Welsh poet and priest R.S. Thomas is described as “poet of the cross” by many and his poems often include the stark image of an empty cross – or an “untenanted” one, in his words. He writes of an untenanted cross that no longer bears death, but witnesses life.
At St. Alban’s this Good Friday, during the three hours that symbolize the time Jesus hung on the cross from noon to three, we meditate on the eight traditional “stations of the cross” in the first hour, we “venerate” the cross in the third hour, and in the middle hour we explore poetry and music of the cross.
There is nothing kind or warm about a cross. Its power lies in its austerity, which I also see in the angular harshness of R.S. Thomas’ poetry and the Four Motets for a Time of Penitence by Francis Poulenc that we’ll hear on Good Friday during the Three Hours. Both were reacting to the bleakness of their surrounding landscapes – one seeing the forbidding, lonely existence of Welsh farmers and the other writing his motets during the ugliness of European war in the late 1930’s. With an economy of texture and a sense of desperation, Poulenc (uncharacteristically so) and Thomas (inseparably so) cause us to confront those difficult places where the silent cross stands, untenanted and unflinching, waiting until we are ready to receive its strength.
To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.
Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body. – R.S. Thomas, In a Country Church
– Tenebrae factae sunt, Francis Poulenc
Shadows covered the earth, when the Jews crucified Jesus, and toward the ninth hour Jesus let forth a great cry, saying: “My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” And lowering his head, he gave up the spirit.
Jesus, crying out in a great voice, said: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
I feel an emptiness in this music and in these words. The kind of emptiness that is cleansing. The kind of emptiness that invites rebirth.
Let it be so.