The mother of a first grader asked me if she could have a minute. “I’m concerned about what’s going on in Sunday school.” I asked what she meant. “Last week my son came home and told me you’d been talking about the crucifixion of Jesus.” I nodded. “He told me the whole story.” Children retelling the Bible story to their families was just what we hoped would happen. What could be the problem?
“He cried as he told me,” she went on. “The cross upset him very much.” I wanted to be sympathetic, but I was too thrilled. The whole point of our program was to make the stories come alive for our students. Before I could stop myself, I said, “I wish I would still cry whenever I heard that story.”
Do you ever feel indifference during Holy Week? Perhaps the cross seems more like a formula than an event. A method for dispensing forgiveness rather than a horror our Savior endured for us. As a professional Bible-teller, I experience how detachment can set in during the most sacred of seasons. But I’ve found help in Christina Rossetti’s (1830–94) short poem “Good Friday.”
Impassive as a Stone
The poem, written in 1866, offers the relief of honest realism and an effective remedy for when I no longer connect to the sorrow of this day. Full of biblical allusions, it still speaks strikingly to us. Rosetti begins,
Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Here’s the truth. This week I will sing, “Beneath the cross of Jesus, I fain would take my stand.” But instead of my heart roiling with awe, shame, sorrow, and gratitude, I may well just go through the motions.
“I can stare right up at Jesus from beneath his cross . . . and yet keep my face, my life, as impassive as a rock.”
If I let myself reflect on this indifference, I take up Rossetti’s opening question: “Am I as cold as a stone to Jesus? Am I unable to reach even the level of a mere sheep?” Though lacking in courage and common sense, a sheep at least knows the shepherd’s voice and responds. Through Ezekiel, the Lord described us as having a “heart of stone” (Ezekiel 36:26). I feel the truth of the description even as one who now has, in Christ, a new heart. It’s not just that I’m distracted. I can stare right up at Jesus from beneath his cross, close enough to see his blood leave him, and yet keep my face, my life, as impassive as a rock.
Standing Among the Weepers
Rossetti convicts me, because I know how a stony callousness grows over my heart. But she also relieves me, because I see I am not alone. Her admission invites me to bring the shame of my apathy into the light. Sometimes, when I imagine Jesus on the cross, I just don’t feel moved. We read the passion story in worship, and I just want to get home and watch TV. There. I said it.
Rossetti keeps driving home the point, but as she does so, she also offers a remedy for my indifference. Her strategy is to take us to those characters who did weep. Perhaps we cannot summon deep feelings for Jesus in his passion. But we may be moved by the women and men who cried during those dreadful hours. We might feel for them, and in so doing rekindle our emotions for Jesus. So Rossetti leads us deeper into the biblical narrative, with three allusions to Luke’s account.
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved.
First, we’re directed to the “women who were mourning and lamenting for him” (Luke 23:27) as Jesus carried his cross toward Golgotha. The loud, inarticulate wails of a Middle Eastern lament eloquently declared, “This is not right! This is so sad!”
Perhaps you’ve been at a funeral for a young person. For many teenagers, this is their first loss of a peer. They cry openly and loudly, not yet having learned how to live with ongoing grief. Their fresh dismay makes the death all the more devastating. Yes, I remember the girl who sobbed in my arms, and I feel the death once more through her. So could sympathizing with the wailing daughters of Jerusalem connect me anew to Jesus?
Luke’s simple, direct language about Peter’s denial cuts to the heart. “The Lord turned and looked at Peter. . . . And [Peter] went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:61–62). I remember telling one of our children I could not do what I had promised. The pain in his eyes just slayed me. I remember the disappointment in the look of a parent that cut me more deeply than any words. Worst of all, recalling the sorrow in my wife’s eyes from something cruel I had said devastates me still. I feel a bit of what Peter felt.
Could that lead me to see the pain on Jesus’s face from my participation in the world’s rejection of him? And then once again feel sorrow for him?
Luke does not tell us of tears from the thief on the cross. But the criminal’s words connect us to Psalm 88, the most hopeless of biblical laments. This thief painfully knew he was soon to die. He was condemned by the Romans, but worse, felt himself cursed by God. He felt as the psalmist before the Lord: “like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. . . . Your wrath lies heavy upon me” (Psalm 88:5, 7).
Fearing an everlasting separation, he called, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). I can connect to the sickening feeling of being past the point of no return — beyond redemption — and from there look over to the Son of Man about to die and know that his punishment is unjust. He will be vindicated by his Father. So might he carry me with him through death? My desperate hope opens a channel to Jesus’s sufferings.
While Sun and Moon Weep
In the third stanza, Rossetti imagines nature itself recoiling over the cruel cross. Luke reports, “It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed” (Luke 23:44–45). So she writes,
Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon —
I, only I.
Rossetti invests the heavenly lights with personality, though she knows, as we do, that it was the Creator who caused this unnatural occurrence in his world. The phenomenon reflected the contradiction that creatures had hung up the Creator. Slaves of sin assassinated the Sovereign. The reliable day went dark over our audacious assault on Christ.
Again, we have resonance with this from our experience of nature’s power. We jump when thunder claps simultaneously with the lightning. We fall quiet at a solar eclipse. We shudder inside when solid ground trembles in an earthquake. When the normalcy we take for granted shifts suddenly, horror rises at our precarious position. Can I now feel very nature’s shame at our murder of the Savior? By now, some passion should be returning to my muffled soul.
Surrendered to Indifference
Rossetti does not let up. She voices the isolation that continued apathy creates. “I, only I” remain indifferent while men and women, disciples and criminals, sun and moon weep for Jesus. This sin of benumbed attention runs perilously close to the loneliness of very hell.
So she turns us from reflection to ardent prayer:
Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.
“This sin of benumbed attention runs perilously close to the loneliness of very hell.”
Scripture never fails to jolt me out of complacency when I read, “God gave them up . . . because they exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Romans 1:24–25). “All right then, have it your way,” the Sovereign seems to say. “I’ll just leave you to it.” Suddenly, like a toddler, I am running back to the Father, begging for him not to walk away. Rossetti’s prayer bleats out from the lostness of a wandering sheep, “Don’t leave me here. Come find me! I am your lamb! Please. Don’t give me over to me.”
Lord, Smite a Rock
The poet knows what power it will take to crack through a hard heart. She recalls the Lord’s instructions to Moses when his doubting people cried out for water in the wilderness. “You shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink” (Exodus 17:6). Paul builds on the episode to connect Jesus to the rock. When he was struck upon the cross, living water flowed forth to quench all who would drink in faith (1 Corinthians 10:4). But another blow, this one to the stony heart, must crack open indifference so that warm responsive faith in Christ may flow.
Rossetti longs for the great prophecy of Ezekiel to be fulfilled anew in her: “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you . . . and you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezekiel 36:26–28). But she knows that heart transplant must begin with a mighty interruption. “Smite a rock.”
Maybe, in the end, the remedy to our indifference in Holy Week comes down to such a stark prayer. Just crack open my hard heart. Smack this boulder of a soul. Take me to those who wept for you, and let my jaded heart be moved by their ardor. Turn me from a stone back into a sheep. Let me hear your voice that I may with fresh tears love you in your passion.