Meditations for Holy Week 2020.

These meditations were recorded by the Rector of Sherborne, Canon Eric Woods, and made available on YouTube during the Covid-19 lockdown.

1) Christ the Victor

            On Good Friday, at the Mount of Calvary,

            My son was done on the cross, nailed with nailes three

Yes, but what exactly was “done” on the Cross? That is, what was achieved? What difference did the Cross make to the human condition? What difference does it make to your condition and mine now? And does it matter?

I could, very easily, spend all six of these meditations on the necessity of the Cross. “It was necessary for us that God became incarnate and die, that we might live again” wrote St Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century. But writing over 60 years ago (in a book which has become a classic text on the person and work of Christ) Donald Baillie, Professor of Theology at St Andrew’s, devoted many pages to our need of divine forgiveness in the face of “the complacent conscience of modern man”, and an attitude that denies guilt and therefore sees no need to be forgiven.

Sixty years on, we are perhaps less complacent. Speak about broken marriages and fractured relationships at the Gryphon School, and the students go very quiet and listen hard. So many of them have grown up with the results of human flaws and failings, and know just how desperate is the need for reconciliation and forgiveness between family members or friends – and how hard these things can be to achieve. And we also know just how much sheer evil there is in the world, and whenever we are tempted to forget there is soon a Robert Mugabe or a Saddam Hussein on the scene to remind us. It was Desmond Tutu’s mantra, during the apartheid years in South Africa, that “For evil to triumph it takes only that a good man should do nothing”. It is a truth as well as a truism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and  the  whiff of gunpowder which hangs over even the modern baptism service is a reminder to every Christian that we have been commissioned as soldiers and servants of Christ, to fight against evil whenever and wherever we find it.

To the first Christian disciples and to the early Church, the power and the threat of evil were very real, and one of the most frequently recurring themes in the early Christian centuries was of the Cross as the place were Christ did battle with evil and overcame it. The imagery of battle and triumphant victory runs through several of St Paul’s Letters, notably Romans and Colossians, and of course is a central theme of the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of St John. In the writings of the Early Fathers as in much medieval poetry, the principal image is of Christ engaging in mortal combat with evil, clasping it to him and destroying it even as he himself dies. Sometimes the emphasis shifts to what he was doing during the time that his body rested in the grave. The Bible hints at a descent into “prison” and we find that developed in patristic and medieval times as a full-blown harrowing of hell. William Langland in Piers Plowman paints a vivid picture in the 14th century, and William Dunbar writes just as vigorously over a hundred years later:

Done is a battle on the dragon black!

            Our champion, Christ, confounded has his foes;

            The gates of hell are broken with a crack;

            The sign triumphal raised is of the Cross;

            The devils tremble with a hideous voice;

            The souls are freed and into bliss can go;

            Christ with his blood our ransom does endorse;

            Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.        

                                                                        (adapted into modern English)

Even in the 18th century, Charles Wesley could write sixteen verses in a poem on The Whole Armour of God, some of which we know today as the hymn Soldiers of Christ, arise. It is perhaps not only considerations of length which have led modern and more squeamish hands to delete some of those verses from today’s hymnals:

But above all, lay hold

            On Faith’s victorious Shield,

            Arm’d with that Adamant and Gold

            Be sure to win the Field;

            If Faith surround your Heart,

            Satan shall be subdu’d,

            Repell’d his ev’ry Fiery Dart

            And quench’d with Jesu’s Blood.

