A Sermon for Good Friday (and the Feast of the Annunciation)

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Good Friday 2016
Readings Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22:1-11; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1–19:42

Greater Love Hath No Man Than This, that he should lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).

In my teenage years, I attended a (Baptist) church that spent Good Friday contemplating the suffering of Christ’s scourging and crucifixion. We watched documentaries, almost always hosted by forensic archaeologists and historians who would describe in great and graphic detail the circumstances and instruments of Christ’s torture, thereby making the unimaginable imaginable. The point of this contemplation, as I understood it, was to encounter in a new and fresh way the extreme pain and agony that had been reserved solely for Christ. Christ’s physical pain was presented as exceptional, for only exceptional pain could redeem humankind from its sin. Contemplating that pain, then, was meant to foster deep sympathy and love for the savior.

Presentations this graphic and forensic in nature are not unusual in the history of Christian worship, though the intent may differ. The well-known Isenheim altarpiece depicts a crucified and dead Christ surrounded by lamenting followers who themselves are covered in disfiguring sores. These followers represent both Christ’s disciples and the patients of St. Anthony’s. In fact, Grunewald painted the altarpiece for the chapel at St. Anthony’s Monastery which was also a hospital for those with skin diseases. The altarpiece suggests that all of Christ’s followers, regardless of health and appearance, and regardless even of time and place, are invited to participate in the mourning of Good Friday.

Looking more closely at the altarpiece, we see that Christ’s skin is similarly disfigured. Christ shares in the wounds of the afflicted, the downtrodden, the mortal. For the patients of St. Anthony’s Monastery, Jesus knew and experienced their afflictions.
Isenheim Christ Detail

Each of the Gospel accounts presents, in their own way, a story of exceptional agony. In John’s gospel, Christ carries his own cross and, in front of his mother and friends, dies an ignominious death, having been stripped of his possessions and left to die amongst criminals. For John, Mary’s role in the crucifixion is significant. For us, this particular Good Friday also overlaps with the Feast of the Annunciation, the day on which the Angel Gabriel greeted Mary with the news that she would carry in her womb the Messiah. While we will celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation on April 4th this year, it is usually celebrated on Mar 25.

The overlap of these two Holy Days highlights the dual role that Mary plays in the economy of salvation: both Mother and Mourner. She waits at the foot of the cross with John the beloved disciple and watches in horror as her child dies. Her torment, while not physical, must have been unbearable.

John Donne, the great Anglican poet and priest, wrote a poem on the occasion of this coincidence in 1609. At one point in his poem he says,

Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen;
At once a son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity;
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.

As Donne suggests, Mary’s emotional pain draws our attention to the breathtaking scope of Christ’s passion. Killed in the body, but of worse torment — his separation from the Father.

“Why have you forsaken me?” Christ asks in Matthew’s account of the crucifixion, repeating the words of Psalm 22, which we heard last night as the sacrament was taken to the chapel of repose, and again just a moment ago. Christ, the eternal and immortal son of the eternal and immortal father tastes death and with it a distance between him and the Father. This too must have been unbearable.

Yet, he bore it, nonetheless; and he bore it for his friends. Good Friday presents us with a God who now knows that which strikes the human race low: death and depression; alienation and isolation; sorrow and sickness. These are mortal conditions that do not afflict God by nature. Yet, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends.”

God’s love for humanity is such that he descends both to these conditions and sinks even lower, abasing himself by introducing a rift within his own life and his own being, a rift in the love between the Father and himself. Indeed, in this rift, Christ opens up that love and invites us in, for the love that Christ shows to his friends in his death is the very love that the Father has for his Son. In his death, Christ draws us into the love that is the substance of the divine life. Jesus says to his friends, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.”

Jesus dies and descends to Hell on Holy Saturday that we might know the power and presence of that divine love among and in humanity, a love which is so strong that it will break the bonds of Hell and the grave.

Good Friday
St. David’s Episcopal Church
Baltimore

NB: Thanks to my friend, Dr. Matthew Rothaus Moser, for directing me to this poem.

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3 thoughts on “A Sermon for Good Friday (and the Feast of the Annunciation)

  1. Thank you for this, Daniel. It’s interesting — no, it’s fascinating! — that in Donne’s last sermon, Deaths Duel, which I try to read on Good Friday (and did yesterday) he makes it a very strong point that the Holy Trinity, the very Godhead Itself, was in that grave with Christ, still joined to Christ’s own body in its decaying (except that God willed it would not decay). And I wondered at the time about Christ’s spiritual separation from the Father. Donne is extremely scrupulous to be in accord with the best of historical church theology, and finding out all the shared ground between Catholic and Calvinist teachings. He clearly seems to think he is saying nothing new — only using this point to bring the grace of the Crucifixion more powerfully for his hearers. His text is:” Unto the Lord our God belong the issues from death” (the exits from and through death — both the death of Christ and of each person in Christ).

