Friday, 30 March 2018

Good Friday at Derby Cathedral: The Precarious Body on the Cross of Love


O Tree of Life, Wondrous Mystery,
We gather before your glorious and broken body;
O, you who are faithful to Abundant Love,
Expose, our savagery, our wantonness, our greed;

O Tree of Life, Tender Stem of Love,
Trained by us into contortions of agony;
O, you who are faithful to Glorious Mystery,
Help us to wait with you in your hour of need. Amen

Section One: The Brutalised Body


Life is a simple matter. It’s a question of knowing what you can control and what you cannot. Of knowing when to bend and when to be firm. That, I think, was this man's mistake. 

He was immature. Naive. His politics, crude. I guess this is what happens when simple folk get ideas. They don't know how to wield them or negotiate. He's not stupid - indeed I believe he’s more than his share of wit and talent. It's just that without an education these people tend to lash out. Like beasts. They inflame a mob. Like a toddler, they lack the character to be able to moderate or compromise. If only they'd pay more to their leaders. Leave the thinking to the grown-ups. At least we can do business with them.

Once, I asked a soldier to demonstrate a crucifixion to me. It was...instructive. I can’t remember who the poor soul was who we crucified. Someone. A criminal. A person. Does it really matter? I was surprised by how quiet it all was. I mean, not that there was any lack of distress. There was quite a lot of that. The nails elicited agony. Rather I mean the skill of the executioner was impressive. He got it all done with such little fuss. He knew his tools and task well. There was an understated economy about it.

What I hadn’t expected was the intimacy, which I guess reflected my own naïveté. On reflection, how could there not be? When two men are drawn together in such proximity, one attaching another to planes of wood, how could it not be intimate? In that moment, one man sees death in the lines and wrinkles of another's face.

And there was something terrific - astonishing even - about witnessing the scene. It made me realise that killing another might be erotic. Exposing. I imagine that's how it feels to enter the arena, to fight like a gladiator. Or go to war. It was revelation.

I can't tell you how glad I am that I asked to see that execution close-up. It changed me. Changed how I dealt with people like this Jesus and all the bruisers and revolutionaries and wanton holy men who’re sent my way. It made me understand that it isn't the fact that we crucify them that matters so much as how. That it is as much about aesthetics as punishment. I think that’s made me better in my job. Though I might not hammer in the nails, I strive for my own economy of action. An elegance, a gentleness perhaps.

So when I met Jesus I was calm. Considered. I like to think he too understood the moment, for he didn’t speak. I simply explained what we had to do and why it was important. And there was no snivelling or complaint. I was impressed. If he had any majesty it was in his dignity and control.

I know some men crave theatre and show. And that's what so much of power consists in - the spectacle. That's why we have to crucify them in a public space.  But I’ve always preferred intimacy. That moment when you meet someone face to face and you are yourself. And part of the beauty and power of the moment lies in the fact you’ve acted with economy. Because you’ve not made any fuss about an unavoidable act. That’s how it was between Jesus and me.

And then we were done. And he was taken away to his fate. And I washed and bathed – like people sometimes do after making love – and I slept and I did not dream.


Do you know what it’s like to hold the most precious thing in the world in the palms of your hands?

All those years ago I held him - my first born. My miracle. He was so tiny. So tiny, I thought, How could anything so delicate live and breathe and be so hungry? My baby. My promise.

Look at him now.

Have you ever held the most precious thing in the world in the palm of your hand?

I was there for him from the beginning. I fed him from my breast, I taught him his first word, I held him when he scraped his knee and cried.  I stayed with him even when he said those hurtful words in front of me, ‘Who is my mother?’

I’m with him now.

Mothers, as a rule, don’t want to let their children go. Not in their most secret heart. They want to keep her babies safe. We hold them, but we have to let them go.

I held the most precious thing in the world in the palm of my hand...
He said he was going to save us all...
And I had to let him go...

How often have I wanted to hold him, make him safe ...
Before this day is over I will hold him again.

Section Two: The Humiliated Body


I’m not a good man. Never have been.

I’ve been a soldier for twenty five years and I’ve whored and drunk and fought my way all over the Empire. I’ve seen stuff you can barely dream of: Celts running into battle painted blue, known what the darkness of forests in Germania. I’ve picked up filthy diseases in Rome.

I’m not a good man. I’ve done a lot of nasty things. And enjoyed them. I’ve spent as much time on a charge as I have following orders. Why do you think I ended up here, doing this? Nailing fanatics up...half of them drunk on their god, the other half just criminals. The one we nailed up today, they say, is a bit of both.

I deserve this job. When I started I liked to look at them when I hammered the nails in. I liked them to know that it was me who was killing them. That no matter how holy or righteous or tough they thought they were, it was someone as ugly as me taking their life. I wanted them to know that their god wasn’t going to protect them. I wanted them to know that the world is ruled by ruthless men and the things we’re prepared to do.

Maybe I just nailed too many of them up. Maybe I got bored.

All I’ve ever wanted is to feel. Isn’t that what everyone wants? I’ve spent my whole life doing this, that and the other - mostly the other - just because I wanted to feel something. I want to feel like they do – these idiots and fanatics and holy men. But I’m not a good man. So what can I do?

There’s this thing that keeps me awake at night. When I’m not showing the world what it’s got used to seeing. My secret – my hate for it. I hate the pain and the screams. I hate looking at their eyes.