Common to all these periods is a personification of evil as Satan or Beelzebub. Of course this troubles some modern minds, and especially some modern theologians. But it is a sound instinct to give a name to our fears. If you wake in the night, hearing a sound, the real fear is not knowing what has caused it. The house creaking? The cat? Or an intruder? Only when you have identified the source of the noise can you break its paralysing power, and attempt to deal with it. And so it is that the Cross is the place where God Himself, in Christ, does battle with a very real enemy – all the forces of evil – and wins an eternal victory which is as present now as it was then. We need no longer be afraid: let the forces of darkness do their worst, and still love conquers all. In the 20th century, the greatest exponent of this way of understanding the Cross was the Swedish bishop, Gustaf Aulén, in his famous book Christus Victor. He was well aware that ancient images of warfare in Greek or Roman dress, or Saxon, or Medieval, might appeal to Hollywood but would hardly seem relevant to the modern mind, to how you understand yourself and your needs and how I understand myself and mine. But the reality of evil is the same in every age, he said, and our own conflicts with evil need to be fought out in the knowledge that the ultimate battle has already been won. If I were a Chaplain to HM Forces today, ministering to those serving in the troubled areas of the world, that would be my message to them: still we have to deal with evil wherever it breaks out, but it is a penultimate evil. It cannot be ultimate, because Christ has already won that battle on the Cross, and we are inheritors of that victory, in sure and certain hope of life with Christ for ever. That does not mean that we can too readily claim that “God is on our side”, but when we do come face to face with evil we know that he has fought with darkness long before, and was not overcome. And what is true of the conflict with evil fought out on a national or international canvas must also be true of our own individual battles with those things that would crush us – our jealousies and our small-mindedness, our prejudices and our pride – or those self-same things in others turned upon us. Bishop Aulén closes his lovely book with these words:

For my own part, I am persuaded that no form of Christian teaching has any future before           it except such as can keep steadily in view the reality of evil in the world, and go to meet      the evil with a battle-song of triumph.

Or, as St Paul wrote long ago to the Christians in Rome, who knew more than their fair share of tyranny, evil and oppression, The God of Peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.

Let us pray

Almighty and everlasting God,

who in your tender love towards the human race

sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ

to take upon him our flesh and to suffer death upon the Cross:

grant that we may follow the example

of his patience and humility,

and also be made partakers of his resurrection;

through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,

who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever. Amen


2) Christ the Ransom

It was Archbishop Rowan Williams who, in a much humbler incarnation over 40 years ago, when he was my Doctrine Tutor at Cambridge, introduced me to the work of the Russian Orthodox theologian, Vladimir Lossky. Lossky died in 1958, but his work lives on, not least in challenging our Western Christian desire to reduce the truths of our faith to a set of rational propositions. It is interesting, I think, that while Eastern Christianity has wanted to use some very precise language about the nature of Christ, his divinity and his humanity, the Orthodox are much more content to illustrate their understanding of his redeeming work on the Cross in a sequence of vivid metaphors or pictures. But, warned Lossky, never let these images “harden”. Never claim exclusive truth for one image against the rest. Rather, he said, simply locate them “among the almost infinite number of other images, each like a facet of an event ineffable in itself.” So it is that, alongside the image of Christus Victor, the Christ who on the Cross conquered the powers of evil, there grew up a parallel understanding of Christ’s death as a ransom paid to secure our freedom. Once again it has biblical roots: all the perspectives on the Cross we shall be exploring find their origins in scripture. But for this insight we need to focus above all on Jesus’s own vivid metaphor recorded by Matthew and Mark that the Son of Man “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

We should not be surprised to find this interpretation of Christ’s saving work at its most popular at times and in cultures where the paying of a ransom to secure the release of a captured king or noble man – or even cardinal or bishop – was not unusual and sometimes crushingly commonplace. In England, the most famous example was Richard I, the Lionheart, whose reign, despite those Hollywood epics of yesteryear, can only be described as disastrous. He bled the country white by taxation. He sold every office he could. For nearly four years he was absent, first on crusade and then as the prisoner of Leopold of Austria. He was released in 1194 only on the payment of a huge ransom which crippled the country, even though – such is always the fickleness of the public – he left prison with his power and fame enhanced.

So it is hard to see the attraction of this image of ransom, if the Cœur de Leon and those lesser knights and nobles who got into similar scrapes are to be our worked examples in human history. And we may not feel much helped when we discover that the classical expositions of Christ as our ransom understand him as the agreed price paid to the devil, to secure our release from Satan’s captivity. It all sounds so horribly feudal. It also suggests that God has no choice but to seek our freedom on Satan’s terms.

