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“He Opened Wide His Arms For Us On The Cross”: Chris Fewings


Today is Holy Cross Day. We’re told Jesus “opened wide his arms for us on the cross”, but it’s easy for Christians to forget that the cross was an instrument of torture and execution. You wouldn’t expect to go into church and see a noose hanging from the ceiling, or an electric chair in front of the altar. We sing hymns like “I’ll cherish the old rugged cross” almost as if the cross were a teddy bear.

Why do we say “the tree of shame has become the tree of glory”? Why should dwelling on the pain and death of one man heal us? Perhaps because Jesus accepts his pain and reaches out from it to us. When I’m in pain, I tend to curl up and turn my back on people, or snap at them to keep them away. Jesus stretches wide has arms and says, I can survive this. I’m not going to kick back against the people who caused me pain. When I’m gone, I want my best friend to look after my mum and my mum to look after my best friend. I want to wrap my wings around all of you in your pain. I don’t want you to suffer alone.

So we lift high the cross. We believe that in Jesus our pain and suffering can be transformed. And this can happen by contemplating the cross. When we stop our busy lives to look at this image of a man in pain who is not crushed by that pain, and who is not cut off from us in his pain, we wonder. The spirit of Jesus, the spirit of sonship, the spirit of the little child who trusts his parents, can breathe through us and we cry out Father, I place myself in your hands. Life, universe, mother, I trust you. Either this cup will pass, or you will give me strength to bear it. And the possibility opens up of opening our arms to others, in spite of the pain, instead of closing ourselves off.

I love the hymn The Old Rugged Cross. Maybe that’s because it does encourage us to look to Jesus when we are suffering. But there is a danger in cherishing or clinging to the cross. There is a fine line between learning to accept and grow through our pain on the one hand, and secretly hanging on to it on the other. I’ve caught myself thinking “My pain is greater than yours” or “no one can understand me – my pain is special”. Pain competitions cut us off from each other. Suffering is something which can unite us, because we all experience it.

So what did Jesus mean when he invited us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him? It’s an invitation to freely accept what life throws at us. It’s our duty to avoid unnecessary pain, but there’s stuff we can’t avoid – so why fight it? Better to contemplate it like the cross: simply look at it and let it be.

The church presents the cross not only as a remedy for pain but as a remedy for sin: the pain we inflict on others. A lot of pain is caused directly by other people, deliberately or otherwise. It may be by a drunken driver, by someone you live with, or by someone who can’t love you. We may deliberately hurt people we know, to get back at them, or we may hurt people on the other side of the world by the careless way we live our lives and use resources like petrol or electricity or plastic.

Sin means separation: from God, from other people, from the deepest part of ourselves. From the natural world, which will nurture us if we let it. Cutting ourselves off by thinking of ourselves as different or special, either much better or much worse than other people. Cutting ourselves off from others may make us feel safer or easier, but it often hurts us and them.

Jesus stretches wide his arms and says, It stops here: I’m not going to lash out, and I’m not going to run away. In certain circumstances we may need to protect ourselves from other people. At other times we may need to confront them. Earlier in his public life, Jesus slipped away from his enemies. A few days before his crucifixion, he had a go at the money-changers in the temple. But when it came to the crunch, he followed the path of non-violence to the point of no return.

In different ways, we can stretch out our arms to the people who are causing us pain, even if they don’t mean to, or don’t even realise they’ve hurt us. There is no guarantee those people will respond the way we want them to. But we gain nothing by lashing out. And in the end, we have much to gain by not running away.

Jesus stretching wide his arms is the glory of the cross and the glory of the resurrection. Out of the freely accepted pain and bewilderment of the crucifixion comes the excitement – and the puzzle – of the resurrection. Who is this man? Who walks beside us on the dusty road? Who eats breakfast with us at the side of the lake? Who gives himself to us in this bread and wine which we offer to him? It’s the Son of Man, the ordinary bloke, the one who challenges us to recognise him in everyone.

If we let go of our fear of other people just a little bit, if we stretch out a hand to someone who has hurt us or may hurt us, we may get slapped in the face. Whether that happens or not, we may find ourselves changing and find a little Easter sunrise when we least expect it, and after that no doubt another crucifixion, and another Easter, from glory to glory.


This is an edited version of a talk given at St Paul’s Balsall Heath. Chris Fewings blogs at


The main illustration is the Volto Santo from Lucca Cathedral and can be seen here. By Joanbanjo. The second is a bronze by Iturria.  Both downloaded under CCL from Wikimedia.

