Kiss on Wood. Reflections for Holy Week
Some reflections for Holy Week based on James Macmillan’ Kiss on Wood, Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, and Tavener’s Prayer of the Heart.
Kiss on Wood: James Macmillan
Our first piece of music is from James Macmillan. It is called kiss on wood.
In the Roman Catholic Good Friday service, the congregation are invited to come forward to kiss the cross, with the words
“Behold the wood of the cross on which the Saviour of the world was hung. Come let us adore him”
And I have reflected on those words.
I imagined a carpenter’s workshop in Jerusalem
It is a bit of a seedy place
It was certainly not the workshop of a carpenter craftsman.
This is where they take something that was once living and breathing - a tree - and turn it into an instrument of death.
This is a place where they take two or three rough pieces of wood - and nail them together.
It doesn’t require any skill.
The wood does not need to be prepared or sanded down or treated.
It is a late in the day job with cast-off wood.
And the cross, the final product, was never intended be treasured.
It was never intended to adorn the inside of a palace or even a home, to be admired or touched or loved.
This was never intended to bring pride and joy and love.
This was an instrument that was intended to bring fear, humiliation, pain and death.
I understand why we wish to reverence a skillfully beautifully crafted instrument, like a violin or cello. I can understand why you may wish to kiss that.
But why would you kiss two pieces of wood that have been hammered together?
Why would you reverence, bow down before an instrument of torture?
“Behold the wood of the cross on which the Saviour of the world was hung.”
We reverence the cross because our Saviour, the Son of God, Jesus, freely chose to be nailed to a cross.
It was not so much a question of the cross carrying, bearing him.
He carried the cross, he bore the cross.
And he did it for love, for love of you and me.
This is not the time to try and understand how his death on the cross brought us forgiveness and peace and hope and life. But it did.
We were cut off from God. We were enslaved to sin. We were spiritually dead.
And his death on the cross opened the gate of heaven, not just so that when we die we will go to heaven, but so that heaven is thrown open now: we may begin to know God and his love now.
It is his death on the cross which transforms people like me.
Perhaps we feel that we are like a cast off piece of wood, very rough, showing no skill, and all we seem able to do is to hurt people.
Perhaps we feel that we are nothing but instruments who bring death and are destined for death.
Because of Jesus, because of his love, the cross becomes an object of reverence
Because of his love, an instrument of death has become an instrument of life
Because of that wood, you can know that you are loved - God gave his Son for you
You can know that you are forgiven - Jesus gave himself for our sins. He died for us.
You can have access to God, you can call God Father. You can know the touch of God and his transforming power
Because of that wood, because of the cross, we who were dead have been given life.
“Behold the wood of the cross on which the Saviour of the world was hung.
Stabat Mater: Vivaldi
Our second piece is a C13th hymn set to music by Vivaldi.
Stabat Mater is a prayer that God will give us love – that our hearts will be placed in the furnace of the fire of the love of Christ – and that we will learn to love with his love.
The final verse of the hymn says: ‘Grant that my heart may burn in the love of Christ my God, that I may greatly please him’
We look at the love of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she stands looking at the cross.
Her grief is the grief of a mother losing a child.
She watches helplessly as the son who she loves, who she brought into life, who she nurtured and cared for, who she protected, is now falsely accused, condemned, and sentenced to death. She watches him suffer in agony as people strip him, nail him to a cross, hang him up like a piece of meat, and mock and laugh at him.
And as for her: she can do nothing - she is powerless. All that she can do is to stand there and take the pain deep into herself.
I guess that those of you who have lost children, at any age, will know that acute sense of powerlessness and helplessness, especially if you have watched them suffer.
There is so much suffering.
At the moment in morning prayer, we are reading through the book of Lamentation. The prophet Jeremiah sees the coming destruction of Jerusalem, the utter devastation, the brutality, the grief and the pain.
And he takes that pain, and that sense of God-abandonment into himself.
There is so much suffering. We can think of those who suffer in wars and as refugees, of those who suffer who watch their children die because of drought or flooding, of sickness or famine.
But we do not need to go quite as far as that.
What about the intense lonliness of the older man or woman shut in because of disability or fear? Maybe they are in your next door flat.
In the UK I took many funerals, and I found the most difficult funerals not those of children or younger people - for those who were left had time to rebuild their lives - but the funeral of an 90 year old man who had been married for 60 years, where there were no children and no other family, and who left behind his grieving widow.
Or we think of the suffering of those who have no money and no work and who really do not know where the next meal is coming, the betrayed spouse, the victim of violence now paralyzed by fear, or the child in an abusive relationship.
We think of those unable even to escape into sleep because they are in constant pain, or the person who has dropped into the pit of depression.
At the end of the first book of Lamentation, the prophet cries out, ‘Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?’
That is a line that haunts me, because so often I do pass by. I close my eyes. I remain hard and cold to the multiple needs around me. Of course, we can only take what God gives us, and we need to pray that we will be saved from becoming the person who has a messiah-complex and feels that they need to save everyone, and who loses their soul in the process.
But I do pray, and I hope as we listen to this piece of music, that you can also pray, that God will touch our hearts and share with us a flicker of flame of his love.
So that we will not pass by.
So that we will look with the same eyes that Mary looked at her son on the cross.
So that we begin to take a tiny bit of the deep pain of others into us – not so that we can ease that pain: that is beyond us - but so that in our helplessness and brokenness we will pass on that pain to the one who can take it, and to the one who can bring final and full healing, to our all compassionate God and to his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, in our prayer.
Grant that my heart may burn in the love of Christ my God, that I may greatly please him’
The Prayer of the Heart: Tavener
Our third piece of music is John Tavener’s setting for the Jesus Prayer
On Wednesdays, after our weekly communion service, we have a reflective Bible Study, and then together we pray the Jesus Prayer:
It is a prayer that goes back 2000 years to the gospels when people cry out to Jesus to have mercy on them
It is, for me, the bedrock, the foundation prayer.
When I do not know what to pray, when my thoughts are all mixed up - especially in the middle of the night, when I am confused, or tempted, or cold to others and God - this is the prayer that I end up praying.
It is a declaration of what we believe about our Jesus: a declaration and a confession of who he is. It holds together the Old and New Testaments, his divinity and his humanity.
It is a cry for mercy, not that he will forgive us – for he has already done that on the cross, and we cry to him as sons and daughters of God, but that he will transform us and change us, that he will set us free from the sin that clings to us and bring us into the full glorious liberty of the children of God
The Prayer of the heart is exactly that. It is a prayer that can become part of us: as we repeat it with our lips, over and over again, so it comes into us and begins to take on its own life. We discover that we are praying it from our heart.
But more than that. This is deeply personal: We call a person, the God-man person to come to us. We call on the name of Jesus.
It is the cry for a meeting with our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Because when he is with us, everything is right.
‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’