The Lionheart, of course, was ransomed in gold, and that is a prime motive for kidnap to this very day. But when to secure the release of others someone freely offers himself as hostage, his own body as ransom, then even in our cynical age we cannot help but be moved, and very profoundly moved indeed. You have to be pretty hard-hearted not to shed a tear at one modern reworking of this theme of ransom, of Christ himself paying the price of our release. I mean, of course, a book which has captivated children, and adults too, ever since its first publication exactly half a century ago: C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Edmund, one of the children who have walked through the wardrobe and into Narnia, has betrayed the others to the Witch. Aslan, the Great Lion, defends them, but the Witch will not let Edmund go. Aslan takes the Witch aside, and offers his own life for Edmund’s.

At last they heard Aslan’s voice, “You can all come back,” he said. “I have settled the        matter. She has renounced the claim on your brother’s blood.” And all over the hill there         was a noise as if everyone had been holding their breath and had now begun breathing           again, and then a murmur of talk. The Witch was just turning away with a look of fierce joy            on her face when she stopped and said, “But how do I know this promise will be kept?”             “Haa-a-arrh!” roared Aslan, half rising from his throne; and his great mouth opened wider      and wider and the roar grew louder and louder, and the Witch, after staring for a moment        with her lips wide apart, picked up her skirts and fairly ran for her life.

Aslan dies a horrible, humiliating death, but the ransom price is paid. And by coming back to life again, the Great Lion ensures that the Witch’s victory is short-lived.

Even from the pen of C S Lewis, this theme of ransom is not to everyone’s taste. But then the realities of evil are not much to our taste either. Think for a moment of hostages held by evil regimes in our own day. Would you have the courage, would I, to walk in and offer ourselves as ransom that they might go free? But to secure the ultimate freedom of humankind, the Son of God pays the ultimate price. And note this important truth, that as with the theme of Christ victorious over evil, so with Christ as the ransom paid for our release, something is changed. There is, if you like, a transaction that leaves nothing as it was before. There is rooted in history an eternal fact upon which we can base our faith, our hope and our life:

Upon a life I did not live,

Upon a death I did not die,

Another’s life, another’s death,

I stake my whole eternity.


It is only when we approach the Cross as an eternal fact rooted in history that we realise that because of it nothing will ever be the same again. We who were once in Satan’s power can now walk free, if upon that life and upon that death we stake our whole eternity.


Let us pray


Almighty and everlasting God,

who in your tender love towards the human race

sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ

to take upon him our flesh and to suffer death upon the Cross:

grant that we may follow the example

of his patience and humility,

and also be made partakers of his resurrection;

through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,

who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever. Amen


3) Christ the Substitute

            Thou alone wast counted worthy

                        this world’s ransom to sustain,

                        that a shipwrecked race for ever

                        might a port of refuge gain,

                        with the sacred blood anointed

                        of the Lamb for sinners slain.

So wrote Venantius Fortunatus in the 6th century. Having in my first address outlined the understanding of the Cross as the place where Christ did battle with evil and overcame it, in the second I explored the theme of Christ as the ransom for our release and freedom from evil’s power. But briefly I mentioned as one objection to this view the fact that it seems to reduce God to dealing with the devil on the devil’s terms.

Someone who thought long and hard about that was St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109. He concluded that, although the Cross did indeed represent a defeat for the devil, its real purpose was to pay the price, the cost, of our human sinfulness. More importantly still, he insisted that Christ’s death was a price paid not to the devil, but to God himself. His argument, in simplest terms, went like this:

– God is infinite, and his honour and his majesty are infinite;

– Therefore, any offence against God’s honour and majesty must be infinite too;

– So we, all of us, each one of us, have committed infinite offences against God;

– It follows, therefore, that any act of atonement for our offences must be infinite;

– But we, being but finite creatures, cannot begin to make or provide an infinite act of                   atonement;

– So who can? Why, only the infinite God himself, who becomes man to pay the price, the            debt of honour, which we have incurred but cannot begin to afford to pay ourselves.