13 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...

This takes me right back to my Catholic Childhood, where Exaltation of the Holy Cross held deep significance and meaning. It was a feast day celebrated with a Solemn High Mass, and the Cross was processed, held high through the congregation with Incense and Sprinkling of Holy Water over all.

Being so young, I didn’t really understand it’s significance, but knew that it was important. Later as an Agnostic, I just thought that it was more flummery and theatrics to fool the blindly faithful.

Now, as an Anglican, I know so much more about the theology and liturgy it makes sense.

God be praised for enlightenment, no matter how old we are.

Chris Fewings said...

I bet you didn’t have Mahalia Jackson at the solemn mass! (There’s much more crossover these days musically: at our local RC church, they always sing ‘Were you there’ a capella at the veneration of the cross on Good Friday.)

Many Anglican churches have a ‘recession’ at the end with the cross held aloft as the robed walk out. I often look at it and think how differently ‘In this sign conquer’ can be interpreted: there’s the almost genocidal legacy of the crusades, not forgotten by Muslims, and the paradoxical ‘conquest’ of the one who ‘gave his back to the smiters’ (cue Handel), folly to Greeks and a stumbling block to triumphalists.

14 September 2012 07:31
14 September 2012 07:09
Chris Fewings said...

When the Alternative Service Book came out in 1980, I was very struck by the phrase “He opened wide his arms for us on the cross” in the third Eucharistic Prayer, which parallels the second Eucharistic Prayer in the Vatican II liturgy. The history is all very contentious apparently, but it owes a lot to a tradition attributed to Hippolytus, a third century bishop of Rome. A translation of the ancient prayer (Wikipedia)

14 September 2012 08:00
Chris Fewings said...

If you want a counter-balance to sentimental or over-familiar images, there’s a horrifying image of crucifixion here – not for the faint-hearted.

Lay Anglicana said...

Deep breath. You know how sometimes you feel something very strongly in your bones, almost viscerally? And simultaneously you know that your feelings are apparently shared by no one else on the planet? That is how I feel about the cross. When I try to think about it, and meditate on it – as I do try, very hard, on Good Friday at least – I feel like a horse who runs up to a jump and then refuses at the last minute, shying away. As the French say ‘C’est plus fort que moi‘, and also ‘Je ne peux pas la voir‘.

I do not know why this should be. My great grandmother was around to teach me to pray, and she taught and explained Mrs Alexander’s hymn, ‘There is a green hill far away‘:

So you would think that I would have been brought up accustomed to the idea. I have just checked the 39 articles and see that it is included in the second that Christ ‘was crucified, dead and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.’ That seems pretty clear.

My main problem is the image of the crucifix with Christ on it. We had a dear Italian friend who used to come and stay when I was a child, bringing with her a crucifix in a velvet triptych, if you can picture it. The first thing she did on unpacking was to put this on her bedside table. I knew she was devout, but couldn’t understand wanting this gory image as a permanent reminder of her faith. She smiled and said it was so that she would keep uppermost in her mind the terrible death that Christ had suffered for mankind. In other words, this seemed to be the principal focus of her faith. I still find this difficult to comprehend.

The other difficulty I have is with people wanting to wear a crucifix. I know I am in a minority of one here, with several million on the other side of the question. I have a charm bracelet, in common with almost all of the other women who have lived on the Persian/Arabian Gulf. (You can tell how long a ‘Jumeirah Jane’ has been in the UAE by the number of her gold bracelets and chains she wears – like working out the age of a tree by its rings). Many had a crucifix ‘charm’, which I found extraordinary. I admit that I had a fish, which meant something to me when I looked at it, but not to anyone else.

I am not saying that I am in any sense ‘right’ in these feelings. Chris, your post has done as much as anyone has ever been able to in helping me to understand the point of the crucifix in worship and persuaded me that I need to try again…Thank-you.

UKViewer said...


I would say that I wear a crucifix, not as a charm or such like, but because of how I came back to Christianity. I think that you know that I was dealing with the death of a soldier in Afghanistan in 2008. I was the visiting officer looking after his family, who were in the depths of grief and suffering. They had a rudimentary Christian faith, which shone through, although not regular church goers.

It was a large family and although I had the support of a Padre, I struggled to cope. After one particularly difficult meeting we both got into the car to drive back to base and I said to him “This could make me get God” and he replied, “This could make me an Atheist”. It was an off the cuff remark which was to relieve the tension, but somewhere there a spark was lit and the outcome was my hearing an inner voice saying to me “I’m here – let me in”. All else flows from that point.

