At the Cross of Jesus
At the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the good Gawain approaches the Green Chapel, where he is certain he must die. It's New Year's Day, the snow lies deep, and a grindstone hums nearby. As far as Sir Gawain knows, it's sharpening the ax that will shear off his head. "I'll be with you right away," calls the demonic Green Knight from behind the chapel. That chapel is a place of foreboding. There is no cross.
I've been to a chapel without a cross. It was converted from an old factory. The windowless inner "worship room" boasted electronic equipment for music and videos, but no cross. I felt, there, a little like Gawain. There's something wrong, in the sense of being crooked, bent, about a chapel without a cross. It cannot lead to good.
The Question of Christianity
Quite different is the wisdom of a remarkable five-part hymn by one Edward Monro: "The Story of the Cross"(1864). The first part is The Question:
The terse meter provides, at the end of each stanza, a moment of extraordinary pathos. For the last line is "missing" its first syllable. It begins on a strong beat, set apart from the meter of the rest of the stanza. The women walk in sorrow, where? By His side. Who is this weary prisoner? Who is He? That is the question of Christianity, right there.
Son of God
The second part is The Answer:
This is poetry worthy of Emily Dickinson; spare, laconic, immensely suggestive. The pronoun this, from The Question, is supplied in The Answer. If you want to know who this weary prisoner is, you must follow in his steps, up the bitter mountain. Then you will learn what seems impossible to the world. This weary prisoner, this man, battered and despised, is the Lord of life—Son of God, as the centurion professed.How powerful is the break in the sentence, and the omission of the definite article! It's as if the reply comes with a clutch in the throat: this is what it means to be Son of God.
The next stanza delivers two powerful allusions to Scripture. Isaiah says of the Suffering Servant, "He hath no form or comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him" (53:2). Spiritual beauty, Francois Mauriac wrote, attracts one man irresistibly, while others don't notice it, or are repelled by it: as to some people the countenance of the aged Mother Teresa was only withered and ugly. The poet begs us to find the beauty of Jesus, not simply to pass him by. He alludes to the Lamentations of Jeremiah, after the destruction of Jerusalem; the text foretells the suffering of the Messiah: "It is nothing to you, all ye who pass by? Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow" (1:12). Why do the people pass by? The worldly race preoccupies them.
The world races to dissolution, and people race to attain things that perish. In this blest week at least, we should leave that race, and tarry awhile, to gaze upon the countenance of Jesus, seeking him in penitence, and finding in him our salvation.
Motifs of the Crucifixion
In the third part of the poem, we address the Lord personally:
The poet combines motifs from the Crucifixion with those that look forward to it and those that recall it. "When ye have lifted up the Son of man," said Jesus to the Pharisees, "then shall ye know that I am he" (John 8:28). That elevation is to the throne of the Cross, with the crown of thorns as his diadem, fulfilling the prophecy of Daniel: "Behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom" (7:13–14). "And I," said Jesus, "if I be lifted up from the earth"—he is speaking about both the Crucifixion and his ascension to the Father—"will draw all men unto me" (John 12:32). Those arms are flung wide to embrace all who would come to him.
Munro tells the story of the Crucifixion with great skill: the nails, the cry of desolation, the darkness, the jeering thief, the sign nailed to the top of the cross. Friends and disciples stand—where? Alas, far away. Can this man lifted high on the cross be the Savior—brought so low? Yes, there is the sign: 'Jesus of Nazareth.' What does that mean? Love. What, from your exalted vantage, Jesus, did you see that moved you to grant me the greatest gift of your love, to die for me?
The Way for Thee
In the fourth part the Lord responds:
Jesus came for the speaker, for each of us, because he saw us wandering, weak and at strife. Again and again, he uses the personal pronoun thee; he does not save a generalized mankind; he saves us. Hence the emphatic reversal: For thee my blood I shed, / For thee I died. Hence the insertion of the pronoun into the famous verse: I am the way for thee: I am the way you must go.
What is that way? It is the road to Calvary. It is the way of love, even in suffering, even unto death. Only at the side of the pierced Lord do we find peace.
Star of My Soul
So in the final part of the poem, the speaker replies to Jesus with eager love:
Not one word is idle. The auxiliary will is emphatic: I will follow, I am resolved. The verb follow, appearing for the third time, echoes the words of Jesus, and is the touchstone of the poem. Jesus is the star of my soul, the polestar, fixed in place, the star to sail by, in the darkness of this life. If we die with him, shall we not also rise? •
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“At the Cross of Jesus” first appeared in the Mar/Apr 2013 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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