In other words, Christ becomes our substitute, because

There was no other good enough

            to pay the price of sin;

            he only could unlock the gate

            of heaven, and let us in.


Note that once again there is an almost feudal feel to the notion of our having offended against God’s infinite majesty and his honour. Honour is not a word that springs easily to our lips today. Senior politicians, sworn of the Privy Council, are entitled to be known as “Right Honourable”, but none of us are so naive as to imagine that all the Right Honourables really are. And when a politician resigns on a matter of principle, he usually invokes the principle not of “honour” but of “conscience”. And very often he will claim that his conscience has been pricked above all by the injustice of this or that action or policy done by his Government or Party.

Thinking along the same lines in the 19th and 20th centuries, many evangelical Christians concluded that our sinfulness offends not so much against God’s honour as God’s justice, but that otherwise St Anselm had got it right. The Scottish Presbyterian scholar James Denney, in a book published in 1902, went so far as to conclude that Anselm’s was “the truest and greatest book on the atonement that has ever been written.” And to this day the most significant hallmark of evangelical Christianity is its insistence on what has come to be known as the “Penal substitutionary theory” of the atonement.

And more liberal Christians do not like it. In fact they loath it with a great loathing. Is it not immoral, they ask, for God to inflict punishment on his innocent Son rather than on us, the guilty? Is it not worse to imagine that God has to see some abstract concept of justice satisfied before we can be acquitted? And does not God deal ultimately in love, not justice?


You may well agree. But remember the warning of Vladimir Lossky. The Cross is like a multifaceted diamond. Each face may reflect truth. The mistake is to take one amongst many truths and harden it into “The Truth”. That is what much evangelical Christianity has done with this notion of penal substitution. And yet within a doctrinal position that I cannot wholly share I yet find this great insight:

I know that I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. I know that, by any, any principles of justice, I stand condemned. I know that, by any principles of justice, I deserve punishment. Equally, I know that God is greater than any principles of justice, and so is his love. But although love may be more than justice, it cannot be less than justice, and there is something hopelessly sentimental about the kind of love which would sickly over my offence and pretend it had never happened.

Think of it like this. I have offended and hurt you, and have done so deeply. Eventually I acknowledge to myself what I have done, and seek to make amends. I swallow a great deal of pride and an awful lot of humble pie, and come to you to apologise. I do so from the bottom of my heart. And you brush it aside. “That’s OK. Forget about it. It doesn’t matter.” But of course it does matter, and because you have brushed aside my apology so casually, I feel utterly unforgiven. Why? Because forgiveness is costly. Real forgiveness requires a great deal of the victim who is asked to forgive. And the greater the offence, the more it costs the one who has been hurt and offended to forgive, and to allow the offender not only to go free, but also to make reconciliation. Remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his warning that the only grace worth having is costly grace. Cheap grace, he said, is the mortal enemy of the Church. But real grace is costly, because it cost God everything. It cost him his Son.

So in the end, I find great truth in the understanding that Christ has taken my place in order to pay the price of forgiveness. I may not be able to couch that in forensic terms, in the language of the Law Court. At that point, I have to part company with my evangelical friends. But I can still sing with them:

There was no other good enough

            to pay the price of sin;

            he only could unlock the gate

            of heaven, and let us in.


