I often make reference to the fact that when we pray we do so not only with those physically present but with Christians across the world and indeed, by virtue of the communion of saints, across the ages. I have been reminded of our essential global unity this week by joining with my fellow clergy in the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross in the Church of Ireland, in saying Morning Prayer via Zoom. They, like us, here are in “lock-down”; they like us are facing the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. And so on this Good Friday, with them and indeed with all humanity, we stand at the foot of the cross on which Jesus gave up his life for each and every one of us: at once, both a once-and-for-all event in history, yet a revelation of the eternal truth of God’s self-giving love – the cross is both an historic event yet an eternal and universal truth.
John Dunne, metaphysical poet and dean of St Paul’s in the 17th century famously wrote these lines with which many will be familiar
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
Our current restrictions prevents the literal tolling of a bell, but Dunne’s point is that we are inextricably connected one with another and the death of any human being is a reminder of our interconnectedness as well as of own mortality. We are all deeply affected by our current situation, we are “in it together” and every death diminishes our wider human community without in any way taking away the very personal grief and despair experienced by those who have and are losing loved ones.
Jesus knew that despair on the cross – My God, My God, why have you forsaken me – the opening verse of Psalm 22. This chilling verse witnesses to the complete internal breakdown, physical, mental and perhaps most terrifyingly, spiritual, in the one who is God on earth – if it makes any sense, God is shattered on the cross in Jesus. Yet, we can say that God knows human despair; the incarnation is not some theological theory but the affirmation that in the heart of God is the fullest and deepest empathy with the human condition.
Hymn writer and Bishop, Timothy Rees, a former Bishop of Llandaff, where I grew up, has written one of my favourite hymns, the second verse of which captures entirely this truth.
God is Love: and he enfoldeth
all the world in one embrace;
with unfailing grasp he holdeth
every child of every race.
And when human hearts are breaking
under sorrow's iron rod,
then they find that selfsame aching
deep within the heart of God.
On this very particular Good Friday, when nobody is unaffected by the situation in which we find ourselves, we stand at the cross assured that God is with us, God is love.