    Does Donne suggest (without saying so) that the abandonment by God occurred in Christ’s spirit, but even that did not break the union of the Divine Nature with the truly human flesh of Christ. Donne always views every spiritual (or human existential) issue from the point of view of the body, in pointed opposition to the standard assumption, and this contributes to some of the most shocking and powerful and characteristic effects in his poetry…

    I’ll put this on your Facebook page, too, so additional others can comment too.

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    1. Janet, sorry for the delay in responding to your great observation. I’m honored that you took the time to engage me on Donne. I think you’re absolutely right that Donne’s default perspective is the corporeal one, and that this creates some of the most interesting points not only of his poetic career, but of metaphysical poetry in general. I try to highlight some of this in an article I wrote a couple years ago on metaphysical, Anglican poetry and early church martyrdom.
      As to your question–whether Donne implies an abandonment in Christ’s spirit (and not only bodily) that doesn’t break the union–I might suggest the language of prosopon, persona instead of spirit, since we could be talking about either the divine nature or Christ’s mortal soul under that language of spirit, right? And the language of person is more theological shocking, anyway, because we’re talking about what Christ, the person of the Word now incarnate, underwent.
      Donne says in lines 20-24 of The Annunciation and the Passion:

      Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one-
      As in plain maps, the furthest west is east-
      Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.
      How well the Church, God’s Court of Faculties,
      Deals, in sometimes, and seldom joining these.

      His point here seems to be that Christ’s story, the salvation story, draws together disparate elements under one roof… or one person, “as in plain maps. . . .” Theologically, this is the foundation of the incarnation; that in the person of Christ, both divine nature and human (and created) nature are drawn together into an integral unity, the unity of a single person. SO the hypostatic union is not a union (and production) of (a new, third) nature, but a union of person; two natures perfectly inhabiting one person.

      Beginning in line 33, Donne brings this hypostatic maxim to bear on the crucifixion itself:

      This Church by letting those days join, hath shown
      Death and conception in mankind is one;
      Or ’twas in Him the same humility,
      That He would be a man, and leave to be;
      Or as creation He hath made, as God. . .

      The God-man unites not only the two natures, but all that is currently “natural” about humanity to the divine perfection of humility. Death and conception become united to the Word as “the same humility.” That virtue which animates the divine descent to the Incarnation similarly animates the tension felt between the Annunciation and the Passion.

      Donne seems to be suggesting that the coincidence of these two high holy days is not in fact a coincidence, but is part of the “order” of salvation history. And that that “order” is instilled a priori as an operation of the Word.

      As to whether this posits a separation in the person of the Word that doesn’t not disturb the unity of the Godhead. . . I think Donne is suggesting, or maybe I want him to suggest, that it isn’t so much a separation but a space that is already open in the person of the Word for the Church to enter into the divine life.

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      1. You wrote: “As to your question–whether Donne implies an abandonment in Christ’s spirit (and not only bodily) that doesn’t break the union–I might suggest the language of prosopon, persona instead of spirit, since we could be talking about either the divine nature or Christ’s mortal soul under that language of spirit, right? And the language of person is more theological shocking, anyway, because we’re talking about what Christ, the person of the Word now incarnate, underwent.”

        What Donne said was that even though spiritual death (separation from God) DID OCCUR on the Cross when Christ “became sin for us” — as is dramatized when He cries out “My God, My God, Why have You forsaken me?” — YET NONETHELESS The Holy Trinity was not separated from Christ’s mortal body, either on the Cross or thereafter in the grave. I had always thought that the breaking of the spiritual union between God and Man in the Person of the Incarnate Christ WAS HISTORIC CHURCH DOCTRINE. And that the shocking part here is that Christ’s mortal body was not separated from the life of God by the spiritual death and separation from God.

        “Now Christ has died, and will not die again. Therefore with joy we keep the Pascal Feast…..” Christ was the first-fruits from the dead not because his mortal body was resurrected (others had been resurrected, including Lazarus), but because He was raised from the spiritual death that had occurred on the Cross. When Adam sinned, he died spiritually and also (accordingly) became subject to bodily death, Paul teaches in Romans. Christ freely gave up his bodily life and delivered it into God’s hands (as Donne emphasizes), but the implication in Death’s Duell is that the assumption of sin by Christ was a spiritual separation from God — but not a separation of the Trinity from that mortal body that was ABSOLUTELY united to the Godhead through the Incarnation. I don’t know how speculative this is on Donne’s part, but I certainly thought that the SPIRITUAL death of the Word of God on the Cross was much more than simply the separation of Christ’s human spirit from the Godhead, but in some sense a death and separation within the very Trinity Itself.

        GOD died on the Cross. Not just Man. But Donne adds, Yes, God died spiritually on the Cross. But God did not die bodily — there was no spiritual separation IN THE BODY, and (fittingly, but divine fiat) no bodily corruption therein.

        That the very Trinity itself was in that grave, united with that body, is therefore an amazingly strong and provocative statement, in its implications…. Do you think I am wrong about the genuine spiritual separation of Christ the Son from the Father on the Cross as being standard historical Church doctrine?

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