The empty cross

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The End of God

Addresses for Holy Week 2018 by Angela Tilby

Good Friday 2018


Jesus calls us to ‘take up our cross and follow him’. But there is a question of which cross? The Christian Church has understood the cross in different ways in different times and different places. So I want to look in these three addresses at three of the most well-known versions of the cross, reflecting on them in visual form.
You have before you on your order of service three images of a cross and the first of them is an empty cross. So this is the cross I will begin with. I associate the empty cross chiefly with the faith of the Protestant Reformation, though there is a Catholic version of it which I will come to at the end. Protestantism began as religious protest, it arose as a conviction that the Church had obscured and distorted the true faith, by ritual, by priestcraft, by magic and perhaps above all by idolatry. That is why historically Protestants have shunned visual imagery, fearing that images are as dangerous as the idols of the Old Testament which seduce the heart away from the true God. So the Protestant church is pure, most typically a whitewashed functional space. What happens in that space is proclamation, a confrontation with the pure word of God. Peter’s sermon to the Jews at Pentecost is a model of assertive evangelism, telling the story, making the claim. ‘This Jesus, whom you crucified, God raised up’. When the cross is shown in a Protestant church, or on a screen or the cover of a Bible or on a poster, it is most often a plain empty cross.
The cross is empty because Christ is not there. Christ is not on the cross because the cross is in the past, and Christ no longer suffers because he is in heaven. The empty cross, then is the sign of a victory won, a finished fight, a done deal. Christ has died for me. This has life-changing consequences, ‘O come to the Father through Jesus the Son and give him the glory, great things he has done.’ Or as Charles Wesley put it, ‘No condemnation now I dread, Jesus and all in him is mine’. The poets of Protestantism proclaim to us that because the cross is empty, I know I am free from my sins. The victim is no longer being tormented and so I am free from the torment of anxiety and guilt. I can stand on the promises of God and entrust him with my life, now and for all eternity.
During my teenage years this was how I understood the cross. It was my way into a Christian faith that I could call my own, and I am sure it went alongside a discovery of my own independence from my parents. It also made me feel rather superior to the pious agnosticism that I attributed to most Church of England churchgoers. If I had any doubts, the empty cross was the evidence and the proof of the love of God. It’s meaning was replicated in the service of Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer where the sacrifice of Christ was always located in the past. It was because he ‘made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient, sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world...’ that I could respond with thankfulness.

I understood then, and do now, how the Protestant architects of the Reformation saw in the empty cross a charter of freedom for all who had been oppressed by the Church, by its cruelties, its power plays, its pretensions and follies. Here was a faith which could be grasped by anyone. Utterly simply and yet unfathomably deep.
The empty cross made any other sort of cross redundant. Not for me in my teenage years the gaudy crucifixes of Roman Catholicism, with their crowns of thorns and bloody wounds; I found them repellent. Not for me the suggestion that there was any kind of offering involved with the Eucharist. To think so was a kind of blasphemy, a negation of what Christ had done. The empty cross was tidy, neat and clean. And it still has that appeal for those who are gasping for clarity – some of the brightest undergraduates in Oxford pile into those churches which preach a Gospel of the empty cross – there is a sheer cleverness about salvation by simple faith which draws some very brilliant people as well as those who are just simply grateful to be included.
The founders of the Reformation believed in the finality of the cross, as the proof and test of everything; judgment and salvation brought together. But it was one thing to be saved, it was another to live out the Christian life day after day. Think of poor Thomas Cranmer, architect of the Book of Common Prayer, imprisoned under Queen Mary, tortured, frightened, miserable. Six times he recanted his Protestant faith, and he was still condemned to death.
And that was very hard. Because the empty cross can lead you to a false security in which you could come to believe in your own invulnerability. If the cross is empty, if Christ has died for you, if the blood of Jesus has taken away your sins; then it can become quite hard to acknowledge your own weakness. Christians can only live victoriously, so what happens when you are bereaved, or you fail your exams or lose your job, or you suspect you might be gay, or you are stricken by that mental pain and helplessness we call depression. There is no place for your suffering on an empty cross. Suffering is an embarrassing redundancy in a universe where God has chosen you to be triumphant.