I hated the one they call the King of the Jews most of all.

The one they call the King of the Jews. He looked at me. Stared. And he knew. I swear he looked past my face and saw what I really am. He knew how much I hate all this. He knew how empty I’ve become. I almost gouged his eyes out for that.

That’s what a bad man would do. And I’m not a good man.

We were told to break their legs. For the sake of the Jews and their festival. You know, when you break their legs they can’t breathe anymore. They can’t push themselves up. They drown in their own water and blood.

Sometimes I don’t mind breaking their legs. It’s like I’m being merciful. Like I’m helping. It makes me feel good. Better. That I can do something kind.

But I didn’t want to touch him. Not the one they called the king. It was his eyes. The way he’d seen what I was, but didn’t judge. He knew I wasn’t good. He saw I was nothing. And he didn’t judge. It was…it was what I reckon love might be like.

I was glad when we didn’t have to break his legs. But I had to shove the spear in his side. To make sure he really was dead. They’d have killed me if I’d have said no. But he was already dead. It was like he was being merciful to me. He gave up his spirit so I didn’t have to hurt him anymore.

I think he was good that man. I met him once that was all. And I was his killer.

I don’t cry. What’s the point? But the water that flowed from his side was like all the tears I’ve never cried pouring out. It was like all the pain I’ve ever caused flowing out of his side.

When I’m alone maybe I’ll weep tonight. And I’ll pray that he – wherever he is – might find it in his heart to forgive me.


Unless you become like little children you cannot enter the kingdom...

I never understood why Jesus said that. I always thought, what does he know? Sure, he was a child once, but you soon forget. Unless you're a woman and a mother. Then the world never lets you forget.

It sounds so simple, doesn't it? It almost sounds attractive...become like a child...Children are so full of life. I remember my boys, little James and his big brother Joses, sticking their noses in everything, buzzing with energy even when we had nothing...being cheeky and climbing trees. That's not so bad is it?

But that's not what he meant. Not if he's the person I think he is. He's not sentimental. He cares for proper stuff.

What I think he meant was become a nothing, become a nobody. And you don't have to be a woman or a mum to get that, but it helps. I've seen how it works you see. I know.

I know how it's always the kids who pay the price.

How the soldiers and the fanatics make use of kids because they're naive and enthusiastic. I've seen fanatics using little boys and girls to set traps for the soldiers or make diversions. I've seen soldiers using kids as shields and hurting them to get at us. Both sides are as bad as each other. Both sides use kids for their own ends.

I've seen girls get used and then told to shut up.

Become like a child. Jesus might as well have said become like a woman. He might as well have said step into the shadows, lose nothing.

I wouldn't be stood here now if it wasn't for him. Jesus called James and Joses and me into another path. Away from the fanatics. He’s always treated women well. Has seen us. And I love Jesus for that. But I never got his line about becoming like a child. It’s like he sets you free, gives you a voice and standing, and then talks like we should give it all up. I never got it ...till now...

Today they’ve nailed him up and today I know he understands. Today he is truly one of us, today he is a child. Today he is a woman and a little boy and a little girl.


Jesus dies on the Cross

Wishing he could nestle now
In crook of mother’s arm – first-born,
Wonder, pearl unexpectedly found;

Or further back, sea-being, smoke-eyed,
Dart in shadows till trap is sprung,
Net raised high, business quickly done;

But he is last of his tribe,
Deaf to secrets only he knows,
Gabbles alone, mouth open, no song.

Mary Laments

Now I’ll tell you things you’ve never known:
How old age grows, a vine around the throat,
Of wounds that never heal, grain breaks,
Begins again in the ground.

You unlocked secrets with a clap of your hands,
Snapped open eyes, loosened tongues, took spit
And soil, kicked up crowds in dust you left behind.
If I knew the trick I’d crumble earth, rub it in,

You’d blink awake, I’d stare you down,
Tell you the news, I told you so.
How you’d smile and look away, walk off
As if there were somewhere still left to find.

Joseph of Arimathea

How easy would it be to say
I gave what I gave for love;
to save his body from howls
and bones, meat and dog,
endless dark in the dawn?

How easy would it be to say
I came in search of festal lamb;
scrap of understanding,
food for escaped bodies,
beginning and end and begin again?

How easy would it be to say
I sought soil for seed, land in storm;
some way to fill cold room of want
with aloes and myrrh,
an offering to ripen ancient fruit?

Body of Christ

Find me when the journey ends and sun
bleeds into night; and I shall conjure spelt's
wild thunder, make bread crack and roar,
tear stories with my hands, let grain shatter and fall.

And we shall eat in the dark, mute in wonder,
understanding or not; will walk softly in fields
as if we still breathed, as if we knew company
of the dead, our dreams tremble in the dawn.

And we shall speak as if our mouths
are no longer our own; I going on ahead,
if that is what you need, learning secret tongues,
searching melodies and chords for glorious song.


Broken Bread, Living God,
in the dazzling dark
you give yourself to death,
and we are afraid.
In the daytime of our panic,
in the bloody ground of our fears,
we pray that we may trust
the mystery of hope and glory
sealed in your death;
may we know your Passion is hope,
may we find through the ruins of your Body
the road to faith, forgiveness and love. Amen