Mar 29, 2024

Christina Rosetti

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It seems counterintuitive to call the day on which Jesus died “Good Friday.” As far as I can tell, the phrase likely originated in the Middle Ages. Jesus’ death on the cross is good in what it accomplishes–death to our sins and the harbinger of our resurrection to eternal life. Sometimes, I merely go through the motions of Holy Week. I’m detached, disconnected from the Good Friday story, unmoved by it all. I participate in Good Friday services, return home, and become absorbed in watching mindless TV. I’m grateful for poets like Christina Rosetti (1830-1894), who rescue me from spiritual slumber. Christina was firm in her resolve to follow Christ yet also fearless in self-scrutiny. The question that opens her poem draws me in, “Am I a stone and not a sheep?” She wonders how it is possible to stand beneath the cross of Jesus and remain unmoved by it all. My sentiments entirely! She recounts the women at the cross who mourn Jesus’ sacrifice through tears and remembers Peter, who weeps bitterly at the horror of his own denial against the chilling prospect of Christ’s impending sacrifice. She circles back to the thief on the cross who cries out to Jesus to remember him in paradise. Even the celestial bodies, the sun and the moon in the third stanza hide their light in view of the hideous cross. She resolves the tension of the first three stanzas in the final four lines. She prays for the true Shepherd to draw her back into the fold. Her closing line, “And smite a rock,” recalls Moses striking the rock with his staff, bringing forth much-needed water in the desert. Crack open my hard heart. Turn me, Lord, from a stone into sheep who heed your voice. What a glorious poem to lead us to renewed passion for Jesus’ sacrifice:

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?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hide their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon—
I, only I.

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.

Christina Rosetti, “Good Friday” Scottish Poetry Library

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.