The other thing is that it’s lonely. The empty cross leaves each of us alone and requires that we accept it alone. I once heard a preacher speak of his robust Reformation faith in terms of four great alones: Faith alone, Christ alone, scripture alone, grace alone. And yes, lonely was what that sounded like.

And the third thing is that it can judge others harshly. The world, the outsiders, the unbelievers. The cross becomes a sign of division between the saved and the unsaved.
Over time I found I was drawn beyond the empty cross to the other dimensions I will explore later. But I do not reject it as a starting point. I can still be called back there by the great evangelical hymns, I can still be moved by a testimony of a new Christian who is simply overwhelmed and humbled that Christ died for him or her. And there is an undeniable majesty and beauty in the simplicity of the Protestant Cross. It questions the pride of the self-made man or woman; it questions the complacency of the one who is unmoved and untouched by the needs and sufferings of the world. It speaks to some of those who have no time for religion, no taste for church going, no sense of history or tradition.

And for those of us who start here and perhaps want to move on from here, it is intriguing to discover that the empty cross does not only belong to Protestants and does not only express an evangelical faith. It is also the cross of the Carmelite order; those friars and sisters who live by one of the most austere of the Catholic monastic rules. Each Carmelite brother or sister has an empty cross in their cell, and this carries a meaning which is quite different from that of the empty cross in Protestantism. For the Carmelite, the cross is empty because that is where I am. It is a sign of the crucified life each one is called to live, a life that is deeply identified with the suffering of Christ.
We all have some inkling of these through what happens to us at Baptism. When you were baptised the cross was traced on your forehead, like a brand or a badge, indicating that you belonged to the crucified Christ. At the Reformation most of the ancient rituals of the Church were abolished. But our Church of England forebears refused to abolish the sign of the cross at baptism. So our foreheads are etched with the cross. In some way Christ takes us with him into the cross, and we in our living and dying are still marked with that sign.

So we don’t just gaze on the cross, it is scored into our being. This does not make us invulnerable, or triumphant all the time. It does not save us from suffering and doubt and dread and ambiguity. But I believe that the cross hallows and consecrates these difficult human experiences. Christ works through all that happens to us and through us to bring us to salvation. There is nothing that is outside his scope, or his power or his concern. So the empty cross is where we begin and perhaps also where we end, where our own life is completed, where we finally surrender to God in Christ’s own words, ‘It is finished’. And so we turn to silence, to reflect on the empty cross. On what God has done for us. On what we might yet do for him.

Almighty God,

we beseech thee graciously to behold this thy family

for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed

and given up into the hands of sinners

and to suffer death upon the cross

who now liveth and reigneth with thee

in the unity of the Holy Spirit

one God now and for ever.


