“The Cross is Always Avant Garde”: Good Friday Poetry from R. S. Thomas

Jesus’ life narrows down to one day, the day the church has come to call “Good Friday.” It is the day of his crucifixion, defeat. Those of his followers who had not already fled, watched in depressing horror as Jesus’ life fled him. This day is “good” only in retrospect. We do not give it its due if we see it only from the vantage point of the resurrection.

There are some voices, a few, who help us see this day in its own right as a profound and crucial moment in the life of God as of human beings (complicit as we all are in its tragic happenings). One is the Welsh poet-priest R. S. Thomas (1913-2000). His epigram, “The cross is always avant garde” (The Echoes Return Slow) seems to mean that for him the radical challenge of the cross to all human doing and knowing comes first. It forestalls easy answers and complacent faith. In his poem “Petition” Thomas writes that on seeing the “rueful acts” of theft, oppression, murder, and rape inflicted by human beings on each other, he says, “I have said / New prayers, or said the old / In a new way / Seeking the poem / in the pain.”

“Seeking the poem in the pain” – that’s where the cross leads those hardy enough to follow it. And since most of us want to flee the reality and significance of the cross and prefer easy answers and a complacent faith, we need folks like Thomas to force-feed it to us.
And this is the role he has played. Though he may not see quite enough of the resurrection and the light it sheds back to that Friday, “Good Friday,” he sees the cross with startling clarity and shares what he sees with magnificent poetry. He concludes “Petition” with these words: “One thing I have asked / Of the disposer of the issues of life: that truth should defer / To beauty. It was not granted.” At the end of the day, however, Thomas has wrested from his cross-centered view a central affirmation that the cross, in spite of everything, is a sign of love and a spirituality of patient waiting.
He articulates that spirituality in a poem entitled “Waiting”:
“Yeats said that. Young
I delighted in it:
there was time enough.

Fingers burned, heart
seared, a bad taste
in the mouth, I read him

again, but without trust
any more. What counsel
has the pen's rhetoric

to impart? Break mirrors, stare
ghosts in the face, try
walking without crutches

at the grave's edge? Now
in the small hours
of belief the one eloquence

to master is that
of the bowed head, the bent
knee, waiting, as at the end

of a hard winter
for one flower to open
on the mind's tree of thorns.”

And for our Good Friday reflection:

“They set up their decoy
in the Hebrew sunlight.
What for? Did they expect
death to come sooner
to disprove his claim
to be God's son? Who
can shoot down God?
Darkness arrived at midday, the shadow
of whose wing? The blood
ticked from the cross, but it was not
their time it kept. It was no
time at all, but the accompaniment
to a face staring,
as over the centuries
it has stared, from unfathomable
darkness into unfathomable light.”
R S Thomas, Collected Later Poems, (Bloodaxe, 2004), 108


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