When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

The Revd Dr John Fox is curate at Sumner Redcliffs Anglican Church in Christchurch. He was an Intern (2004/05), has taught on the Residential Fellowship, and has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Auckland. He reflects here on the wonder and glory of the Easter season, and the importance of celebrating it, while in isolation.


It’s Holy Week, the week before Easter. And what a strange one it is. Instead of organising services, and preparing water for foot washing, and trying not to swipe the Vicar with a nikau palm leaf, I am sitting at home, talking to about half my parish on Zoom.

I have my black cassock hung up for Good Friday, but won’t be using it. We found the massive cross and crown of thorns we used last year and then had to pack them away again. Gatherings are prohibited, so we are thrown back on ourselves—our own anxieties and troubles, the quirks and pains of our own family life, or, in my case, next door’s dog.

It’s at moments like this when celebrating Easter so often slides off the bottom of the list—for those of us who even do it. There are plenty of Christians who will ignore the season entirely (Good Friday being morbid, or Papistical), and others who will cry out in joy on Sunday without walking through the painful moments beforehand.

But for those of us among the frozen chosen, and our liturgical friends in other Churches, our traditions are precious, even when, and especially because, this year they have been amputated.

For many of us (including me), Eastertide, which begins on Palm Sunday and finishes a whole 40 days after Easter with Pentecost, is the rich climax of the liturgical year, with the whole spectrum of emotion and glory contained in it. It is symbolically rich, biblically rooted, and genuinely alive in a way that can only be explained if you’ve walked through it with a community alive to all its colours.

First, we chuck the lectionary, which usually tells us which Bible readings to use to get through the whole Bible every couple of years or so, and zero in on the narrative of the Passion of Jesus—beginning with the slow Jaws music: Jesus’s prophecies of his own death, His raising of Lazarus, the increasing and complicated political plots, the imagery of death and sacrifice—and then we walk through His last week bit by bit. The Bible itself pushes pause before this week—half the whole Gospel of John is just the crucifixion, with the resurrection and ascension on the end—and we follow Him every moment, from the Sunday of Palms, where in ordinary times our children lead us into church shouting Hosanna and waving green branches. We walk through the Last Supper and the final Holy Communion; I take off my vestments and wash feet, and then the whole church is stripped and in shadow. All the colours, our candlesticks and altar cross, everything is taken away or draped in black, and we rehearse the pains of Jesus—desertion, isolation, stripping, injustice, crucifixion. And end at “It is finished”. If you do it properly, that is devastating, and we stand with Mary and John in a dark church, meditating all Good Friday during the Great Three Hours, those moments Jesus is hanging on the cross. Catholics will have a custom of kissing the feet of the crucifix, Orthodox Christians circle the church with a wooden Jesus laid on a bier with herbs and linen, Anglicans most often sit under a bare cross, and we all hurt.

By the time Easter Day comes, we’re ready for it. We have seen the pain of desertion, and isolation, and forsakenness; we have paused at “My God my God, why Have You Forsaken Me”; we have seen grief, and death, and pain, and looked them in the face; and, even if you’re not the liturgical type, it’s important to understand, and to internalise what they mean, before we meet them in real life. It’s important because then the explosion of joy, and light, and beauty at Easter Day is a real conquest of real death, a real breaking in of God’s reconciliation on human beings, for many of us the breaking of a literal Good Friday fast. The Easter candle is lit. The light of Jesus is passed from it to all the little candles, and we rehearse the stories of God’s work in human history. The Three Hebrew Children in the fiery furnace. Jonah and the Whale. Exodus. The rebuilding of the Temple. The giving of the law, the promises that the Reconciler will come, and give His back to the whip, and his strength for our weakness. And then, in a church blazing with light, with polished brass and white linen and the empty tomb, and the cross blazing with flowers, we will belt out that grand Wesley hymn: Jesus Christ is Risen Today, and 90-year-old women will SHOUT the alleluias, and little children will suddenly know what holiness sounds like.

“Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.

Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice,
arrayed with the lightning of his glory,
let this holy building shake with joy,
filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.”
(taken from the Easter Proclamation)

And then every week until Pentecost we will think about why that matters, and we will rejoice, and rejoice, and rejoice.

This year, we can’t do many of the traditional things. And I miss my parish like a pain, like an attached arm. I know, we all know, what isolation feels like this year.

So, let’s make a gift of it. Let’s take the pause, and walk through the story still.

Beginning at John 12, my parish is reading through the entire story, on video, from the Triumphal Entry to the Ascension when it comes. We will pray on Zoom. We will find our coloured chalk and write “Hosanna” and “It is Finished” outside our houses. We will broadcast sermons, and love our neighbours, and look at our Vicar’s awesome photo and poetry project . And I will fast still, and read the readings for each day in Holy Week and Easter in my Prayer Book, and say my Exultet.  And at 10:00 am before our Zoom Prayers on Easter Sunday, the parish of Sumner and Redcliffs will ring one actual bell, and two hundred or so virtual peals of bells from smartphones and laptops. And I will keep my personal tradition of listening to music on Good Friday (Messiah, Stainer’s The Crucifixion or the St John Passion by Bach) and reading The Last Battle.

I will pause. We should all pause. Your Easter disciplines will probably not look like mine. But this year, Covid or no Covid, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Still. Now. In your bubble, in your life, for us and for our Salvation.

Realise what that means, survey the cross and the tomb. Now, especially now, we need to hear that death is dead.

It is truly right and just, with ardent love of mind and heart
and with devoted service of our voice,
to acclaim our God invisible, the almighty Father,
and Jesus Christ, our Lord, his Son, his Only Begotten.

Who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father,
and, pouring out his own dear Blood,
wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness.
(taken from the Easter Proclamation)

Take a moment. Take a moment and say thanks.