A Holy Week post I wrote for public radio’s On Being with Krista Tippett:

As Lent moves toward its end–both in the sense of its conclusion and its purpose–I think of this powerful poem by Ariel Dorfman. Its subject matter is the execution by firing squad of a political prisoner, inspired by events during the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s in Dorfman’s native Chile.

They put the prisonerOn Being Holy Week photo
against the wall.

A soldier ties his hands.
His fingers touch him—strong,

gentle, saying goodbye.
—Forgive me, compañero—
says the voice in a whisper.
The echo of his voice
and of
    those fingers on his arm
fills his body with light
   I tell you his body fills with light
and he almost does not hear
the sound of the shots.

Scottish composer James MacMillan set the poem, entitled “Sun Stone,” for choir and organ as the final movement of his work, Cantos SagradosMusically, the text is framed by–or rather infused throughout with–this phrase from the Credo of the Mass, sung in ethereal tones mostly by the sopranos:

Et incarnatus est de spiritu sancto.                           And by the Holy Spirit was incarnate
Ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est.                       of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
Crucifixus etiam pro nobis.                                          For our sake he was crucified.

It is a work of excruciating beauty (cruciāre to torment, cruc-em cross) and the jarring juxtaposition of texts lays bare, obliquely not directly, the drama of Holy Week with its stark contrasts of power and weakness, cruelty and tenderness, unspeakable suffering and astonishing forgiveness. The passio of Jesus in the gospel narratives is the culmination of an obscure life lived in complete embodiment of the shalom of God–in the midst of political tyranny and dehumanizing violence, in suffering and death and seeming sure defeat.

During Holy Week Christians enact this painful drama that we might know more fully the Easter story that counters, subsumes, and transforms it. It is theatrical, disturbing, cathartic, and deeply necessary, for the torture of crucifixion and of firing squads (and of waterboarding, for the record) is, as William Cavanaugh has written “a kind of perverse liturgy [in which] the body of the victim is the ritual site where the state’s power is manifested in its most awesome form.” This anti-liturgy is met in the true liturgy of the Eucharist, where the body of the victim makes possible the creation of a new body which lives by resurrection hope and loves by a power not of its own making.

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