Let us pray

Almighty and everlasting God,

who in your tender love towards the human race

sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ

to take upon him our flesh

and to suffer death upon the Cross:

grant that we may follow the example

of his patience and humility,

and also be made partakers of his resurrection;

through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,

who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen


4) Christ the Sacrifice

Ami is French for ‘friend’. Quite what they mean by it has always been something of a puzzle to the English. But in my first term at Oxford, when as a novice historian I had to study a course in historical geography, AMI was the mnemonic by which I remembered the native American empires destroyed by invaders from the ‘Old World’, principally the Spanish conquistadores. AMI: Aztec, Maya, Inca. And what images do those evocative names bring to mind? Well, if you have watched the same films as I have, the principal image is that of sacrifice. Human sacrifice. Babies. Virgins. Young men and women. Slaughtered on altars. Thrown down rock shafts. Pushed into the mouths of roaring volcanoes. And why? Well, basically, as a bribe. A bribe to appease the god or gods, to turn away their wrath, to keep them happy, to dissuade them from some terrible act of vengeance or revenge.

So does that explains the Cross? Christ as sacrifice? A sacrifice by means of which God is persuaded to stay his hand and turn aside his wrath? Is that what George Herbert meant:

Throw away thy rod,

                        Throw away thy Wrath:

                        O my God,

                        Take the gentle path.               [George Herbert]

Well, no, I don’t think so. Interestingly, the archaeologists can’t find the evidence for anything like as much human sacrifice as we used to assume the AMI nations perpetrated. And that kind of sacrifice is remarkably rare in the Bible.

When it is, the posh theological word for it is ‘propitiation’. To put it crudely, propitiation is the attempt to buy off an angry God. It doesn’t focus on the offence, or the offender. It focuses on the offended. God is made very angry by our sin. We feel a need to appease. We offer God someone to punish in our place – now we are overlapping the last address with this one, and putting in a substitute – or we offer God a death which somehow turns aside that wrath, drains away that anger, offers God a soothing savour. I call it the “Ah, Bisto” theory of the atonement, and I don’t much like it.

Fortunately, that’s really not what sacrifice in the Bible was all about. When the Epistle to the Hebrews declares that it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take way sins [10:4], it is only saying what devout Jews already knew, that the only sins for which ritual sacrifice could make expiation were breaches of that self-same ritual committed in ignorance. It may well be that in actual practice a man would offer a sacrifice in the expectation that his known sins would thereby be forgiven. But, if he did so, he was assuming something for which the Law gave him no justification. The Old Testament has much to say about forgiveness. Forgiveness was a real thing to the Jew. But he did not, if he read his Scriptures aright, think of it as a quid pro quo for sacrifice. It was the free gift of God. It cannot be purchased, or it would not be forgiveness.

So when the New Testament uses the imagery of sacrifice for the death of Christ, it does not intend us to imagine that God’s forgiveness of us is the quid pro quo for his Son’s death on the Cross. Nevertheless, there is clearly something in sacrificial language which writers like St Peter need to hold on to:

You know well that it was no perishable stuff, like gold or silver, that bought your freedom from the empty folly of your traditional ways. The price was paid in precious blood, as it were of a lamb without mark or blemish – the blood of Christ.  [1 Peter 1: 18-19]

At one level, this language is surely being used to emphasise both the costliness of what Christ has done for us on the Cross, and also that he gave himself willingly, despite the cost. That is how, in practice, we use the notion of sacrifice in ordinary conversation today. ‘He gives to the Church sacrificially.’ ‘She sacrificed a lot of her time to be with her old aunt.’ ‘His mother and father made great sacrifices to send him to Sherborne School.’

But surely the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews had more than this in mind when he insists that what the temple sacrifices were unable to do – that is, atone for deliberate sin – Christ could do – and has done:

Every priest stands performing his service daily and offering time after time the same       sacrifices, which can never remove sins. But Christ offered for all time one sacrifice for sins ….                    [Hebrews 10: 11-12]

But later in the same chapter the real reason for this language becomes clear. It is not that Christ’s action on the Cross is a sacrificial propitiation, but rather that, as our great High Priest, he has entered as it were the Holy of Holies, and torn down the veil separating us from God. In the temple at Jerusalem there was indeed a veil, or curtain, separating the sanctuary, or Holy of Holies, from the rest of the building. It was symbolic of man’s separation from God. No layman could enter it, only the High Priest, and that but once a year. But as our great High Priest, offering the sacrifice of himself, Jesus opened up and dedicated a way – a new and living way – for everyone, Jew and Gentile, men and women – to enter into the very sanctuary of God in the heavens. And remember what happened in the temple at the moment Jesus died. St Matthew puts it like this: ‘Jesus again gave a great cry, and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom’

[27: 50-51].

