Good Friday by Christina Rossetti
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 hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon-
I and 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.
Am I a stone and not a sheep? Am I a stone? How is it that I always forget? Am I a stone and not a sheep? Oh my, faith is complicated, and I rarely talk about it so forthright. It’s probably because it’s Holy Week, Easter Sunday to be exact, and my stoniness has been split in two, like a geode, that I’m writing anything about it at all. I usually let it rest, glittering, at the core of me, steadily present but quiet and unmoved. Am I a stone? This poem was read at church during Holy Week last year, a few days of my life that sort of felt like a breakthrough, lending a sort of piercing realness to the faith I’ve professed all my life. I’m a Christian, born and raised, now as much as ever, but saying it is never simple and every day I’m more a stone than a sheep. Feeling frustratingly always more a stone, unmoved, dripping in Jesus’ blood and unmoved, unmoved.
Holy Week shocks me out of my complacency, as it is meant to do, I think. It did last year, and it has again this year. All through Lent this year I felt like a bad Christian, a very bad Christian, because I just didn’t lend myself to the thought of Christ, to remembering. Sometimes I’d remember to remember and still skip it, feeling too backed up, too distracted to gaze at the cross and actually take it in. That’s all we are supposed to do, remember. That’s all that is required of us, really. Grace has taken care of me, I need only remember as well as I can, diligently and carefully.
But I am a stone and not a sheep. Most of the time I dully sit still, unmoved, unremembering, yet with Christ still inside. In Holy Week, though, you must remember. And if not in mind, in body then. Your body must remember. How can you not remember all of it all of a sudden when someone is literally washing your feet? Last year my feet were washed a grand total of four times on Maundy Thursday. FOUR TIMES. My feet were the cleanest feet in the Chicagoland area. Never in my life have I been more confronted with the words I’ve read so often, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” than when my feet were washed again and again and again. My feet in the water, someone’s hands touching me, ministering to me, physically reminding me of Christ himself, I’m forced to remember. My mind catches up to my body. Where my body goes, my heart goes also. The physical, millenial version of Jesus asking Peter over and over again, to his dismay, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter, the stone to build a church on. Do you love me? Do you love me? I’m washing your feet, do you love me? Do you love me? Am I a stone? Am I a stone, not a sheep?
In the Anglican Church, Holy Week brings out all the smells and bells. Each day brings new tradition, all embodied, all immersive. The matter of it all gets to me, brings tears to my eyes. I watch the children process with candles at the beginning of the service, carrying them with care with white robes over their leggings and sweaters, and I feel like that child trying to take care of the flame, do it right. Give me a candle, and I’ll do my best! I’ll follow the procession! I’ll hold it high! But leave me alone with my thoughts and my stone-heart and I’ll rot in quiet, unable to think on the right thing, unable to remember. The light of Christ, able to burn me if I get too close, that makes me pay attention. A knock at the door, I’ll answer it! Bread and wine on my tongue, coursing through my body, literally nourishing me, O Lord I’ll eat with you!
But take me to Gethsemane, and of course I’ll fall asleep, shameful me and Peter and John and Philip and Andrew, all of us together falling short. Even in the heat of the moment, the most important night in history, I’m sorry, Lord, I’m sorry, my mind wandered away. You told me to stay awake and instead I thought about dinner and twitter and remembering a summer. I’m sorry, Lord, I’m sorry. I’m a stone, not a sheep. Sheep come when you call them. Me, I don’t even know if I’d know you if I saw you. If you knocked on my door, I’d probably look out the peephole and not even answer, fearing a stranger. Oh, it causes me to tremble, the thought that I might not even know. You could pass me on the street and I’d keep walking and get on the train and be grumpy in the evening and fall asleep unsatisfied. Am I a stone?
Am I a stone?
On Maundy Thursday, at the end of the service in the Anglican tradition some people of the church ritually remove all the decorations and vestments from the altar and wash it with water. A sponge in hand, cleaning the altar, doing the work of the church, honoring, preparing the way. Like the women coming with spices to the tomb on the third day, bereft, expecting nothing, work to do, grief walking with them. That day, the women were met instead by an angel. Thousands of years ago. Now, year after year, we bring our spices, we wash our altars, we walk with grief beside us, but instead of an angel, the thing we really want, we are met instead with a command. Remember. Wait and remember. Simon, son of John, do you love me? Am I a stone? I feel like one, mostly unmoved, pissed not to get my angel, left to wait, do nothing, get moldy, mossy. A life waiting for Jesus is long and ordinary. I take the ordinaryness as an invitation to do nothing, wait till tomorrow to really remember Jesus, to feel the fullness, the gravity of it, or the next day or the next. Holy Week hits me over the head, water from the rock, a chance to remember and mourn my forgetting most of the time. I do love you, I do! Where have I been all these ordinary days?! I’ll carry the candle, I’ll wash the altar, I’ll ring my bells and dance like a madwoman, I’ll sit at your feet and listen, I’ll bring the spices, I’ll eat the bread and wine for a thousand years, if only you’ll know my love despite my forgetting. I do love you, I do! Ask me over and over and I’ll always answer, when I hear you I will, here I am, Lord!
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? Am I a stone? This morning, you are risen and I am risen too. I’m remembering, singing my allelujahs, bringing myself, heart and body and mind, to wash the altar, hold a candle, bring the spices, stand astonished at the tomb, bid myself remember, let myself be split in two to see the crystal, feel the drops, stand as a stone and ask, O Lord, do you wash my feet?