Horror and Beauty - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Horror and Beauty

John 2:13-22, 1 Cor 1:18-25, Exodus 20:1-7

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John 2:13-22

13 And the Jews' passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

14 And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting:

15 And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables;

16 And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise.

17 And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.

18 Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?

19 Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.

20 Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?

21 But he spake of the temple of his body.

22 When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

18 For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.

19 For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.

20 Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?

21 For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.

22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

24 But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Exodus 20:1-7

20 And God spake all these words, saying,

I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;

And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

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As a child on a holiday in Spain I was taken to see a bullfight.  I'd been to football matches from a very young age so I was used to stadiums and to crowds but whilst it was in some ways familiar it was also very different.  The circular ring, the noises and smells, the seats priced according to how much shade they afforded, the costumes and the animals, horses and of course - bulls.  The fights themselves were at the same time gripping and appalling.  I saw two ears awarded to one of the matadors, apparently a very rare occurrence for what are regarded as exceptional performances.  I recall the matador kneeling before the bull and placing his forehead between its horns having so entirely disorientated and exhausted the animal.  I remember the sudden silence as the matador prepares for the kill and which requires them to lean over the bull's horns.  I remember how quickly the kill is achieved when properly executed and how slow it can be when botched and how sad it was to see what was moments before a fine healthy animal dragged lifeless from the ring.  Yes I was appalled but I was gripped and I wonder if that might be something like the experience of those who attended public executions.

My apologies for opening with that story.  I share it with you as I've found myself reflecting on that experience when trying to imagine the true horror of the cross because that's so easy to overlook, particularly as it is so familiar to us.  The history of representations of the cross is very interesting because we see a trajectory of ever more realistic representations.  Whilst the very earliest examples are from the 3rd century, the cross didn't become a common symbol of Christianity until the 6th century.  When it did appear, Christ, if he was portrayed at all, was presented as victorious, his eyes open his body upright.  Through the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries images gradually began to reflect some aspect of the pain and suffering of the cross - nails appeared, blood, Christ's body assumed some weight, it began to be shown hanging from the cross.  Not until much later did his body begin to show real distortion.  In Cimabue's 13th century crucifix in the Santa Croce Basilica in Florentine Christ body appears in an S shape, his head is dropped to the side, his body is twisted, the hips forward.  In the 16th century Matthias Grunewald went further still.  In the Isenheim altar piece Christ's body is covered with wounds, with plague like sores - the work having been commissioned for a hospital that specialised in caring for plague victims.  

Why might this change in focus have happened?  I expect there are a number of reasons.   An empty cross was seen to emphasise the resurrection and the defeat of cross as an instrument of violence.  We also know that on the whole the early church was comfortable with Christ's divine status but is struggled rather more with his humanity.   This situation is reversed today where it is Jesus' divinity that is contentious, his humanity is unproblematic. 

For the earliest Christians, who were in a minority in their communities, representations of the cross served to emphasise Christ's victory in a world where it was a scandalous idea that divine power might be exercised in such a way.  St Paul's reflects this scandal in his letter to the Corinthians - "for the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing" he says "but to us who are being saved it is the power of God".  I expect that it isn't coincidental that more realistic representations of the cross developed in societies where Christian faith was often assumed.  In these communities such images served to emphasise the price that was paid for Christ's victory and the extent to which God shares in the suffering of humanity.  

In our Gospel reading we heard how Jesus turned over the tables in the temple.  The temple was a sacrificial shrine with blood sacrifice at the core of its practice. Pilgrims came from all around to offer a sacrifice and because the temple was a sacred Jewish space, anything Roman was not allowed.  Money had to be exchanged for temple currency at extortionate rates to purchase sheep, cattle and doves for sacrifice.  Priests dispatched and bled the animals as quickly as they could, it wouldn't have taken long before they stood in pools of blood. 

John tells us that Jesus went up to Jerusalem because the Passover of the Jews was near.  Jesus was angry over the extortion at the heart of the temple system but his challenge was more fundamental than that.  Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up he says and, we are told, he was speaking of the temple of his body.  Christ's sacrifice on the cross overturns the practice of temple sacrifice. 

On that cross, as some of the more graphic representations might remind us, Christ experiences extreme suffering.  He is tortured, humiliated and abandoned - he cries out in his agony "my god, my god why have you forsaken me".  The cross is a place of horror and despair and we gaze on it in the knowledge of the teaching of our faith, that Christ bore this all for us.

The cross is difficult to gaze on if we open our eyes to its horror but at the same time it is for us a place of beauty and of hope.  How can we speak of it in such terms?  St Augustine says "the deformity of Christ forms you...for if he had not wished to be deformed you would not have received back the form that you lost".  That's a reference that sees Christ recovering that which was lost by Adam.  Just as through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man the many are made righteous.  "He hung deformed upon the cross but his deformity was our beauty" St Augustine says.

Alison Milbank, a Professor of literature and theology at Nottingham, has commented "as Christians we cannot look on a crucifixion dispassionately.  It is literally our salvation that we contemplate.  For this reason, we cannot help finding beauty and meaning, even in the violence that deforms Jesus but only makes his work more beautiful.  Like all beauty, it calls us: to care, to justice, to solidarity, and to love.  Again and again, we should seek to gaze on the one who said "I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself".

We have, here at St Bride's, our own very special altar piece; as you come to the altar this morning you may want to take particular note of it.  It shows the very moment of Christ's death as a lightning bolt strikes the temple in the background.  We may look on it with horror and we may be tempted to despair knowing that Christ bore this suffering and abandonment for us but we see there at the same time the beauty of our Lord's compassion and the hope of our salvation.  With this assurance we can, in this Lenten season examine our complicity in the suffering of the world and allow our lives to be reformed in accordance with God's will.

To him be all glory, now and to the ages of ages.


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