Remembrance: A Reflection
“God forbid, that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the
world is crucified unto me and, I unto the world” (Gal. 6: 14).
Christians have often felt that there must have been extreme depths of experience underlying Christ’s Passion that lie beyond our grasp and even beyond imagining.
‘There is a deeper pang of grief, an agony unknown,
In which his Love finds no relief, he bears it all alone’.
T. B. Pollock: ‘Weep not for him who onward bears his Cross to Calvary.’
There echoes throughout Christian worship the highest praise for the Passion of Christ. It taxes the imagination and poetic skills of hymn writers and springs from the depths of personal suffering. It is strange to speak of praise in connection with the Passion and yet that is, in practice, what happens. One of the strange consequences of faith comes from what believers have seen in the suffering and death of Christ. Whilst it is easy to see a simple parallel between the death of Christ and the animal sacrifices for sin in the Old Testament (and the latter does actually provide a foundation for the Eucharist), that is not the only route of devotion. There is another stream of thought that arises from the human insight into the suffering of another. It is a kind of intuition, an understanding of the power of love and of its consequences. It is this that speaks of Christ standing alongside those who suffer today. It is this that is offered as a response to those great philosophical problems of why God allows suffering. It is not an answer that carries logical power but it is an insight with its own persuasion.
One of the very best examples of this conviction, that the Passion of Christ is, actually, powerful to change human hearts and lives, is found in the poetry of the First World War Chaplain, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, affectionately known, as ‘Woodbine Willie.’ His lines are one of the first and greatest examples of what later came to be called the theology of the suffering God, a theology much explored by the German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, himself a prisoner of war, who learned much from Studdert Kennedy’s work. One of Studdert Kennedy’s poems contrasts the image of God, as a heavenly king ruling all from a safe distance, with that of the Passion of Christ. In verse, which is a masterpiece of spiritual commitment, he writes:
“God, the God I love and worship, reigns in sorrow on the Tree,
Broken, bleeding but unconquered, very God of God to me.”
He then asks where God may truly be found and decides it is not among the showy splendour, ‘all that sheen of angel wings’ but in lowly and ordinary things and, most especially:
“In the life of one an outcast and a vagabond on earth,
In the common things He valued and proclaimed of priceless worth,
And above all in the horror of the cruel death He died,
Thou hast bid us seek Thy glory, in a criminal crucified.
And we find it – for Thy glory is the glory of Love’s loss,
And Thou hast no other splendour but the splendour of the Cross.”
Here, Studdert Kennedy reflects a longstanding theme that goes back to St. Paul (Gal. 6: 14), a theme to be found in the writings of St. Augustine, a theme that grew in strength at the time of the Reformation, especially in the thinking of Martin Luther. It is often called the theology of the cross and it is contrasted with what is called the theology of glory. The theology of the cross sees the divine nature and its wonder most fully disclosed in the humility of crucified life. Pomp and images of kings and palaces dissolve before the eye of faith and, as Studdert Kennedy sees it, as he ends this poem entitled: ‘High and Lifted Up:’
“High and lifted up I see Him on the eternal Calvary,
And two pierced hands are stretching east and west o’er land and sea,
On my knees I fall and worship that great Cross that shines above,
For the very God of Heaven is not Power but Power of Love.”
The theology of the cross, the theology of the suffering God, in which the divine nature and its wonder is seen in the humility of the crucified Christ, strikes a cord with us, as we remember the fallen on Remembrance Sunday.
Considering the suffering and appalling loss of life of the Great War, Timothy Rees, CR, Bishop of Llandaff, through the nineteen-thirties, Depression, developed an understanding of Christ’s suffering, as incomplete and being still worked out. God, he felt, could not preside unmoved over the wholesale slaughter; and in the trenches, in the wire, in the craters, he saw Christ’s thorn-crowed head. For Rees, death was an unbearable transformation, a clear manifestation of Christ’s own suffering yet to be completed.
Rees, in his devotion to the crucified Redeemer, saw on the battlefield the spilling of Christ’s blood, heard his cries of pain and found there ‘the groaning of creation, wrung out by pain and care.’ Few can match the understanding of suffering expressed in his words:
“And when human hearts are breaking under sorrow’s iron rod,
Then we find the selfsame aching deep within the heart of God.”
That aching has been the mark of our age; given testimony to and epitomised by the battlefields of the Somme.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them nor, the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.
The Revd. Canon Geoffrey Andow