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Vacancy At the Place of the Skull

Jean Hoefling

11 Cross

Today is suspended upon the tree, He who suspended the earth upon the waters. A crown of thorns crowns him Who is the King of the angels . . .

15th Antiphon of Holy Friday

 The 15th Antiphon is a stark hymnal summation of the great paradox that is the Crucifixion of Christ: the holy God-man dying for want of holiness in humankind. This haunting papadic chant is sung by a soloist in Orthodox churches on the evening of Holy Thursday, the darkest service of the year. Set in Byzantine tone six, the chant expresses the ironic mood of the Crucifixion, the “bright sadness,” the joyful sorrow, ranging musically over the emotional landscape of the worshipper’s response to God’s life-saving act of love.

We see every element of the incongruity of God in the correlating icon of the crucifixion, starting with the pathos of the human figures assembled at the foot of the cross to succor Christ in His agony. A picture of abject lamentation, Christ’s mother reels, disoriented. In one hymn of the day, her state of shock pleads with her Son that they return to the wedding at Cana, a happier time. Yet, it was she who chose to live for the moment when a sword of agony would pierce her heart. The disciple who once listened to the very heartbeat of God now recedes within himself in misery in the moment God’s heart stops beating. The Roman guard is high in position and encased in armor, the only one present with worldly power. Despite his authority and fortitude, Longinus sees with the eyes of his spirit past the politics of the corpse before him, declaring the despised Jewish criminal to be the Son of God.

The rest of the human community is obscenely absent. Except that it’s not. The earth at Christ’s feet has been rent in an earthquake, disclosing the origins of human history in the bones of our forbearer Adam, here at the hill called Place of the Skull. Adam’s unseeing eye sockets should rend every heart—this archetype of the failure to see the consequence of impulse, to manage the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. No one is left out of this scene under the blood red moon. Though most of us, in the flesh, would have been as cowardly as the apostles were, in His mercy God provides for our presence, even though it’s the bleakness of that ancient, forlorn skull.