At the Cross of Jesus by Anthony Esolen

ILLUMINATIONS

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:

See Him in raiment rent,
With His blood dyed:
Women walk sorrowing
        By His side.

Heavy that Cross to Him,
Weary the weight:
One who will help Him stands
        At the gate.

Multitudes hurrying
Pass on the road:
Simon is sharing with
        Him the load.

Who is this travelling
With the curst tree—
This weary prisoner—
        Who is He?

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


Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (anthonyesolen.substack.com), on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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