Reading: Luke 23. 26-38
‘Sometimes I think about the cross

and shut my eyes and try to see

the cruel nails and crown of thorns

and Jesus crucified for me’
That hymn was written for children. I think the children the author had in mind must have been Protestant. If they had been Catholics there would have been no need for a special effort to imagine the cruel nails and crown of thorns. They would have been be all too visible, in the home, at school, in the pendant crucifix given at confirmation, and perhaps and most significantly in Church, on the rood screen or above the altar. Blood and thorns and wounds. The traditional Catholic imagination is full of the violence and pathos of the cross.
For years it was a shock for me to go into a convent or a school and see the crucifix on the wall, it was shocking that is, to my Protestant self. But I knew there was another story, for my mother had been a convert to Catholicism and I knew there were things like rosaries and stations of the cross and other rather horrifying and fascinating aspects of Catholic devotion. It surprised and intrigued me how easily Catholics seem to live with this daily depiction of torture. What disturbed me was found by them to be familiar and reassuring. But of course, what was really disturbing for my Protestant self was the upsetting of the clean and empty cross; the bringing of all that suffering and pain into the present, into now, with its inescapable challenge and demand.
The crucifix makes us look on Christ’s suffering. We see him dying before our eyes. We see him offering up his life to the Father. And though this is a past event it is also something which is still going on. Where the Protestant imagination sees Christ alone on the cross – think of the much loved modern hymn, ‘In Christ alone my hope is found…’ – the Catholic imagination sees Christ surrounded by his friends and enemies. It is extraordinary how Luke’s account of the crucifixion draws in all these onlookers and strangers as Christ goes on his way. There is Simon of Cyrene, who is forced to carry the cross behind Jesus, there are the crowds of wailing women who come out to meet him on the way like a Greek chorus in a tragedy, and finally the two thieves crucified on either side of him. It is as though Luke is saying as you look on Christ’s suffering you are also seeing the suffering of the whole world. It is also a mirror into the suffering life has imposed on you. My own gradual movement towards the crucifix came as I grew older and began to realise some intractable things about myself, some of the depth of childhood wounds – nothing exceptional – just the normal stresses and humiliations which mark us all.
It was then that I began to respond to the crucifix as something profoundly comforting. When you are in mental or physical pain it simply helps to know that Christ went through it too. It helps to visualise him bearing his cross, as you struggle to carry your own; or when you can’t carry your own and must rely on someone else – a Simon of Cyrene – to do it for you. When we see Christ nailed to the cross we realise that our own pain is recognised. Not healed or taken away but recognised, acknowledged. That in itself can bring a real measure of relief. There are no answers, but the crucifix shows me I am not alone.
The transition from the empty cross to the crucifix marked the transition from what my younger self had always tried to avoid to what my older self found I had to accept. And not only for myself. When we look at Christ on the cross we also recognise his suffering in the suffering of the poor, the tormented, the grieving. And of course there is a challenge in that, a real demand. Am I prepared to walk in the way of the cross? To give my life as Christ has given his? His life for me, mine for him? In this way of looking at the cross his death is not only a substitute for mine, it also challenges me to take up the cross in his company.
This is the Christian call to costly witness, the pouring out of our lives in love and service. This is what has motivated the long line of saints and martyrs from the earliest days of the Church to our own time. It has enabled Christians to work in the most desperate and appalling situations, to see the crucified Lord in the least of his brethren. For Mother Teresa in her work with the dying in Calcutta each individual simply was Christ.
There is something so moving and so powerful in this way of looking at the cross that I almost hesitate to voice a reservation. But I do have a reservation nonetheless. The call to follow Christ is always a call to life. Life through death, of course, but still a call to life, not a call to death. The believer who longs for martyrdom is a dangerous person to have around. They can destroy themselves by the lust for a sacrificial death, and take others with them, whether they mean to or not. The cross can also be used to repress the question of justice, to keep people in their place, humble and compliant. Think of those children in Catholic schools and institutions abused and betrayed under the watchful eye of the crucified Christ. Or think of those weird holy Anglo Catholic slum priests who lived lives of astonishing austerity and sometimes secrecy; caring for others round the clock, while suffering inwardly from desperate depression or addictions of one kind or another. There is a martyr complex which encourages people to feed others while starving themselves. This is like the anorexic, who loves to prepare food and watch others eating while standing back, secretly consumed by their own hunger. If our only valid and valuable life is a crucified life, if the authenticity of our service and commitment to Christ is measured by how much it hurts, then there is going to be grief and distortion, not life, not joy. The Church is right to identify Christ with the poor and the needy but it is wrong if it does not also work for the poor to be unpoor, for the needy to have what they need in abundance.
So we need to be careful that the constant presence of the crucified Christ does not turn into a fascination with suffering, a kind of spiritual snobbery which patronises those who find life, real life, in ordinary things; in a job well done, a happy enough family, a good enough marriage, a working faith. Those are real Christian vocations and ways of fulfilling God’s will; and if we follow them faithfully the cross will find us on its own terms and in its own way. We do not have to borrow a cross of particular austerity because the one life has actually dealt us is not good enough!
These are heretical thoughts, I know, and perhaps not worthy of Good Friday, but I want here to stick to the sane wisdom that I have also inherited from our Anglican heritage. The cross is part of the whole, the key to life, but not the whole of life. Without it, there is no life at all, but the point is salvation, not hell, not torment.
Meanwhile we can contemplate the crucifix with thankfulness. We do not have to be perfect. We do not have to be well. We do not have to be strong. Christ on the cross accepts what we are and who we are, as he accepts Simon of Cyrene, as he accepts the dying thief. All our lives are her, our sins and failures as well as our gifts and talents. ‘The chances we have missed, the graces we resist, Lord in thy Eucharist, take and redeem’. We will now enter a time of silence. A time perhaps to be still in the presence of Christ on the cross, to be in silent conversation with the Lord in our hearts. What does he ask of us? What does he give to us? What in us calls out his forgiveness?
Almighty God,

