Passion Sunday ~ Cross words of Love
What does the phrase: “Sign of growth”, mean to you? An image of a plant – or perhaps even something positive one might say about the election of a new pope from South America, or even a new Archbishop of Canterbury from a business background. Both will be enthroned within 2 days of each other very soon. At any rate, you would probably take the phrase “Sign of growth”, as something positive, something encouraging.
In the topsy-turvey world of cryptic crosswords, though, nothing is as it seems. In this case, the six-letter answer to the clue, “Sign of growth”, is a portent of doom known to us all. It can be deconstructed thus: “sign” is not an indication or a printed notice but, rather, astrological - a sign of the zodiac; and “growth” is not positive expansion but something darker and anatomical. Answer: cancer.
Having solved this clue, one might be pleased at having got inside the mind of the cryptic creator, and be inspired to move onto the next clue, 13 across or 12 down. Such is the usual challenge and delight of a cruciverbalist. And if that is your thing, solving crossword puzzles, then you are indeed a veritable cruciverbalist. The word is Latin based – cruci – cross; verbum – word.
Yet, with puzzle number 25,842 in the Guardian of 14th January, there was something extremely unusual in the clue and in those that followed. For concealed in the puzzle was the fact its setter, known by the codename Araucaria, was dying. As a paragraph above the crossword explained: “Araucaria has 18 down of the 19, which is being treated with 13 15.” In other words, he has cancer of the oesophagus and is receiving palliative care.
Araucaria, which is the Latin botanical term for the monkey puzzle tree, is really the Reverend John Graham, MBE, a 91-year-old Anglican priest who is to cryptic crosswords what Einstein is to relativity or Bach to fugues. He is the undisputed master of the convoluted clue and the amazing anagram and has been a full-time cruciverbalist for more than 50 years. He has composed crosswords for The Guardian and The Financial Times. His anonymity was so well guarded that one reader wrote to the paper saying his father did Araucaria’s crosswords for 10 years, and felt he had really got to know his mind - failing to realise that the setter was his own older brother.
I tell you this story because, whether you are a cruciverbalist or not, today - Passion Sunday, when we mark the beginning of Passtiontide, is all about crosswords. Cross words. Words from and about the Cross. There is a therefore a sense in which God is a cruciverbalist. And we can attempt to solve God’s cross word puzzle.
You may have heard of ‘the seven last words of Christ from the Cross’.
These are the seven utterances of Jesus, made while being crucified, addressed to various people and recorded in the four gospels. ‘I thirst’ and ‘it is finished’ are two examples. They are powerful, moving texts and have been the inspiration for much poetry, meditation, music and art. These words from the cross are the first, obvious way in which we might think of cross words. And indeed, they may well be puzzling - puzzling perhaps as to how a bleeding, dying, executed man can say ‘Father forgive’.
But there are also other kind of ‘cross words’ like we find in today's gospel reading. Jesus sometimes uses cross words. Cross words, like we might use from time to time. Words of frustration, protective, angry words as Jesus turns on the one who will soon become his betrayer - words that cut through Judas' lack of understanding, sensitivity, and ironically, charity. Judas doesn’t get it - he has no clue about the puzzle that is Jesus, and about what is about to happen. And Jesus is cross with him for his tactlessness and unkindness. ‘Leave her alone’ he says.
Let’s think about that meal for a moment or two: Lazarus had been ill, died and had even been raised from the dead. (John 11). That they ate together indicates that not only was Lazarus still alive and well, but they would have talked, and we might suppose that Lazarus would have wanted to talk it through – it’s not every day you get raised from the dead.
And yet, there is a fly in the ointment – a discord, a bad smell. It is the bad smell of death. When Jesus raised Lazarus he had been dead for three days and there was the stench of death when they opened the tomb: not nice. And there was more than a whiff of it at that meal – not literally perhaps, but real nevertheless. But no-one says anything – there are no cross words, nor words about the cross here – the topic of conversation is probably more about resurrection than death.
And then Mary comes in with a jar of ointment that cost the equivalent of a year’s wages: a lot of money. Judas doesn’t like the smell or the cost. He has a go – and even if his motives are honourable – which St John says they are not – his timing is not. St John would have us believe Judas is on the make, and has an eye for how much money might have been put into the common fund rather than spent on this ointment, and that would have make the pot more useful to dip his hand into. Judas cannot defend himself from this slur on his character of course, but it tells us what the others thought of him!
He complains, and receives some cross words in rebuke as Jesus leaps to the defence of his friend Mary. Remember that this is not Mary Magdalene, nor Mary the mother of Jesus, but Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, his best friends. According to St John, Judas merits and receives cross words from Jesus – Jesus is angry with him for attacking his friend’s generosity, which itself is an act of charity and hospitality. The passage goes on to tell us that not only will Judas betray Jesus, the Jewish authorities will conspire to kill Lazarus, whose story of resurrection was clearly too hot to handle.
And indeed things are hotting up. This event takes place as the Passover approaches, and it may well have been a Sabbath supper, the one before Passover, which is known as Shabbat Hagadol and which has special resonances with the first Exodus from Egypt. The greatest story ever told is warming up to its searing conclusion.
And it is not only the greatest story ever told, it is also the greatest mystery ever unfolded. It is also the biggest cryptic clue ever offered by the God who in a master stroke of cruciverbalism offers us both the Word and the Cross. Both the Word and the Cross are clues to Christ, and we encounter them at Christmas and Easter respectively. We have Jesus, the Word made Flesh at the nativity, described in the opening lines of John's gospel in our Christmas readings; and now in Passiontide we hear John portray him as the Passover lamb, crucified – cruciverbalised – crossworded - even, on Good Friday.
In the great puzzle - the great mystery - of salvation the clues are dispersed through John’s gospel and the puzzle is in fact the wider mystery of the universe. For as John reminds us, ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’. And the word dwelt among us, and the word was cross-shaped - intersecting the linear thrust of human history with a downward shaft of divinity. And the Word was the Son of the Father, and God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that all who believe in him might not perish, but have eternal life.
With quotations like this we can construct the most beautiful crossword puzzle ever conceived. And it is made up of cross words of the most loving kind. Such is the paroadox of salvation – cross words of love. They are cross-shaped words of a Father God who surrenders his very self - verbum caro - word made flesh, to become verbum cruci – the Word, crucified. God’s cruciverbalism is the puzzle, and the cryptic bit is the grave in which Christ was buried and which was found empty on the third day.
And the answer to the cryptic clue to the cross word puzzle that is Christ’s passion is ‘one a cross’ - 9 letters - resurrection. The puzzle of life and death, the problem of sin and evil: the mystery of God’s mercy, the paradox of judgment and love are all elegantly solved with the word ‘resurrection’. The Word rises from the page and the grave - the grave of despair and the page of history.
And, to end where we began, this Word rising from the crossword puzzle of life and death is indeed a ‘sign of growth’. It is not cancerous of course, but it is a sign – John’s gospel is full of signs – it is a sign of life and love and hope. And under that sign – the sign of the cross signifying resurrection life – under that sign we live and prosper as Christians growing in faith. Under that sign we conquer death. And the recognition that resurrection is God’s solution to the puzzle of life is not monkey business - as Darwin might have put it - but is in fact the biggest sign of growth that any Christian could wish for.
May we all be blessed this Passiontide, that we may find growth in faith, hope and love, inspired by the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 17/03/13