Four meditations on "The Killing" by Edwin Muir

Quiet Day at Sacrista Prebend, Southwell.
Holy Week 2002

Meditation 1

What is it that attracts us to Jesus? Where does that attraction come from? The stories that each one of us will have to tell about our journey will be so different, and will relate such a variety of answers to that question, of that I have no doubt. But that only complicates the matter. We are fascinated. Despite all the challenges to belief which each one of us has faced, we are still here, fascinated, longing to know more, to understand more, to see more, with greater depth, greater vision, greater awareness. Does not our prayer, at least at times, include a pleading with God, ‘Please God, show me more.’ You remember how many times in the Gospels people said to Jesus ‘Come on show us a sign’; even in the last moments of his life, nailed to the cross, agonisingly vulnerable and human, they said, they taunted ‘Let him come down from the cross, then we will believe in him.”

Wouldn’t that have been fantastic. There would have been no questions then, no need for the tantalising spectres of the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances. Is that why, in Edwin Muir’s words:

Zion was bare, her children from their maze
Sucked by demon curiosity
Clean through the gates. The very halt and blind
Had somehow got themselves up to the hill.

What was the spectacle they were going to view, at all costs and at none? Was it the sport of another public execution - not for the squeamish of today, but as popular as a football match in the first century especially if there was the prospect of a big name being humbled. Was it the tragedy of another dead dream for the Jewish people. Victorian artists loved Luke’s account of the crowds of women mourning and weeping and beating their breasts. Or was it that they were expecting even then the sign, the miracle that would turn this good but politically naïve teacher into the Messiah of God for whom they had been waiting?

‘Demon curiosity’ Strong words. Endless fascination, yes we can recognise that can’t we, but is it demon curiosity? The cross is truly scandalous. I don’t need to be graphic in describing what, we believe, God put the Son through. The nails, the blood, the thirst, the asphyxiation, the abandonment, the degradation, the humiliation. Those are the reality of what Jesus suffered. How many times do we turn our heads away from images we see on television of the suffering of peoples. How often are we disgusted by what is broadcast into our living space. That horror is what Jesus suffered. But our religion has sanitised it all. We surround the cross with picture language about love and salvation and atonement. We see Mary and John joined at the foot of the cross, and talk blithely of the beginning of the church. We love Jesus’ words “Father forgive them” but the cry of agony “My God My God why have you forsaken me”, we prefer to know that Jesus was quoting the psalm. Our churches, our homes even our necks are hung with crosses of silver, of glorious carving, the art of masters, or just plain wood to be more humble. We are fascinated, but we keep the cross at arm’s length. What is it then that gets the very halt and blind up to the hill. What do we expect from the cross?

Meditation 2 (1 Corinthians 2, Luke 9: 18-27)

For Edwin Muir, writing this poem in the latter part of his life, what or who exactly it is that he encounters seems unclear. There is almost a note of desperation in the poem - “I was a stranger, could not read these people or their outlandish deity.” The poem is not about Jesus so much as an inquisitive reflection on those around the cross, and we shall come back to that. Edwin Muir was never comfortable with the faith he inherited; he grew up in the Orkneys, at the mercy of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and a mother who was immersed in the revivalist movement, and loved the hymns of Moodey and Sankey. Muir writes in his autobiography:

On Sunday evenings we would sing these catchy self-satisfied tunes together: “Hold the fort, for I am coming”, “Dare to be Daniel”, “Bringing in the sheaves”. I always disliked them, but this only made me sing them more loudly, as if it would rid me of my dislike. Revivalist Christianity was saturated at that time with ideas of self-help, and my mother’s wish that we might ‘get on’ may have gone back to her conversion. A paper called the Christian Herald which we got weekly, helped to encourage this.

And just before this, whilst acknowledging the important role his mother had in passing on her faith to him, he writes about a particular child’s book of Christ, the title of which he cannot remember:

It must have been written in a vein of mawkish sentiment, for it gave me the impression that Jesus was always slightly ill, a pale invalid with the special gentleness of people who cannot live as others do. My mother often lamented as she read from this book, that she no longer had another one called The Peep o’ Day, and for a long time I carried about an imaginary picture of it; I could see the frontispiece showing a bearded Jesus in a wide cloak, bearing a lamb in his arms. But it lay in the past, in a place I could never reach.

How many of us get beyond those childish images, really? And who produced them? How did Jesus Christ crucified become for us Gentle Jesus, meek and mild? Wherever did Mrs C F Alexander get those images which still haunt our carol services? And why?

And through all his wondrous childhood
(about which we know absolutely nothing)
He would honour and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden
In whose arms he gently lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as he.

Well there’s the answer to the why! Sorry if I sound cynical, but it has nothing to do with the Jesus that I encounter through scripture; yet these are the images which we promote. It is the classic heresy of promoting a particular vision of social order, and then producing a theology to support - the infamous “God in a box” of our own making.

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.

We don’t often reflect much on the second sentence. To be exposed to the world with nothing but faith in Jesus Christ, and him crucified - if you like, to take up your cross and follow him, - is a fearful thing and it is a dangerous thing. Vulnerability is surely one of the features of Jesus ministry as we receive it through the New Testament, but that seems to be very far from popular religion today.

