Age to age shall say.
Months in due succession, days of lengthening light,
Hours and passing moments praise Thee in their flight.
Brightness of the morning, sky and fields and sea,
Vanquisher of darkness, bring their praise to Thee.
Then said he to them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even to death: tarry you here, and watch with me. Matthew 26:38
Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.Mark 1:3
On Good Friday I went to Notre Dame for the three o'clock service, as is traditional. It was different to what I have been used to back in England; I would usually expect a reading of the Passion, but instead we had the fourteen stations of the Cross, and there was a veneration of the Crown of Thorns rather than of the Cross - and this went on throughout the service rather than at a fixed point, so there were people walking up the aisle constantly. The cathedral was packed, and there were still tourists milling about. But for all this it was an extraordinarily lovely service. Priests spoke in five languages - six if you count the sung Latin - so that there were at least some parts of the service that everyone, in the international context of Notre Dame, could understand, and the music was exceptionally lovely.
I have not had a very successful Lent. I began with good intentions, but the days seemed to slip away from me, and I gave over hardly any time to the proper sort of devotions. Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Good Friday is a fine time for repentance; I always find myself sorrowing over my many failings. It's acting on that feeling which is difficult. I need to find a way to keep God in the forefront of my life. Because I am always welcome, and that in a way is one of the causes of my bitterest regret - when I turn back to God, I find Him, and yet I let myself slip away because keeping in sight of God is hard work, work of ashes and stones as much as of joy.
I always cry on Good Friday. I am moved quite easily to tears, and Good Friday always gets to me, of course. I nearly completely lost it this year, though. I had that aching dragging feeling in my chest of wanting to sob, not merely shed a couple of tears. Don't do a Margery Kempe, I told myself sternly. No one wants to see that. I may want to cry each year, but what makes me want to weep varies. This year it was the reading from Mark that reports on Christ's agony in the garden of Gethsemane. My soul is sorrowful even to death... Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.
Not what I will, but what you will.
This is one of the most painful parts of the Passion, in some ways more than the Crucifixion. That Christ knows that death is coming for Him, and He is afraid, and He is grieving for the life He is about to lose. He asks God to take this cup from Him. He may be God, but he is also Man, and He is not ready. But at last He says not what I will but what you will.
There's a fatalistic sort of brand of Christianity that talks about handing everything over to God, that says "it's God's will" as if one's own actions make no difference to the course of things, a passive handing over of responsibility to God. That's not what is happening here. Christ makes an active choice to hand over His life to God, not because that is what He wants or what is easiest, but because it is right. It is an act of extraordinary faith. And yes, Christ is God, and so He knows what is to come; but He is also a man, and whatever He knows as God must have been, in the exhaustion of His perfectly human body, difficult to see. The enormity of the present overshadows even the knowledge of the eternal.
The reason I've never got on very well with the pantheon of virgin martyrs is that they always presented as bearing their suffering calmly, completely confident that they are going to heaven. Some of them even seem to seek out martyrdom, in a way that young men and women today strap explosive devices to their bodies for the glory of Allah. Let me show You, Lord, let the suffering of my body be a gift, let me die for Your glory they seem to say, eager for the passionate embrace of death. This isn't how Christ faces death. Christ knows that it will hurt, and he is afraid - of bodily pain, of the humiliation He will face, of knowing that one of his closest friends will reject Him, that people who have adored Him will cheer at his execution. His death is not glorious. The Crucifixion is such a significant part of our cultural consciousness that it's easy to forget this - to see Christ crucified in our minds as art, images of his perfect, beautiful suffering from Diego Velazquez to Salvador Dali. But it was a squalid, painful, humiliating way to die. It was a grotesque spectacle for onlookers, and was a punishment reserved for the worst sort of criminals. It could take days under a hot sun, insects attracted to your sweat and blood and piss and shit, watching crowds jeering, and if somehow you were still alive after a few days someone would smash the bones of your legs to encourage asphyxiation. Of course Christ was afraid. He had the privilege of knowing that this would pass, that it would be worthwhile, but His human heart was afraid. I think I love Him more for that than almost anything save His love for us, because I know that He knows how hard it is to be human, how hard it is to do the right thing.
Today I went to my local church. It was a lovely mass, although without a mass sheet I found it difficult to follow the readings (I really must buy a French mass book - most of the churches I've been to in Paris provide a mass sheet, but not all, and I get more out of it if I can read along with the French!). Two children were baptised - a first for me, because I've seen infant baptisms and adult baptisms but never the baptism of children aged around 7 or 8. I assume that their parents have recently joined the Church. They were solemn and sweet, and the priest was very kind, and it was just lovely to watch. And pouring out of church at the end there were so many bright faced people heading into the sunny Sunday morning. There was nothing spectacular for me about this mass, no moment of great revelation, and I was a bit headachey and the church was hot and I found it hard to make any prayers of note. I always want Easter to feel like a great shout, a ringing of the heavens as Christ conquers death. But today there was just an everyday sort of happiness in the church, and I thought: how easy it is for me, who always wants such storms of feeling in my faith, to ignore the quiet contentment offered by the knowledge that each year there will be another Easter, and another, and another, and each offers the promise that through God it is never too late to start over. And that if each year I need to start over, that is alright. The Resurrection offers us so many different points of contemplation, and I have focused on different ones every year, but this year it seems to me that God was saying quietly: all will be well. Not because we are passively turning over our judgement to God, or because we are blindly optimistic, but because we believe, despite the terrible suffering there is in the world, despite the hurt we do ourselves and each other, that we are worth saving. That we are all worth saving, and we are beloved.