I awoke early this Good Friday morn with one of those vivid dreams we all have from time to time. It got me into my study in good time and as I started to reflect on the meaning of the day, I remembered the old hymn:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
I suppose my richest gain is myself. Nothing I own is as valuable as my own life. So how do I regard the Cross this Good Friday?
My reading took me to Teilhard de Chardin and his Hymn of the Universe where he talks of the absolute certainty of the empty fragility of even the noblest theorizing as compared with the smallest fact. And he sees with pitiless clarity the ridiculous pretentiousness of human claims to order the life of the world, to impose on the world the dogma, the standards and the conventions of man.
These two subjects – the fact of the Cross and the futility of men’s dogma, standards and conventions – fused in my thinking on this central day for all Christians. What is the significance of the Cross today, amidst all the dogma, standards and conventions with which we are surrounded?
This week I went to see the Mel Gibson film entitled The Passion of Jesus Christ. No one contests that the film is full of violence and blood. It is a vivid example of sadism. Violence like that was exactly what happened in those primitive and bloody days. But not today, not in the ‘civilised’ West! The film depicted the trials of Jesus, his flogging and crucifixion, with a few flashbacks to his earlier life and ministry.
I think that the film would reach into the heart of every viewer who knows the Risen Christ. For them the film might almost be sacramental. For other followers of The Way, who don’t yet know Jesus, it may prove to be a deeply disquieting film – challenging and upsetting. Non-believers, I felt, would have mixed reactions, depending on their response to the depiction of violence in any film. In all three groups of viewers there would always be some who would be deeply challenged.
Is a film like that the ‘real’ picture of the Cross? Or does it cater to modern day appetites for ‘realism’ - pain and suffering in your face? Many people watch human suffering with horrified fascination – one example is the films about gladiators; another example is the popularity of horror movies. Not threatened oneself, one vicariously experiences emotionally the pain of the sufferer. To enjoy watching someone else’s suffering can be an imaginative form of sadomasochism. Crowds of people used to flock to the public floggings and hangings in Britain not all that many years ago. There is an element of voyeurism in many people who are drawn to and even fascinated by the pain and sufferings of a fellow human being.
So is Good Friday a day when we should dwell on the sufferings of crucifixion? Reminding ourselves of the suffering that Christ went through just for us? Was the film useful, enabling us to see all that violence and blood? Or should we rather dwell on the purpose and result of his dying?
I believe that Christ’s life, death on the Cross and consequent resurrection – whatever one’s theory of the Atonement might be - frees us in a very deep way from all that can hinder or bind us. Sacrifice of oneself is one of the deepest human experiences, universally recognized.
So let us ask a different but related question. Why does sadism and masochism fascinate? Is it not because its essence, as I understand it, is that you inflict pain on another (sadism), or that you put yourself in someone’s power so that they can do whatever they want to you (sadomasochism)? In the case of the latter it is the yielding up of yourself and rendering yourself powerless, not knowing what pain or humiliation they will inflict on you. In both cases there is an element of frisson, of excitement.
It seems that the basic appeal of sadism and of the sadomasochistic experience – as also for the voyeur, who imaginatively places himself in the same position – is that another person dominates them. They are powerless to stop what is happening to them. This domination is the key to understanding not only such experiences but, I believe, can help us in understanding the Cross.
Christ chose to let himself be dominated by the religious and political systems of the day. Christ lived, taught and healed to bring the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. At any point up to the Thursday evening he could have quietly gone off to tour Galilee or visit the Samaritans or absent himself to some other place than Jerusalem. Instead, he chose to stay, knowing that he would face death and possibly a drawn out and painful death. This, however, was not masochism but self-sacrifice. In the event he had to face the most painful and humiliating death one can possibly imagine.
When the Chief Priest, after questioning him, accused him before Pilate, and when the Romans with their soldiers and brutal power crucified him, who was dominating whom? Was the Chief Priest manipulating the system (saying that Christ set himself up as a king against Caesar, thus forcing Pilate to deal with the matter) and so, effectively, dominating the situation? Or was the Roman Governor with his soldiers, dominating the whole situation by the overwhelming force of Rome and, eventually, hammering nails into a helpless and innocent man?
No – it was the figure on the Cross that dominated the whole of the proceedings from start to finish. Accused, beaten, crucified – never once did Christ turn from what he saw needed to be done – to continue on his path to establish the Kingdom of Heaven.
The domination was by love, the most powerful force in the world. The only type of domination that is acceptable to God.
As I write Iraq is apparently descending into chaos one year after the much-vaunted ‘victory’. Force may dominate in Iraq – although just now even that is in question – but it can never win any sort of final victory. Only love can do that. Eventually you have to win men’s hearts, not fire a gun at them.
The opposite of forceful domination is freedom. Freedom is what Christ preached and what he brought us. There is a sense in which Christ was the only truly free person in the whole of the Crucifixion story. He was totally true to himself and was not deflected from his chosen path by one inch.
We are called to the freedom of Christ. We are simple followers of Christ. We make all the mistakes in the world, and mess up frequently. But we have been given freedom in Christ and we are on the path of freedom. Freedom from the dogma, standards and conventions of the world. Free to be creative. Domination extinguishes creativity because it tramples on freedom.
When the bible says that we are made in the image of God, what does it mean? It is a big subject, but I am sure that one way in which we mirror God is in our capacity to be creative. Our God is called the Creator God – we believe that he created all that is, that he sustains all that is through every moment of time, and that eternity is His. He calls us to be co-creators with Him. Paul speaks of us being co-workers with God in 1 Corinthians 3.9.
Fear and forceful domination kill creativity. Love encourages and amplifies creativity. And I am not just talking about sculpture or paintings – I am talking about the next time we meet someone. The next time we write a letter or have a telephone conversation. The next time we worship and pray. Creativity is something we can bring to every moment of our existence here on earth.
Such a gift from God should make us very humble. None of this is from us. We are created and sustained by a God who knows our every thought. It is all grace. All he requires of us is that, each moment, we follow our Lord in the light that he has given us.
The meaning of Good Friday? It is to respond to the love of God who seeks us in Christ. It is to walk in freedom. It is to cooperate with the creative force in us, so that every person we meet along the way is grateful for our passing by. It is being dominated by love. It is bringing our whole life into bondage to Christ, whose service is perfect freedom. In doing this we will crucify our own pride and self-aggrandisement. That way, love can have its way with us, and through us to others
When I survey the wondrous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.