The barrier of our sinfulness which separated us from God was torn in two, from top to bottom, by the Cross. And because of that I can say, with the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews:

So now, my friends … let us make our approach in sincerity of heart and full assurance of             faith, our guilty hearts sprinkled clean, our bodies washed with pure water. Let us be firm         and unswerving in the confession of our hope, for the Giver of the promise may be trusted.

                                                                                                                                        [Hebrews 10: 19-23]

Let us pray

Eternal God,
in the cross of Jesus
we see the cost of our sin
and the depth of your love:
in humble hope and fear
may we place at his feet
all that we have and all that we are,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


5) Christ the Magnet

In my meditation address, on Christ the Ransom, I mentioned Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. His last years saw a great surge of activity and vigour in theology and the work of theologians, spearheaded not in theology’s traditional home, the essentially conservative world of the monastic cloister, but in the cathedral schools of Europe’s cities. And one of their most famous, or infamous, products was Peter Abelard.

Most people have heard of the love affair between Abelard, Master of the School at Notre Dame in Paris, and Heloïse, and of their secret marriage, of Abelard’s castration by Heloïse’s uncle and his accomplices, and of Heloïse being forced to enter a convent to lead a life for which she felt no true vocation. Their surviving love letters have been printed and reprinted time and again.

Less well known are Abelard’s theological views, which caused him to be denounced as a heretic by the formidable Bernard of Clairvaux, who had entered the Cistercian Order under Abbot Stephen Harding – once a pupil or novice here at Sherborne Abbey – and helped him turn it into one of the most flourishing in Europe. Bernard sent his complaints direct to the Pope, and in 1140 Innocent II condemned Abelard as a heretic, forbade him from writing and himself set up a stake in St Peter’s for the burning of Abelard’s books.

One of those books was his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, which contained an outline of his understanding of the Cross, of Christ’s atoning work. It was only a draft, which Abelard hoped to develop in a later work, but never did. But what is clear is that he rejected all the interpretations of the Cross which we have been considering – that on the Cross a battle was fought with evil or a ransom paid for our sin, that Christ took our place to bear our punishment or that he was a necessary sacrifice to turn aside the wrath of God.

Abelard’s starting point was that God could have forgiven us without sending his Son to die had he chosen to do so. Strictly speaking, the Cross wasn’t necessary. Nevertheless, it happened. So what was God’s intention in sending his Son as man? Surely it must have been to reveal his love for us – in what Jesus taught, in what he said, in what he suffered, in what he was. And this wonderful demonstration of God’s love for us, revealed in Christ stretching out loving arms for us on the Cross, must have been meant to awaken in us a similar love for God who first loved us. As he put it:

What then is our redemption? We are justified in the blood of Christ and reconciled to God, because by the life and death of His Son He has so bound us to Himself that love so kindled will shrink from nothing for His sake. Our redemption is that supreme devotion kindled in us by the Passion of Christ: this it is that frees us from the slavery of sin and gives us the liberty of the sons of God, so that we do His will from love and not from fear. It is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance: we grieve to have sinned against God, from love and not from fear, less because He is just than because He is merciful.

For Peter Abelard, therefore, the achievement of the Cross is to reveal and proclaim God’s love in Jesus’s life and death, a love which has the power to transform us and redeem us. As the Bishop of Salisbury so often puts it, God first engages with us and then He changes us – and the most engaging thing about God is his love, revealed on the Cross. The Cross is the magnetic centre of our faith, drawing us to Him.