whose most dear Son went not up to joy

but first he suffered pain,

and entered not into glory before he was crucified;

mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross,

may find it none other than the way of life and peace.


Reading: John 12. 20-33

‘I when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself’. The next cross I want to look at this Good Friday is less familiar to most of us. You can see it on your service booklet, the gold cross on page. You can see that it has three cross beams. The top beam stands for the cross bar which, according to the Gospels bore the words, Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. The hands of Christ are nailed to the central beam and the lower beam supports his feet. Sometimes the lower beam is not straight but on the diagonal. Here you can see a hint of that in the carved pointed surround of the lower beam. If you look at it carefully you can count eight major points – three at the top, two at the cross beam, one at the bottom and two in the lower beam the one on the right pointing upwards and the one on the left pointing down. This is how the cross is portrayed in many of the Orthodox Churches; in Russia, Greece and elsewhere in the Orthodox world. This cross is empty but it is not plain. It carries a message.
All our crosses today have their own meaning. The empty cross with which we began makes a statement about the completion and sufficiency of Christ’s work. The crucifix reminds us of the suffering of Christ and appeals to us to respond to those who suffer, and to offer our own sufferings to God. But this cross is not an illustration but a symbol, a visual sign of what the cross means. It speaks of salvation, of a battle that has been won; of a conflict that is ended. The lower cross beam is the key to that; the left hand point is pointing to the underworld, to death, to hell, which is defeated by the Passion. Here is perhaps the most primitive strand of the Christian tradition, kept alive today by our brothers and sisters of the Orthodox churches. If you go into an Orthodox church you won’t find a central cross dominating the space. Instead you will find a Calvary, set to one side as a focus for prayer. The lay-out of an Orthodox church reminds us that in the earliest Christian centuries the cross was not the universal Christian symbol it has become.
This reflects the fact that when the early Christians expressed their faith in visual form they did not depict the cross itself, but the effects of the cross, in other words, salvation. They showed themes from the scriptures of salvation in action. So you would see Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, with the ram waiting to be caught in the thicket; Moses striking the rock; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego singing the praises of God in the burning fiery furnace.
I have a Russian icon at home which I bought in Jerusalem. It shows twelve mysteries of the Christian faith as little pictures round a central panel. You can see the annunciation, the birth and baptism of Jesus, the transfiguration, the entry into Jerusalem, the ascension – no cross. And the centre panel is reserved for the central mystery, the Resurrection. Only here it is not Jesus rising from the dead, or meeting Mary Magdalene outside the tomb – it is Jesus standing at an open grave, dragging out a whole company of the dead, with Adam and Eve at their head. The very last panel on the icon does have a cross in it and it is being held by the emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor and his mother Helena – who is famed for having discovered the true cross on her travels to the Holy Land. This is the cross we see here. The eight pointed cross whose lower bar with its awkward angle pointing down towards death and up towards heaven.
This cross tells us that death is defeated. The Orthodox writer Olivier Clement says, ‘By the grace of the life-giving cross we receive power to transform every state of death into a state of resurrection…..dying and descending into hell with Christ in order to be born in him to a new life made fruitful by eternity’.
Something very important and perhaps very unexpected is being claimed here. It is not as in the theology that goes with the empty cross that Christ dies and then sinners are forgiven as a consequence. It’s not as in the theology that goes with the crucifix that Christ’s death invites us to bear our sorrows bravely in the hope of eternal life beyond this world. It’s more that the cross and the resurrection are inseparable. Death is defeated because the one who died is immortal, and because he is immortal he comes back from death bringing the dead with him. Adam and Eve are dragged up out of the earth, their features still showing the marks of experience, but now renewed, recreated.
This is the cross of victory, a cosmic victory, which has effect for all human beings of all times and of all ages. This puts a different and perhaps an unfamiliar slant on Good Friday. But perhaps that different slant is one which has something particular to give us for whom this eight-pointed cross is unfamiliar.

