner of the Cathedral. I have always been struck by two other presences near the Pietà. One is a painting by Paula Rego that shows Margaret, the 11th century Queen of Scotland, with her son David sitting at her feet. This time, it’s the mother who is at the point of death, but the mother-son image is a striking if unconscious echo of the sculpture (I put it that way round because the Pietà was here first). The other feature is a simple early 19th century memorial plaque to two sons who died in early childhood. It was placed there by their ‘afflicted’ parents to commemorate their beloved boys John and Francis. Were they their only children? We don’t know, but underneath the simple words the emptiness of a bereavement two centuries ago still speaks powerfully.

To me, the Pietà helps to make sense of what must be the worst human loss a parent can ever experience, the death of a son or daughter. Christians have always seen in the suffering of Jesus God’s loving identification with all human suffering: the divine Victim knows what every victim is going through. The Pietà says the same. But it does this by focusing specifically on how death severs human intimacy, strikes at the heart of the love and friendship that we need if we are to flourish and be happy. The thought that God understands and cares gives solace in our darkest times.
In his Good Friday sermon, the Bishop spoke about Jesus’ last word from the cross in St John: ‘it is accomplished.’ That sounded like an ending, he said. He went on: ‘how and why it is not an end but a beginning, I cannot know on this day - yet.’  The Stabat Mater is a sombre poem. But at the end of its long and gloomy day, the sun comes out once more. Like today’s sermon, its conclusion hints at Easter in a last line that speaks of glory and paradise. Tomorrow, on Easter Eve, we imagine a Sabbath rest for the Christ who has finished his work. And then, early on the first day of the week, he will stride through the grave and gate of death into the glory of resurrection blazing the trail where in God’s time, we hope to follow.  

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