Once again, this is a thoroughly Biblical image. St John records these words of Jesus: ‘And I, if I am lifted up, shall draw all men to myself.’ And John adds, ‘This he said to indicate the kind of death he was to die.’ (John 12: 32-33). No one familiar with  Stainer’s oratorio The Crucifixion will forget his use of Jesus’s words to Nicodemus, ‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so shall the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life’.

This understanding of the Cross has always been criticised, from St Bernard on, as not allowing Christ’s death to have achieved anything in itself, objectively. It is wholly subjective, relying on Christ’s death invoking a response of penitence and love in us. But is not this how all sacraments work? What is the eucharist if there are no eyes of faith to see beyond just bread and wine? What is marriage if there are no eyes of love to see beyond the legal contract? Charles Causley gets to the heartbreak of our lack of response in his poem inspired by a crucifix in Normandy:


I am the great sun, but you do not see me,

                        I am your husband, but you turn away.

                        I am the captive, but you do not free me,

                        I am the captain you will not obey.


                        I am the truth, but you will not believe me,

                        I am the city where you will not stay,

                        I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me,

                        I am that God to whom you will not pray.


                        I am your counsel, but you do not hear me,

                        I am the lover whom you will betray,

                        I am the victor, but you do not cheer me,

                        I am the holy dove whom you will slay.


                        I am your life, but you will not name me,

                        Seal up your soul with tears, and never blame me.


For all his impatient failure to see the truths in the understandings of the Cross he rejected, Abelard saw this great truth when most of the Church was blind, that the Cross, ultimate sign of man’s hatred, is also the ultimate sign of God’s love. And many waters cannot quench that love. It is stronger than death. And still it has its ancient power to draw us to the Crucified. And if for that belief Peter Abelard is a heretic, then so am I!

Let us pray

Almighty Father,
look with mercy on this your family
for which our Lord Jesus Christ was content to be betrayed
and given up into the hands of sinners
and to suffer death upon the cross;
who is alive and glorified with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen


6) Christ the Life-giver

We have been exploring what was ‘done’ on the Cross on that Good Friday, and have encountered thus far five powerful images: Christ as victorious over the forces of evil; as the ransom paid to secure our freedom; as our substitute; as the sacrifice for our sins and as the One who, lifted up on the Cross, draws us to himself. We have had ringing in our ears the warning of the Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky that there is an almost infinite number of these images, and none should ever be allowed to ‘harden’ into a doctrine which excludes the others. They are all facets of a single truth. We can only understand the Cross in part and know its meaning in fragments. I have collected five so far. For this last meditation there are many more to choose from.

The one I cannot omit is that of the Cross as the place where we receive the gift of life. “In Him was life”. A former Bishop of Winchester, John Vernon Taylor, once beautifully described Jesus of Nazareth as a man so intensely alive that others catch life from his touch. “The historical figure of Jesus that emerges almost incidentally from the study of the Gospels is of a man supremely alive in his awareness and his freedom. He was, above everything else, alive, and his aliveness was contagious.”

To understand our need of Christ the Life-giver, we have of course to acknowledge our own deadness. Bishop Taylor quotes Dr Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, a pioneer worker amongst the elderly, describing one residential home she had visited:

They were all sitting half dead in their wheel-chairs, mostly paralysed and just existing, they             didn’t live. They watched some television, but if you had asked them what they had watched          they probably would not have been able to tell you. We brought a young woman who was a      dancer and we told her to play beautiful, old-fashioned music. She brought in Tchaikovsky       records and so on and started to dance among these old people, all in their wheel-chairs,   which had been set in a circle. In no time the old people started to move. One old man             stared at his hand and said, ‘Oh, my God, I haven’t moved this hand for ten years.’ And the    104-year-old, in a thick German accent, said ‘That reminds me of when I danced for the             Tsar of Russia.’

But you don’t have to be 104 to be half-dead, at least not spiritually. We have all encountered men and women who, by their vivid aliveness and sheer appetite for life and living, have made us feel very dull and lethargic indeed, and it has little to do with their age or ours. It has much more to do with the state our souls are in. Some of you have heard me quote before from Kenneth Kaufman’s splendid poem:

                        I think my soul is a tame old duck

                        Dabbling around in barnyard muck,

                        Fat and lazy, with useless wings.

