Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Caveat Adorator

[This article seems pertinent to the discussion in the previous post.]

By his stillness we learn to look death in the face

by Rowan Williams

[The Independent, London, March 28, 1997]

It has taken the post-Freudian suspiciousness of our century to point out the different kinds of ambiguity, the shadows, around the central Christian symbol of the crucifix. We can understand a bit more clearly how such an image of suffering patiently endured can work to produce guilt—"I did this, and yet he loves me"; or passivity—"Jesus endured injustice and pain without complaint; so must I". We might also notice how the crucifix can be a weapon: I identify my (or our) suffering with Christ's, and so endow it with more sanctity and significance than anyone else's; martyrdom can be turned into a not-so-subtle kind of aggression by the spiritually ambitious (something even the early Church noticed).

Most insidious of all, perhaps, there is the scent of something faintly pornographic in some kinds of concentration on this image, a naked man being tortured to death: what does it do to our souls to be confronted by this, day in and day out? We may become desensitised to it, not noticing what it is an image of—which does us no good; or we may find different kinds of doubtful satisfaction in contemplating a suffering body. Either way, what's happening doesn't speak all that clearly of the absolution and renewal that Good Friday is supposed to be about.

The problem is in the difference between suffering and death. Images of suffering, of pain and terror, are all too completely woven into the fabric of what we are and what our world is like. Our reaction to them in ordinary settings has just the same level of muddled feeling as I've been describing in relation to the crucifix—guilt, despairing resignation, questions about how an image can be used to good political advantage, and the flicker of prurient fascination.

Such images are dreadful but familiar; we have strategies for managing them. But death is something other than this, and true images of death are rare—because it isn't easy to find an image of absence, ending, the breakage and dissolution of the world.

Good Friday is importantly about death—not simply about an intense and dramatic suffering. The redemption Christians celebrate is not achieved by the fact that Jesus suffered more horrifically and deeply than anyone else (how could we know? and how could we maintain this in the light of the repeated nightmares of this century?); it is achieved by his death. Here, we say, is God's embodiment in a human life, promising welcome for the lost and renewal for humanity; and here are the systems of human meaning and power—religious, social, national, political—combining to destroy Him.

Good Friday presents us with a stark duality—human power revealed as hostile to meaning and hope, and divine meaning and hope exposed as completely vulnerable to human power. In death our systems are revealed as empty, God revealed as helpless. All images of a unified world go into the dark.

St John of the Cross wrote, in the 16th century, that Jesus achieved more in his motionless silence, dead on the cross, than in the whole of his ministry. Before this collision of God's truth and the world's reality, represented by the dead body of the incarnate God, all we can do is keep silent. But, for John of the Cross as for all Christians, that silence is the beginning of a global renewal: it is the darkness in which God is allowed to be God, in which the world, descending into its inner chaos, returns to the very moment of creation, when God speaks into the darkness. Our silence, our acceptance of the death of the creation in the death of Jesus, makes room for the word that recreates the broken world.

The more we surround this with the fascinating and dangerous emotional freight of "suffering" the further away goes the silence. Strangely enough, on Good Friday of all days, the crucifix may be the least adequate sign of what is happening. And what are the images we need? Who's to say?

Confusion is itself an apt response to all this. But there is the empty cross; the stripped church in which no sacrament is celebrated today; the few really persuasive representations of the dead Christ (Holbein, the Gero crucifix in Cologne); and above all, our own stillness, learning to look death in the face.


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