In a post last November, I used a poem by Edward Shillito, a Free Church minister during the First World War, to try and examine how we view Christ’s kingship. Today, I would like to consider the work of another First World War poet, also a minister (though this time Anglican rather than Free Church) – Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. During the war, he gained the nickname ‘Woodbine Willie’, for his habit of distributing cigarettes to the dying soldiers that he sat with and provided with counsel and comfort during their last hours. He had volunteered for the position of army chaplain as soon as the war begun, and was later awarded a Military Cross for running into no-man’s land to attend to the wounded whilst the German’s were launching an attack.
This was a man who had showed great courage, and knew at first hand the horrors of industrialised warfare – which makes the poem I would like to look at today all the more affecting. It is entitled Indifference, and reflects on the relative suffering experienced by Our Lord on the Cross of Calvary compared with the indifference with which He is treated by people today – both Christians and non-believers:
When Jesus came to Golgotha they hanged Him on a tree,
They drave great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.
When Jesus came to Birmingham they simply passed Him by,
They never hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.
Still Jesus cried, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,”
And still it rained the wintry rain that drenched Him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall and cried for Calvary.
What Kennedy is suggesting here is quite provocative – that, for Jesus, the agony of Calvary was preferable to the apathy and indifference shown to Him by modern people. The men that had ‘grown more tender’ were the same ones that ‘left Him in the rain’. It is hard here not to see the image of the many homeless that line our streets, whom we pass by every day, and who are treated with indifference by so many. It is hard also not to then be reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 – ‘truly I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me’, and remember that the indifference we show to the poor and the outcast is indifference shown to Our Lord.
Furthermore, how much of our attention and affections are directed to Jesus at all – whether through others, or directly to Him? How much of heart really belongs to Him? It is this that I think Studdert Kennedy is really driving at – namely that, after bearing so much for us, pouring out His love and His blood for us on the Cross, carrying the weight of every evil thought, every unkind word, every act of malice or omission of charity, we often can barely find a few minutes a day to devote to Him. How little we sacrifice of our time to think of Jesus, or spend time with Him (whether this be in prayer, via the Scriptures, or before the Blessed Sacrament), compared to what He has done and does for us, is a sobering thought.
What Kennedy seems to be saying here is that, having opened up his Sacred Heart to us, and in his continual waiting upon us for our hearts to do the same (c.f. Revelation 3:15-22), our lukewarmness and indifference to Jesus actually hurts Him. One could even conceive of this indifference as being part of the very darkness and weight He bore on the Cross in the first place. The image of Jesus crouching against a wall in the rain, crying for Calvary thus becomes something trans-temporal, uniting His sufferings then with our actions now. For this reason, Kennedy’s poem is a powerful reminder of the need to constantly reconnect ourselves with Jesus’ love, and open up our hearts, both to Him, and to the least of His brethren.