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.
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.
St. David’s Episcopal Church
NB: Thanks to my friend, Dr. Matthew Rothaus Moser, for directing me to this poem.