Had we gathered in Church today we would have sung Isaac Watts’ great hymn “When I survey the wondrous Cross”.
Of the many things I love about this hymn is the choice of the word “survey”. He could have invoked the same meaning with the word “see” or “behold” or even “witness”, but he doesn’t. In the word “survey” there is an invitation for us to stand back, like a surveyor mapping the terrain, and take in the true scale of what we see in front of us.
As we reflect on that word at this evening hour, we are surveying the scene of something that has passed. Jesus, who hung on that Cross for three hours has died. Friends have taken his body for burial. So as we look towards the hillside and see the Cross silhouetted against the setting sun we survey the shadow of the Cross falling across that landscape.
Today, this evening, this season we are day by day surveying a landscape in the shadow of the Cross. Each day as we live through this pandemic we hear of illness, or lives held by a thread, we hear the steady rhythm of the death toll ticking up day by day. We live, like no other Good Friday in my or many of our memories, in the shadow of the Cross.
One of the small mercies of these recent weeks is that I have managed to finish reading Tom Holland’s excellent book Dominion. Sub-titled “The making of the western mind” it argues that the west - and for that matter most of the world – has grown in the shadow of the Cross. Holland’s argument is that Christianity took the Cross – a symbol of imperial power and cruelty – and subverted it. That, in St Paul’s words:
This single truth – revealed in the Cross – runs like a golden thread through the history of the western world. That our instinct to preserve above all things the weak, the helpless, the destitute is drawn, whether we recognise it or not, from living in the shadow of the Cross.
In the frame of Tom Holland’s argument the sacrifices we are making at the moment – the limits to our personal movement, the closure of businesses, the cost to our economy – make no sense unless we recognise the great shadow of the Cross we continue live under. We are making these sacrifices because, like no other threat known for a generations, Covid-19 targets elderly, those with underlying health problems, it targets the weak.
So as we reflect on the limits we live by, and recognise the commitments made by so many to support others in their community, as we marvel at the bravery and courage of those working on the front line during this terrible pandemic we are not seeing signs of human self-interest, or personal gain, we are not even seeing merely the shadow of the Cross, we are witnessing the victory of the Cross.
So as we come to the end of this strange Good Friday and as we stand back to survey the wondrous Cross, we see that it still casts its shadow over the world in which we live. But as we see that shadow, we do not see the faint outline of a forgotten memory, or the supposed shape of an historians hypothesis. As we see the shadow of the Cross we see the truth of our faith and the victory of the Cross revealed to us in the life and humanity and love of our Covid-19 world.
And as we see its vivid shape and recognise its victory we remember again that the story does not end here. That the Cross always points beyond itself to a truth that is beyond our grasp, and beyond our comprehension, it points to a:
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.