In one of the great historical novels of the twentieth century, Hilda Prescott’s ‘The Man on a Donkey’ we follow the events around the Pilgrimage of Grace, events around the time, of course, of the martyrdoms we commemorate today. And towards the end of that extraordinary novel, we watch and listen to Robert Aske, the leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace, in his last anguished moments, hanging in chains from the Keep of the Castle in York: “God did not now nor would in any furthest future prevail. Once he had come and died. If he came again, again he would die, and again and so forever, by his own will, rendered powerless against the free and evil wills of men. Then Aske met the full assault of darkness without reprieve of hoped for light, for God ultimately vanquished was no God at all. But yet, though God was not God, as the head of the dung worm turns, so his spirit turned blindly, gropingly, hopelessly loyal, towards that good, that holy, that merciful – which though not God, though vanquished – was still the last dear love of a vanquished and tortured man.”
The cross stands while the world turns. If Christ came again so would his cross. Because that evil, that passionate commitment as it so often seems, to destroy and undermine the good, is written into the experience of fallen humanity. There is no shortcut, there is no happy ending, in any ordinary sense. The dying martyr in that passage can only turn to what he does not know; and what he does not know is very distant from, and very different from, the God who is a God of happy endings and solutions. But the cross that stands while the world turns is the cross of God: and so we are taken to a second level, where we realise what it is that is being transacted in the cross of Christ, and what it is that is transacted in every moment of reckless, generous, terrible suffering for the sake of God’s truth. Aske turns to what is still ‘the last dear love of a vanquished and tortured man’. In darkness and in torture, men and women throughout the centuries have turned to the crucified Christ; they have addressed the crucified Christ with the last calling of their lips and the last movement of their hearts, as did John Houghton. They know that whatever else may disappear, there is something on which they may call – and it is Christ crucified.
The God who has, it seems, been vanquished, is yet a God who cannot be abolished. In many ages and many places, authorities even more appalling than Henry VIII have believed that they could abolish God and the cross of God; and they have had to discover that while they may vanquish, they cannot destroy. That which is the last hope, the last longing of the condemned and tortured, remains. The cross stands while the world turns.
Read it all.