John 18:1 - 19:end
In Southwell Minster there are a series of sculptures which follow the ancient Christian devotion known as the Stations of the Cross. These simple metal sculptures created by the artist Jonathan Clark tell that story of Jesus’ final journey from his trial to his burial.
Clark’s sculptures express this defining journey with more eloquence than any other representation of the Stations of the Cross I have found elsewhere in two ways.
The first is that they are tactile. The visitor is greeted with the disarming instruction ‘please touch’ as you come to the first of the stations. We are asked not to look at these stations, but to touch them, to feel the people, and most of all feel the size and scale of the Cross they depict.
The second way this work draws us into the story is in its depiction of the cross itself. Through the stations the cross grows, it magnifies, as the enormity of what the Cross means for us is revealed in this greatest of stories.
At first the cross is large, but it does not seem to overburden the figure of Jesus who carries it. But as we move through the stations, so the Cross, the defining symbol of this day, grows.
It is as if the burden of what Jesus does for us on the Cross grows with every step. The weight he is carrying becomes too much for anyone to bare. As Jesus falls, as he does three times, the Cross becomes larger, more unwieldy, more impossible to bare. As Jesus falls for the third time so large is the Cross that his figure is obscured by the Cross he is called to carry.
Better than my words can manage, these sculptures draw us to the deep reality of this day. That in the Cross, in this symbol of imperial power and cruelty and impression, God shows us, through Jesus a deeper truth of how we are saved, how we are drawn to life by the power of God’s grace. And through that how God calls us to be with God and with the world he created, and which his son came to save.
For many Christians what magnifies the Cross is the sinfulness of the world. That on the cross Jesus draws to himself all the fallenness of our human state and sacrifices himself for us. In substituting himself for humanity he pays God the Father the price and ransom for our fallenness.
The Cross, in this telling, is the gallows of our human fallenness, the place where God’s grace triumphs over Adam’s fall. The Cross is the stage on which the great drama of human imperfection is overcome.
But to see the Cross as merely a sponge that soaks up the sinfulness of the world is to miss the deep truth God reveals to us through Jesus’ actions on the Cross.
If we focus on what the Cross does for us, we are in danger of making today about us: about our own concerns, cares, and worries. But in reality the Cross is not about us, it is about God, and more particularly about the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
And this is where I find Clark’s sculptures so instructive.
By focusing on the almost inhuman size of the cross, these sculptures remind us that in the drama of this day there are two stories we hear.
The first is the human story of a man condemned by the authorities unjustly. A man who is stripped and whipped and humiliated. A man who is, with others, forced to carry the implement of his punishment and death to a rubbish heap, where he will die and be forgotten.
This story tells us of how human stories so often go. The powerful, the cowardly, the pragmatic win, and the weak lose. The only human grace are those glimpses of humanity and kindness that punctuate the depressing inevitability of this human story of power.
And in Clarks’ sculptures we see these human stories in the human figures of the judges and captors of Jesus as well as the kindness and humanity of Veronica mopping his brow or Joseph of Arimathea carrying Jesus’ body to be buried. These figures which remain the same throughout
But over Clark’s sculptures towers the Cross. This sign of God’s action and presence in Jesus transcends this human story and reveals to us the deeper truth of who God is for us through the sign of the Cross.
God could have, if God willed it, become drawn into the human drama of this story. God could have turned the heart of Pilate, or caused a plague or pestilence to strike down Jesus’ accusers. God could have intervened and changed this story. In the stories of the crucifixion we this argument used when one of the thieves condemned to die with Jesus mocks Jesus when he asks:
Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!
But God, in Jesus, did not.
Even in the face of this derision Jesus shows us another way which the Cross shows us to. Turning to the other thief Jesus offers comfort and compassion and love.
Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
In the Cross, in Jesus, God shows us a deeper truth.
In the growing Cross of Clark’s sculptures we don’t see a sponge mopping up the sinfulness of human life but a growing sign of God’s true self as love shown to us in Jesus’ actions on the Cross.
In the growing Cross we find the power of God’s love to transform this story as Jesus transforms the relationship of his Mother and his beloved disciple.
In the Cross we find the transforming power of God’s love to overcome the fallen human patterns of power and cowardice and pragmatism which each one of us is guilty of falling into again.
In the Cross we see a true theology, in the Cross we see to the heart of who God is for us in Jesus, and that God is love.
And when we know that, and when we turn to that love, when we look up from our human nature and seek the sign of the Cross we are redeemed from the human stories that deform us, and transformed by the great story of the Cross and that love which in Jesus is
so amazing, so divine, [it]
demands by soul, my life, my all.