Friday, 6 April 2012

Passion Flowers

Lily Crucifix window in Long Melford Church, Suffolk, c 1350

I'm aware of a reluctance to write about Holy Week and the Passion. In conversations I've been having recently I've realised how difficult it is to talk about the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus without separating them - poor, temporal creatures that we are, we have no choice really. The other day someone remarked that "the reality offered by words is sequential, not holistic" and the truth of that has stayed with me. In becoming incarnate Christ stepped into the boundaries of time. His birth, ministry, death, rising and ascension had to be played out sequentially; but it's actually all one movement: God "met us in his son and brought us home", as the Anglican prayer puts it. Liturgically we need to split up the events too, but there's a danger: we can focus so much on Christ's suffering on the Cross that we see it as an end in itself (and all kinds of skewed, punitive theology can come from that). But to forget the betrayal and the pain is to fail to see just how outrageously gratuitous and undeserved that "peace be with you" of Resurrection is; how unconditional is the Love that not only moves the stars but comes in solidarity to undergo the very worst we can suffer or do to one another, and to heal it.

So here's a Lily Crucifix, unique (as I understand it) to English mediaeval art, a more holistic narrative of the Passion than one made in sequential words. The wood of the Cross can't wait: it already bursts forth in flower. The image comes from a notion that the Annunciation and Good Friday happened on the same date (it does occur some years, but we still split them up). So the joy of the Incarnation - "he hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek" - is there in the humility and meekness of the Servant King. The flowers are Easter lilies too!

Last night as the Mass of the Lord's Supper began the choir sang:

Nos autem gloriari opportet in cruce Domini nostri Iesu Christ: in quo est salus, vita, et resurrectio nostra: per quem salvati et liberati sumus.

We ought (literally, it will bring us safe to harbour) to glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ: in whom is healing, life and our resurrection: by whom we are made whole and set free.

To glory in the Cross! This would be scandalous if we split up the drama of passion and resurrection. But I believe the image of the flowering crucifix invites us to look at the Cross through the lens of Easter - the only way we can, actually - and then we may indeed glory.

Another image of the Cross which speaks to me is over 400 years older than the Long Melford window. On the reverse of the High Cross at Clonmacnoise in Ireland Christ reigns victorious over death, holding a cross and a flowering bough. Carved all over are scenes from his life on earth, and of him in heaven. All is one. His pose, dare I say, is reminiscent of Osiris, perhaps testament to the earliest arrival of Christianity in these islands from the East? Maybe in those early days Christ was seen to embody some of the attributes of Osiris in Egyptian mythology: named the "Lord of Love", the merciful judge, the one who descends into the underworld so that new life may burst forth.

Life indeed bursts forth around the crucufied and risen Christ: the Clonmacnoise cross is full of it! People, animals, vegetation, fabulous creatures... Life in all its abundance; extravagant, gratuitous, unconditional, costly gift. "Behold, I make all things new!"

All things! Here's a prayer by Jim Cotter:

In times of despair, O God, rain showers of gentleness upon us, that we may be kindly one to another and also to ourselves.  Renew in us the spirit of hope.  Even in the depths of the darkness, may we hear the approach of the One who harrows hell and greets even Judas with a kiss.

And words from the Orthodox Easter celebration:

Let NONE fear death, for the death of the Saviour has set us free!

Happy Easter!

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