It was not until late in his adult life, during a visit to Rome, that Edwin Muir began to grasp this essence of the Jesus of faith.

During the time that I was a boy… I was aware of religion chiefly as the Sacred Word, and the church itself, severe and decent, with its touching bareness and austerity, seemed to cut off religion from the rest of life and from all the week-day world. …It did not tell me by any outward sign that the Word had been made flesh… nothing told me that Christ was born in the flesh and had lived on the earth… In Rome that image was to be seen everywhere, not only in churches, but on the walls of houses, at cross-roads in the suburbs, in wayside shrines in the parks and in private rooms… This open declaration was to me the very mark of Christianity, distinguishing it from the older religions. For although the pagan Gods had visited the earth and conversed with men, they did not assume the burden of our flesh, live our life and die our death, but after their intrusions withdrew into their impenetrable privacy.

It is that danger that we have surrounded Jesus, and therefore God, with an ‘impenetrable privacy’ by turning him into a ‘fluffy bunny’, wholly disconnected from reality which must challenge us as we reflect on the cross; and of course we will all cry ‘never’, ‘untrue’, but our Victorian hymnody runs deep.

Meditation 3

I referred briefly in my last address to the way in which the poem stands at a distance to Jesus himself. As I read myself into the scene, I find myself standing at some distance from the cross, or the crosses, part of this crowd who have come out for the day to watch, for who knows what reason. For a moment here and a moment there, I am with them observing the drama unfold.

We watched the writhings, heard the moanings, saw
The three heads turning on their separate axles
Like broken wheels left spinning.

It is very detached, the play has hardly begun; and then as the pain and the suffering begin in earnest, my attention is taken away from the players to the little groups of people who make up the audience. Some are drawn in. The reality hits them. This is not make believe; nor is it a God who can withdraw into an ‘impenetrable privacy’ to be untouched by human life and death.

Round his head
Was loosely bound a crown of plaited thorn
That hurt at random, stinging temple and brow
As the pain swung into its envious circle.

Some who came to stare grew silent as they looked,
Indignant or sorry. But the hardened old
And the hard-hearted young… cursed him with one curse

Disappointed, angry, cheated, some of them certainly were that. The culture of the old, the culture of the young (and who knows where the arbitrary dividing line may be) allow little possibility that death and brokenness can be the vehicle for salvation. For the old, the inherited religion does not give any hint of that. Breaking the mould is not what we’re given to. Comfort, reassurance, being nice, good solid teaching, knowing what we’re about, that’s where we want to be. And the young? Well, perhaps most of us have forgotten, but perhaps Edwin Muir says it all in two lines:

What use to them
Was a God or a Son of God?

And having rejected that as a possibility - for if a God was useless, a dead God was a complete farce,

They were angry then with death and death’s deceit.

In a moment we will, as so often we do, break bread together. We will carry out those instructions which Jesus left us, and in doing so will make present, by his own promise, that broken body on the cross. We will incorporate into our very being that cross, that death.

Whoever therefore eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves.

So wrote St Paul. Standing at a distance from the cross does not seem to be an option for us. ‘When we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory.’ We take the cross for ourselves, literally we are clothed in Christ’s death. Easy to ritualise all that. If the Life of Brian teaches us anything, it is how easily we create ritualistic nonsense from earth-shattering reality.

Beside the cross foot
Alone, four women stood and did not move
All day.

No other comment, no explanation, no judgement. Somehow attention is caught amidst the braying and the taunting. Alone, four women did not move. Where are we?

Meditation 4

And so we’re off, back into the hustle and bustle, the week ahead, and quickly whatever we have gained from today will be submerged in getting on with life; but we do have the opportunity to take time out to walk, even if a little ritualistically, with Jesus, to immerse ourselves once again in the whole story, to explore again even in the privacy of our own hearts where the cross impinges on our life. Does the killing touch us? Do we fall silent, or do we secretly wish that the miracle had been just a bit more convincing, so we didn’t have to cope with all those sneaking questions and doubts with which our lives are filled? How do we cope with that naked vulnerability, weakness, submission which we have eaten and drunk today, and will do so again tomorrow and the next day?

I was a stranger, could not read these people
Or this outlandish deity. Did a God
Indeed in dying cross my life that day
By chance, he on his road and I on mine?

Onlookers are confused by what they see. Tradition has it that that crowd of which we will become a part tomorrow, who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with cries of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” have since cried “Crucify him” and now gather around to taunt him, casting all their broken dreams into a crown of thorns which gouges the flesh of this King.

Someone said to me yesterday how taxed her husband had been by Jesus’ instruction ‘take up your cross and follow me’, and the way we make such valiant efforts to do that but then constantly shy away. Surely we are not really called to live in that naked vulnerability. So easy to reassure ourselves that what it is really about is the assurance that we (and not too many others, please) are on our way to heaven. The rigmarole with which we have surrounded Jesus Christ crucified is surely outlandish to the enquiring eye and mind. The walk with Christ this week challenges us to clear some of that away in our hearts and minds at least, even if miracles may take a bit longer. It is that chance encounter which can be transforming.

Andrew Deuchar
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th May 2002