Love unknown

Finding himself travelling west on Good Friday in pursuit of worldly business, John Donne imagines himself straining to look east to witness the crucifixion, but also relieved that he cannot look:

Who sees Gods face, that is self life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?

Donne’s response to this impossible sight, this unfathomable love, is to beg for punishment:

I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.

Donne is a masochistic soul, so often responding to the generosity of grace with a desire for punishment, as in the Holy Sonnets ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’, ‘At the round earths imagin’d corners’ (here in New College choir’s recording of the anthem by C H H Parry), and, less tastefully, ‘Spit in my face you Jewes’. But Donne’s view of Good Friday is not all that far from our own; so many representations of Good Friday from the last five hundred years are images of desolation and devastation, of torture and trauma and human inhumanity. It is a day of reckoning, a day of discomfort, a day of confronting who we are and what we are capable of doing. On Good Friday hang all of our sins, and all of our woes.

And so, perhaps it should be. We need to reckon with who we are and what we could be. But this year it felt so difficult, to be pulled to the depths of Good Friday without the company of friends, without the consolation of music, without the balm of ritual. We have already lost so much, and it seemed cruel to be forced to reckon yet again with sin and punishment and death, especially when Easter is yet another day when we are without family, without our freedom, and when the deaths continue to come.

Perhaps in this spring of seemingly endless Good Fridays we need something different, not a black Good Friday, but a good Good Friday. There is an older vision of Good Friday not as the descent of sin and death, but the spring of life, the source of Easter joy. Some of the earliest images of the crucifixion, for example, show not the desolate, drying corpse of northern Renaissance paintings, but Christ as a hero, almost smiling and ready to leap off the cross in triumph. This is the Christ of John’s gospel, who chooses to be lifted up to save the world, and chooses to breathe out his own spirit.

Later Christians meditated on John’s version of Jesus’s death by imagining the wound in Christ’s side opening up to reveal the depth of Christ’s saving love. A sixteenth century woodcut illustrating the gospel of John (in an edition of the New Testament in Syriac) shows the tree of life embedded in Christ’s side, the wound torn there by a sword opening up to bring forth and contain all of earthly life.

The fourteenth century mystic Richard Rolle (c. 1300-49) saw Christ’s wounds as a dovecot, with space for each of us to hide as the dove secures herself from the hawk, an apt image for our socially distanced times. Julian of Norwich (1342-after 1416) has a vision of Christ looking into his own side ‘with a glad cheer’ and seeing there ‘a fair, delectable place, and large enough for all mankind that shall be saved to rest in peace and in love’. ‘This,’ she says, ’showed our good lord to make us glad and merry.’ (See below for the rest of this remarkable passage.) The Latin inscription on the woodcut above, from a liturgical chant, reads ‘Who in his hands outstretched upon the cross drew to himself the whole world.’ Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross is an extraordinary act of generosity. It is not self-flagellation, but self-donation, self-multiplication. God gives, that we might be.

There are times in human existence when the Good Friday of torture and suffering is the Good Friday we need, a reminder of what we are capable of, of what we can become. But there are times in human existence when the Good Friday of gift is all that we can receive, a reminder that we are loved and nurtured even at our lowest ebb. God comes alongside us in our sharpest pain and restores us, remakes us, revives us, into a life extraordinary, a sacrifice beyond our imagining for a future that is all our hope, and more, a dance of delight and love and peace.

This joyful Eastertide,
may God give to you and to all those whom you love
his comfort and his peace
his light and his joy
in this world, and the next,
and the blessing of God almighty,
who made us, loves us and keeps us,
be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.

From Julian of Norwich, A Revelation of Divine Love, chapter 24 (the tenth revelation):

With a glad cheer our good lord looked into his side and beheld, enjoying. And with his sweet looking he led forth the understanding of his creature by the same wound into his side, within. And there he showed a fair, delectable place, and large enough for all mankind that shall be saved to rest in peace and in love. And therewith he brought to mind his dear-worthy blood and his precious water, which he let pour all out for love. And with the sweet beholding he showed his blissful heart evenly cleft in two. And with this sweet enjoying he shewed to my understanding, in part, the blessed godhead, as farforth as he would at that time, strengthening the poor soul for to understand as it may be said, that is to mean, the endless love that was without beginning, and is, and ever shall be.

And with this, our good lord said full blissfully, ‘Lo, how I loved thee,’ as if he had said: ‘My darling, behold and see thy lord, thy God, that is thy maker and thy endless joy. See thine own brother, thy saviour. My child, behold and see what liking and bliss I have in thy salvation, and for my love enjoy with me.’

And also, to more understanding: this blessed word was said, ‘Lo how I loved thee,’ as if he had said, ‘Behold and see that I loved thee so much, before I died for thee, that I would die for thee. And now I have died for thee, and suffered wilfully that I might. And now is all my bitter pain and all my hard travail turned to endless joy and bliss to me and to thee. How should it now be that thou shouldest pray for anything that pleaseth me, but that I should full gladly grant it thee? For my delight is thine holiness and thy endless joy and bliss with me.’

This is the understanding, simply as I can say, of this blessed word: ‘Lo how I loved thee.’ This showed our good lord to make us glad and merry.

With thanks to Professor Elisabeth Dutton for reminding me of this passage, and for reminding me of many other medieval images of the generosity of Christ’s sacrifice.

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