This image of Jesus on the cross comes from an icon I found in a dusty little shop underground in Istanbul. It is Russian, late 19th century and is round, about the size of a large dinner plate. I chose it because I was on my way to be a monk at the Society of Saint John The Evangelist and so was deeply curious about, and attracted to, John’s Gospel, from which we will be hearing much in the next few days.
The Jesus of John’s gospel is a Jesus described by a community which suffered deeply. Perhaps that is why it has been chosen to so represent the gospel story in Holy Week. In the church, I have heard many who openly say they hate this gospel. It is not hard to see why. The gospel challenges us deeply to look at ourselves in the mirror of Jesus’ suffering – an act which demands immense courage, centered contemplation and depth of character.
The icon is Eastern Orthodox and it has two characteristics which tell us that this is a Jesus on the cross from John’s gospel, just like the red cloak of the O Nymphos (The Bridegroom) icon, earlier used this week, told us that that image was the Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew. In this image the glory of God is seen in the tooled, gold background; and in this image Jesus lays gently on the cross, like a napkin draped on a bed of broken glass. These two hints – God’s glory and Jesus’ self-offering, tell us what story this image is telling to the pilgrim gazing on her.
So what does the Glory of God and Jesus’ self offering tell us about suffering? It reminds us that our suffering always and only takes place in the bright beauty of God’s glory even when life seems as dark and sad as an oil-soaked rag in a trash can of decaying body parts on a hot day. Secondly, the willingness of Jesus to go through this reminds me that suffering can so often beautify.
I know. It sounds like revisionism. It sounds like we simply make suffering sound nice by re-casting it as something helpful but I believe it can be. Sure, suffering for some can simply end up tilting too much into darkness from which there seems or is no return. To look into the eyes of the homeless, the destitute, the suicidal or the chronically ill will remind us of that hard truth. But for most of us, in a wealthy church, we are faced with the deaths and nails of a rather less dramatic suffering, and in that suffering we still feel a pain which cracks the shell of our ego and lets a light emerge from us which brightens the world by connecting with God’s glory the way your wifi connects your small computer to the words of a planet of typists. And that is why this image has so much power for me today. Suffering can be horrific – it was for Jesus. And not just the cross and the nails but the night before – the betrayals, the lies, the manipulations, the friendships turned sour, the relationships curdled by fear – that must have hurt more than any nail or whip or fist.
Alone, Jesus feels this pain between Mary and John. And God lights up, just like God did at the Transfiguration when Moses and Elijah discussed this day on either side of Jesus. So I look on God’s glory today as much as I look on Jesus’s suffering. And I am reminded that when skies and lives go dark and stormy, that beyond those clouds is a sun, bright as the day and a God warm as the cheek of His mother and friend standing there, keeping vigil, just as we do. Just as those we love do for us when the oil of our heart-lamps is depleted and the flame of our lives seemingly chills.
This is a day of silent glory as much as it is a day of seething suffering. To see both is the way of this day. And it is the way we are invited to life a life in which we too must suffer such similar betrayals, tortures and deaths. The hope of Good Friday is a hope of the good Mondays and good Wednesdays and the good Tuesdays of our own lives with our own wounds. The suffering is horrific, yes. But it takes place, be assured, in Glory, surrounding a God who loves us with the bright-hot love of this very passion.
Today is not a day to wallow in your sins. Today is a day to feel the hot sunlight of God’s Glory reflected off the cross and onto the face of your soul – for it is that Glory which makes this day good.