Good Friday: the focus for hymn writers and poets – a tradition going back many centuries, one which picks up the depth of feeling of this day.
From Anglo-Saxon literature, we have The Dream of the Rood. We do not know exactly when it was written: we do not know who wrote it. In it, the wood of the Cross, the Rood, dreams of the Crucifixion when:
Those warriors bore me on their shoulders until they set me down upon a mountain. Enemies enough fastened me there. I saw then the Lord of Mankind hasten with much courage, willing to mount up upon me.
“The young warrior stripped himself then—that was God Almighty— strong and firm of purpose—he climbed up onto the high gallows, magnificent in the sight of many. Then he wished to redeem mankind. “The rood was reared. I heaved the mighty king, the Lord of Heaven—I dared not topple or reel.
“They skewered me with dark nails, wounds easily seen upon me, treacherous strokes yawning open. I dared injure none of them. They shamed us both together. I was besplattered with blood, sluicing out from the man’s side, after launching forth his soul.
“Many vicious deeds have I endured on that hill— I saw the God of Hosts racked in agony. Darkness had covered over with clouds the corpse of the Sovereign, shadows oppressed the brightest splendour, black under breakers. All of creation wept, mourning the king’s fall— Christ was upon the cross.
This is a rather violent description but, moving forward several centuries, is a more restrained attitude, seen in one of our best known poems, John Donne’s Good Friday 1613, Riding Westward. Here the poet finds himself on a journey in the opposite direction to that he feels he ought to be travelling and this makes him think of Jesus on the cross:
Hence is't, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget;
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.
Yet he almost feels a relief that he does not have to witness the suffering of Jesus and its effects:
Yet dare I'almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke.
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And tune all spheares at once pierc'd with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag'd, and torne?
This certainly reminds us that Donne is a metaphysical poet, with some complex imagery based on the current astronomical theory about the universe. Stated more simply, yet even more powerfully emotional in the poet’s imagination, is the thought of Mary at the foot of the cross:
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish'd thus
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom'd us?
As he journeys west, Donne feels the gaze of the crucified Christ on his back:
“thou look'st towards mee,
O Saviour, as thou hang'st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave."
It is only with his sins burnt away to restore the image of Christ in him that he can receive God’s grace and he expresses this very simply:
“O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may'st know mee, and I'll turne my face.”