Good Friday, 10 Apr 2020
People take photographs in odd situations, don’t they? I think the oddest I’ve seen is someone videoing on their telephone an open coffin and the body therein. I want on this Good Friday to consider something of the practise of sharing images and recording events pictorially on this day when we are presented with such a stark image, the Son of Man lifted up from the earth, nailed to the Cross. The Romans knew what they were doing when executing people like this because it was such a stark warning to others, in a way the political leaders of our own nation could never threaten: Behave or else. Similarly in our own nation when people were executed of old their heads were often placed on prominent spikes as a warning to those tempted to do something similarly outrageous. Images carry messages.
I can see why people take photographs: to share with others, to capture a moment, to have a memory for the future, all of which are great things and it’s fantastic that we’re artistic and creative beings in a slightly frivolous way. God has created a world for us to enjoy. But does that mean we should take photographs of absolutely everything? There must come surely a point at which the desire to photograph so as to immortalise a moment ends up reducing the moment in it being lived out? I think we can all agree, for example - and I’ve never seen this happen, thankfully - if a groom wanted the best photograph of the ring going on his bride’s finger and so decided to take a little snap while he was putting it on her that that would be a little too much.
What would have happened if our Lord had died in an age when people took photographs? What if there had been a deluge of Instagram posts concerning Jesus’ Crucifixion? How many retweets would it have received? Who knows? Maybe at the time it was so risky being a follower of Jesus that no one would have dared associated themselves with the death of the sentenced criminal and supposed phoney pretender to the throne of the Jewish people. Perhaps we should just be glad our Lord’s Crucifixion wasn’t subject to yet further trial by the masses.
While the camera never lies - though we have to be even careful of that in these days of photo shopping - it’s never been claimed that photographs or indeed pieces of art do not miss something. You can see someone hanging on a Cross, you can see a piece of art of two individuals next to each other and they be perfectly accurate but we have no idea of the story of what’s going on between the two individuals, even if we have a little blurb to explain. And so, art sometimes needs to add details which might wouldn’t necessarily be seen in a photograph but nonetheless contain something that is true. In medieval depictions of the Crucifixion, for example, you might have angels holding chalices collecting the blood from the Saviour or a skull at the base of the Crucifix. None of these would be captured in the photograph of the scene but they are no less real in telling us what was happening: that the blood of the Saviour was to be given to His people to nourish them; that He was crucified at the Place of the Skull, Golgotha, a place where death, seeming to reign, is in fact conquered.
During the Corona Virus pandemic some of us have been watching videos on our phones or laptops of worship offered in our two Churches or worship offered elsewhere. It is our great duty and joy as Christians to worship. The Mass is the “source and summit” (Light of the Nations, §11, Vatican II) of the Christian life when we unite ourselves most closely to Jesus, who said last night - the night He was betrayed - “Do this in memory of me.” Today and tomorrow are the only two days to the Church’s year when Mass cannot be offered. This is for two reasons: first, because we are in deep sorrow for the death of the Lord: to deny ourselves the Mass is an act of mourning. Second, because the Mass is a figure of the Lord’s death and, as St Thomas Aquinas points out, you can’t celebrate a figure of the Lord’s Death on the two days when His death are presented to us fully in the liturgy. The Mass enables us to go to Calvary every day, except on these two days when we are there anyway. As a means of still comforting us, the Church on Good Friday ordinarily bids the people of God come to receive the Holy Communion consecrated the night before at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
As we watch worship recorded on video, our souls can still be nourished by what we see. To watch is not simply enough though; we are to be moved, deep within us, just like the compassion we see in our Lord, just liked the compassion that compels the Good Samaritan to act differently to others in the way he responds to the attacked man as good as dead (Luke 10:25-37). The vocation we have as Christians is to worship, not to watch others worship. What is worship? It’s surely an act of love that obliterates self, like the sacrifices of old, so as to recognise that true worth, true value is found in God. This is the movement we see in the Mass as we take up our Crosses and deny ourselves, confessing our sinfulness and receive the graces we need from Him who is the author of Life, who alone is worthy. Through this recognition and movement of worship we begin to long to participate in God. We get caught up in what Jesus is doing on the Cross in offering Himself to the Father such that we too start dong that, but not just when we worship, but every single moment of our days.
Something of that needs to be captured in our watching of these sacred videos, our watching of worship on the TV, our reading of Sacred Scripture and of the Saints. Worshipping through video isn’t normal and isn’t meant to be normal. We mustn’t come through this Pandemic with Christians thinking we can just go on like we are now, that worshipping through a television screen or on an iPad can in any sense replace us gathering together to worship and to praise the Lord our God together. Jesus needed to be on the altar of the Cross to commend His Spirit to God the Father, we will need to return to the altars of our churches to worship the same God with the same offering of the Lord’s life given for the world.
While we’re stuck with this for now we must focus on participating when we’re watching. Make the sign of the Cross when you would if you were here. Kneel down when you see the Blessed Sacrament on the TV. Maybe don’t sit in a comfy armchair or eat snacks when you’re watching worship. Maybe hold a crucifix. Put your phone on silent so you’re not disturbed. Prepare to worship before you press play. Do all these things so watching worship doesn’t become the same as watching Eastenders or David Attenborough.
The best pictures will draw us into them. We’ll lick our lips when we see a depiction of food; we’ll be able to hear the breeze of the sea in the holiday snap; we’ll sense the pregnant atmosphere at a funeral. But pictures drawing us in will also mean sometimes something of our life being seen in the picture. In a lot of art, something of the spectator is implanted into the scene of the Crucifixion. Paul Gauguin in 1890 painted himself in front of a Crucifixion scene and it’s quite clear which he thinks more important, himself. Lucas Cranach was one of many artists a few hundred years earlier who was not adverse to inserting people of his own day into the depiction of what we commemorate today, largely to make a political point about who was close to Christ.
Physical proximity is not a guarantee of salvation: one of the thieves fails to say sorry for his sins and is focused only on saving his own skin. But proximity is important. We are to love those geographically close to us, our neighbour. Today, Good Friday, the Cross comes closer to us through the offering of this liturgy, and to those watching the recording of this, but we need to ensure we are uniting ourselves to this same Cross every day of our lives. Amen.