It is such an odd day, so emotionally draining, but with this incomplete quality to it. (Which is quite conscious and deliberate in our tradition, you don't have a blessing at the 'end' of a service from Thursday right through to the first Mass on Easter morning, because it is one long service, that stretches the whole three days.) The feeling of the day is of a held breath, or perhaps of the moment just before the sun breaks over the horizon at dawn.
I thought I'd post my Good Friday sermon for anyone who is interested:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be ever acceptable to you, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
These liturgies of Holy Week and Easter are some of the most memorable in our whole year, I think one of the reasons for this is that they engage more than only our brain in what is going on. They involve touch when we come to reverence the cross in a few moments, they involve our emotions, they involve our sense of beauty as with the wonderful singing we’ve heard, the smell of the incense is distinctly evocative for many of us. So this morning in my sermon, I’m not only going to be word and text-based, but I invite you also to engage with it imaginatively in a visual way.
My question is this: What is the appropriate symbol for Good Friday? Of course, there is the crucifix, Jesus nailed to the cross, many would have nails or the crowns of thorns, but in some way all of these allow the atrocity to be the central narrative of the day. It makes human violence the most important thing about today. Tragically, it is part of the story of the day, but it is far from the whole story, and we do a disservice to the one who died today if we allow that to be our entire focus.
I think the symbol for today should be a heart. Certainly we are used to that being a symbol of Valentines Day, we’re used to it speaking of a more cutesy sort of love. But the Valentine’s day heart pales into insignificance beside the love we remember today.
In so many different ways, love brought Jesus to this day. As a child Jesus was nurtured into adulthood by the love of a human family. In Mary and Joseph, Jesus saw modelled what a life of love for God looks like. I think that these two kinds of love shaped the man he became, he was able to love only because he had been shown love. He was to say his ‘yes’ to God because of the ‘yes’ spoken by Mary and Joseph.
The love he showed for those who were suffering and in need also brought him to this day. His love for them was so immense that he didn’t let anything stand in the way of his care for them, not the laws of Sabbath, not social norms and rules, not the laws of cleanliness and uncleanliness. He healed people on a day when work was forbidden, and he healed all sorts of people that others thought he shouldn’t even be speaking to, let alone touching. This love that ignored rules made him dangerous, so dangerous that those in power decided he had to die.
A few Sundays ago in Lent we heard the story of Jesus’ friend, Mary of Bethany, extravagantly anointing his feet. In the story this comes just before he goes into Jerusalem. The love of friends who supported him gave him the strength to walk the way that led him to that hill.
Jesus also shows love in the garden in our reading this morning, how easy it would be to be resentful towards Judas, how easy to hate him for what he did. In the garden it is especially poignant that here Jesus says “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.” Even Judas is offered love and entrusted now back into God’s care.
Earlier in the Gospel of John, in Chapter 13, during the last meal with his friends, we are told that Jesus “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” There is a dual meaning of eis telos, ‘to the end’ “Jesus loved them until the end of his life, and he loved them in a way that surpasses all imaginable loving.” (Sacra Pagina p 373.) These words are echoed here, in verse 28, when we are told that “Jesus knew that all was now finished.” This is the end, the end that love has created, the end that love brings him to embrace willingly.
What symbol could describe this day other than a heart?
But today is a tragic day, and one on which we recall all the brokenness of the world, with which God’s heart breaks too. So I suggest perhaps our symbol ought to be a heart, but a broken heart.
There are so many broken hearts in this story; those who followed Jesus, and thought he was the Messiah they were expecting, and now he seems to them just another victim crucified by the Roman oppressors. The hearts of his friends break, this man who has eaten and drunk, laughed and cried with them, to be suffering in such an awful way, to think of life without him. The heart of Mary, Mother of our Lord breaks here, just as she was told it would when he was a baby. This moment is, without a shadow of doubt, the hugest price of that ‘yes’ - all the hurtfulness she would have encountered when she was found to be with child, possibly the fear for her life she had at that time, none of it would have hurt anything like standing by as her adored son died.
And here, on that hill by the city garbage dump, God’s heart breaks not only for this man, not only for God incarnate hanging on that cross, but God’s heart also breaks for all the others who are left on the garage dumps of society. Those who are even now crucified by abuse, addiction, violence, by feelings of loneliness or believing oneself unwanted, unloved. Because today’s greatest tragedy is not that one particular person died a horrible death, but that he was one among so many who are stripped of dignity, denied justice and are victims of violence and hatred. That this still goes on, so many, many years later. And each time, God’s heart is the first of all hearts to break.
But, and here is the reason we can face this day, from that broken heart new life springs up. There is no heart that breaks that God cannot fill with new life. From the crack in our broken heart emerges the tiniest tip of a new seedling, the first suggestion of the vibrant green of new life. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, the central object of Good Friday is a tomb, but the tomb is made of flowers. At a funeral we sometimes say a prayer that states “in the midst of life we are in death.” But through the mysteries of Easter, it is also true to say “in the midst of death, we are in new life.” The lifeless symbols - nails, thorns or a dead man hanging on a cross of dead wood - alone these cannot be allowed to speak for today, because the love of God taken to its absolute end today puts in the centre, not violence and atrocity, but new life springing up from even the most hopeless of situations.
This is the first time I've made one of my sermons available on the web, I feel vulnerable even giving people copies when they've asked for them. But I have to be brave sooner or later!