For centuries the worst fear for a believer was the fear of hell, that he or she had done things which condemned them in God’s sight and for which there was no forgiveness. But today I think our problem is not guilt but despair. We secretly believe that there is no God and that therefore we are already in hell, that this world is a kind of hell. The great temptation for many of us is to believe that life has no meaning, that God is dead or absent or indifferent. Or, perhaps, almost more insidiously, that God is well-meaning but powerless.
Ever since I remember the world has seemed about to implode into chaos. In the 1950s and 60s it was the cold war and the terror of nuclear war, mutually assured destruction. There was also talk of a new ice age. Then it became man-made global warming and the poisoning of the seas, the destruction of the rain forests, and the depletion of natural resources, and the death of whole species. Then it became spread of terrorism, religious terrorism inflicting barbarities on the innocent all over the world. And with all that as the background we have Putin and Donald Trump, the casual poisoning of British citizens in Salisbury, the murderous bombing of Eastern Ghouta; the ongoing refugee crisis, and the anxiety many feel about their futures and their childrens’ futures. It would be easy in such a dangerous and threatening world to believe that the ordinary faithful responses of loyalty, kindness and care that that people make towards one another carry no real weight, they are drops of water falling into an ocean of raging fire. Our common life is corrupt, poisoned, irredeemable.
I think it is precisely that moment of utter despair which is confronted by the eight pointed cross. The cross bar points down and up. ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tomb he has given life’. Holy Week does not end on Good Friday in the quiet garden of human impotence. Holy Week is suffused by the resurrection hope. It means nothing without that. It defeats the hell that we create by our own despair. It means that our hopes for the world are not just wishful thinking but part of the energy of the Holy Spirit within us, calling our world, calling the whole of nature, animals and plants as well as humans, oceans and the mountains as well as living beings, to flourish and diversify – in praise of our Creator.
Now I find this powerful and inspiring. It makes me long for the Christian faith to be not only free but strong and attractive in our own society, inspiring the most imaginative and creative thought and endeavour.
But before we get carried away by this resurrection cross, there is a problem we need to be aware of. Orthodoxy is so all embracing that it does not always leave as much room as it might for the quirky, the recalcitrant, the sinful. The resurrection is such a powerful motif that it can be played out in such a way as to crush human weakness and dissent. The Byzantine Church was historically a cruel place if you were a Jew or a heretic or you didn’t fit in some other way. We can find compassion in Orthodoxy and a strong sense of human solidarity, but at the level of the state there has sometimes been a tendency to support totalitarianism. The KGB and the Orthodox Church were closer than is often realised in the communist era. Now that the Church is respectable again in Russia it is interesting how much Vladimir Putin relies on its support pouring money into church buildings, especially when they are dedicated to St Vladimir. So when we look at the eight pointed cross, we need to remember our human tendency to short cut the process of growth, to live so much in the power of the resurrection that we forget the daily necessities of humility and gentleness. Yet ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death’. That is a perspective we need to keep in mind, it is through this week, through this day, through this three hours devotion our direction of travel. In this silence try to put yourself consciously into the perspective of the resurrection; so that while you still grieve for your losses and your sins you are opening yourself to the power of the Immortal one who defeats death: God the Holy, God the Strong, God the Immortal, have mercy upon us.
Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us. We glory in your cross, O Christ, and we praise and glorify your holy resurrection. For by virtue of the cross joy has come to the whole world.

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