                        But sometimes when the North wind sings

                        And wild ones hurtle overhead,

                        It remembers something lost and dead,

                        And cocks a wary, bewildered eye,

                        And makes a feeble attempt to fly.

                        It’s fairly content with the state it’s in,

                        But it isn’t the duck it might have been.

But we needn’t be barnyard ducks, not if we are prepared to be touched by both the death and the resurrection of Jesus. His was a transmission of life from the fully alive to the half dead. He told the crowds in Galilee that he had come that they might have life, and have it to the full. He told them that if he set them free, they would be truly free. The mass of the people hung upon his words, and when he asked Peter if he wanted to join those who were drifting away, the answer came back: “To whom shall we go? Your words are words of eternal life“. [John 6.68].

But what part does the Cross play in this transmission of life? Before I answer that, I need to quote an experience described by the Anglican nun Mother Frances Dominica, whose name will always be associated with Helen House Hospice for terminally ill children in Oxford.

I had known this mother for some time as both her daughters suffered from a rare genetic             illness, and were frequent visitors to Helen House. During the year she and her husband went through a difficult and painful divorce. On Christmas morning she telephoned and I         went. Her 13-year-old died the following morning, suddenly and unexpectedly. Seeing her      sister dead, the four-year-old said, ‘I wanted to die first’, and five days later she too died.          During those days and nights that I was with the mother and her children there were a            thousand and one things to do. After the funeral there was nothing to do except to be there         beside her. Surrounded by grief too immense for words I felt physical pain which still recurs            from time to time when I least expect it. By staying alongside I was absorbing a little of her      pain.

Jesus’s dying was to absorb our deadness. On the Cross the unparalleled aliveness of Jesus Christ went down under the deadness that is our sickness and our sin and was annihilated. Surrendering himself to death, he drew it into himself and absorbed it. If you think of our deadness as sin, as we should, then you can see that it was absorbed in Christ’s forgiveness, for that is how forgiveness works – it absorbs the wrong by enduring the pain and hostility of it without throwing it back. And if you think of our deadness as a wasting disease, you can see that its infection spent itself upon Christ, and was absorbed or, as the New Testament put it, “swallowed up”.

But if Jesus’s death was simply to absorb our deadness, to save us from death eternally, that death by itself cannot transmit to us the fullness of eternal life. We may not be dead ducks, but we remain firmly grounded in the farmyard of life, unable to fly and enjoy the glorious liberty of the children of God. That is why we need Easter, we need the resurrection. Because Easter is the pledge that the death of Jesus did not just absorb our deadness. It also broke the power of death. No grave could contain him. The Cross itself is a victory. Jesus died absorbing and breaking the power of evil so that we might be free. But without the resurrection it would have been an austere and bleak victory. On Easter Day God at last shows his hand. The New Testament never says that Christ rose from the dead. It always says that God raised him from the dead. In the resurrection we know where God stands. The love Jesus lived for and died for is not a pathetic idyll, out of touch with reality. It is reality. Whatever present appearances may suggest, goodness is stronger than evil. Life is stronger than death. To believe this gives one a new and creative perspective on all of life, and life’s end. Here is the guarantee that our struggle after meaning and goodness and truth can never be in vain. Here is the ground of hope when the confines of this world give us no hope. Here is the light that illumines even the valley of the shadow of death. The resurrection is the place where we learn how to love, how to laugh and how to live. We come to it by way of the Cross. We are nearly there!

Have a happy, and holy Easter.

Let us pray

Lord of all life and power,
who through the mighty resurrection of your Son
overcame the old order of sin and death
to make all things new in him:
grant that we, being dead to sin
and alive to you in Jesus Christ,
may reign with him in glory;
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
be praise and honour, glory and might,
now and in all eternity. Amen