The reality of that families suffering and grief for the man who had made the ultimate sacrifice for his country echoed with me. I spoke to my Padre and we had long conversations about it, in between carrying on with the necessary business of repatriation, funeral, supporting the family all the way through.

One thing he spoke about was the Sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross. And the symbolism of the empty cross, Jesus’ triumph over death and the promise of the new life.

That gave me a realisation that the cross was central to everything, and I felt the need to own one. I, like your friend, have a Crucifix, with Jesus crucified beside my bed. It reminds me before I sleep and when I awake what it means to me.

I’ve since learned much more about the background and theology of the incarnation and I’m still learning. The post here takes that understanding one step further.

Like Chris, I love the Hymn ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ and they words echo in my heart and mind whenever it’s used or whenever I hear it.

14 September 2012 15:23
Chris Fewings said...

That’s really interesting Laura. I think many Evangelicals feel uncomfortable with crucifixes, not only because statues and figurines are sometimes seen as idols, but because they prefer the symbol of the empty cross as a reminder of the resurrection. But I understand in the early centuries of Christianity, when crucifixions were still common, the cross was not used as a visual symbol – it was too graphic, and the fish you mention was preferred.

I think it’s a very personal thing. In medieval western Europe, they really piled on the gore, and not just visually – people were encouraged to meditate as viscerally as they could on Jesus’ pain. Julian of Norwich her focus on the crucifix (in the context of her own near-death experience) into a much larger vision of the love of God which transcends pain and wrath.

I’m told that Mark’s gospel presents the cross as a gallows, Luke’s as a pulpit to preach love, and John’s as a throne. I suspect any angle is likely to lead us astray if we don’t shift our perspective from time to time.

Lay Anglicana said...

That’s a good hint to go back to Dame Julian, which I will take up.

I think the gallows, pulpit and throne are all brilliant images also to reflect on.

And finally, whether intentionally or not, you give me the hint that maybe my feelings about the cross are stuck in my childhood reaction. I no longer think of God as a bearded man on a white cloud, so my feelings about the cross also need to move on.

At a slight tangent, my childood idea of God was actually one of the Household Cavalry riding his horse. This is the first picture I have of God and must be based on seeing the cavalry riding along Rotten Row in Hyde Park, their ‘cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold’ (well, alright, scarlet if you must be literal). It was the most awe-inspiring thing I had ever seen.

14 September 2012 15:52
14 September 2012 15:36
14 September 2012 15:02
14 September 2012 09:08
Chris Fewings said...

Billie Holliday’s magnificently understated singing of Strange Fruit (lyrics by Abel Meeropol, a white Jewish American).

The story of the song is told here.

14 September 2012 09:41
Chris Fewings said...

I’ve just re-read the first chapter of Kenneth Leech’s book ‘We preach Christ crucified’ – the chapter is a brilliant meditation on the absurdity of the cross.

“Christ was a failure and it is in the midst of our failure that we know him, not as another failure but as a source of life and power.”

“To re-member Christ in his dying is to become his members, his limbs and organs, to be his body crucified and risen.”

14 September 2012 10:14
UKViewer said...

The Kelham Rood

At St John the Divine, Kennington.

Is a depiction of Christ accompanied by figurines of BVM & St John.

Powerful image in sculptor, which somehow fits in with this post.

14 September 2012 11:32
Chris Fewings said...

There’s a long tradition of seeing the cross as a tree, (extending back to the New Testament: though the word used a few times there of the cross can also be translated ‘wood’, the same word is used in the Septuagint for the tree of life in the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden, and the wood used in the abortive sacrifice of Isaac). In the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood, the tree speaks in the first person. More familiar, perhaps, is this stanza from J.M.Neale’s translation of a Latin hymn, Pange Lingua:

Faithful Cross, above all other,
one and only noble Tree,
none in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be;
sweet the wood, and sweet the iron,
and thy load, most sweet is he.

I wrote a very short poem in response to another, less familiar stanza of this hymn: ‘Love’s the ground that breaks the fall.’ It belongs to the Epiphany season, but hey…

14 September 2012 12:55
Lucas Esandi said...

I’m proud of you Chris! And honored to be your friend! Please do tweet me any thoughts or poems of yours you want me to read.
You’ve made me want to become more aware of the cross and its mistery! Even to wear it on my neck again. I’ve not used it so far last year because my son sometimes sleeps on my breast.

I love you dear friend!
Yours in silence in Xto,


15 September 2012 03:04

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