Christ’s suffering and ours: A Sermon for Good Friday, 2020

 

One of my rituals since I’ve come to Grace is to spend most of the morning on Good Friday in the empty nave of Grace Church. On this day, it is completely devoid of decoration. On Maundy Thursday, we strip the altar and the chancel bare—removing all of the paraments, candles, prayer books and hymnals. The Christus Rex that hangs from arch in the chancel is veiled in black. It’s a time for me to reflect on the day, to prepare for the drama and power of the Good Friday liturgy, to pray for myself, for our congregation and city, and for the world. It’s a time of silence, when I leave behind all of the tasks related to Holy Week worship for a few hours, set aside all of the stress and anxiety, and focus on the cross, on Christ’s great gift of love.

Of course, this year is different. The church is empty as it always is on Good Friday morning, but it has been empty for over a month, and it will remain empty for some time to come. Our Good Friday liturgy is live-streamed from my home, unaccompanied by music.

Our observances of Holy Week this year are marked not by the usual rituals and gatherings, marked not by the great hymns of the Christian tradition. Instead, our worship takes place in atmosphere of fear, anxiety, and suffering. The loneliness of our isolation is deepened when we hear the voices of friends and loved ones over the phone or see them via zoom or facetime. We are made aware daily of the suffering in the world caused by COVID-19, and all the ways in which the virus exposes the inequities and dysfunction of our society and world.

In the midst of all of this, our anxiety and fear, our loneliness and isolation, we gather virtually to remember the events of this day that occurred almost two thousand years ago. We pause in the midst of our own struggles, pain, and helplessness to remember the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

His crucifixion, a bloody, horrific death, often called “execution by torture” because the way that crucifixion caused death-by asphyxiation, often a process that could take days, was reserved by Romans for the most notorious of criminals, revolutionaries, rebellious slaves, and the like. It was public, meant as a warning to passers-by of the fate that awaited them if they challenged Rome’s power.

It’s a death that’s alien to us, even if we are familiar with its images. The sort of suffering it causes is known to us only through artistic images or Hollywood movies.

In spite of that, the crucifixion has often been interpreted as connecting Christ’s sufferings with our own, or with the suffering of humanity. One of the most powerful and most famous artistic representations of the crucifixion is that of the 16th century painter Matthias Gruenewald, whose Isenheim altarpiece depicts Christ’s suffering in visual detail, his body riddled with sores, and bleeding. Painted for a hospital for victims of the plague, the sores on Christ’s body looked very much like the sores a plague victim might have, and so, by the patients could find solace and comfort from the suffering that Christ shared with them.

Today, this Good Friday, perhaps that is the only message that we need to hear. Perhaps that is the message of the cross, of Jesus’ suffering and death. That in the cross, we see Christ suffering, but that he is suffering not for himself alone but for us. In the cross, we see Christ suffering with us.

Whatever our pain, whether it is the loss of our jobs, worry about the immediate or more distant future. Whether it is our own illness, the illness or suffering of a friend or loved one, whom we cannot support or accompany right now; whether it’s the death of a loved one, or a friend’s grief at the death of their loved one. Whatever it may be, whatever suffering we might be experiencing right now, Jesus is here with us, suffering with us, taking our pain on as his own.

We are in a dark and difficult place right now, but Jesus is here with us. In the cross, he takes on our suffering; he has taken on the world’s suffering. His great love will carry us through. Even in the death and darkness of Good Friday, and in the silence of the tomb that marks Holy Saturday, Jesus’ love bears our pain and heals our suffering souls. May Jesus’ love break through our isolation, our fear, our pain, fill our hearts, and transform our lives.

 

 

He loved them to the end: A Homily for Maundy Thursday, 2020

 

It’s all so strange and disorienting, isn’t it? There’s a certain familiarity in the fact that most of us are confined to our homes or apartments, places we’ve lived for some time. We’re surrounded by familiar things, the various items that we’ve accumulated over our lifetimes, photos, mementos, and the like. These are all things that tell us who we are and where we’ve been. They help to orient us in the world. The only strange thing is that we are around them all of the time now, or most of the time. And after several weeks of “shelter at home” even the unfamiliar has become familiar. We’ve grown accustomed to working or worshiping on-line. Many of us have overcome our fear of zoom or facebook live, and we are finding new ways to connect with each other.

Still, it doesn’t take much to remind us how strange this all is. Venturing outside, seeing people wearing masks, or noticing the lack of traffic at should be rush hour. The parking lots of stores are empty. I haven’t been inside a store in over 3 weeks. We’re making do with curbside pickup, or deliveries, or mail order.

For me, there’s another level of disorientation, as the grounding I get for my faith by worshiping through Holy Week is missing. I’m floundering a bit, spiritually, religiously. I miss the familiar rituals of Sunday and midweek Eucharist, and now I am experiencing a Holy Week far-removed from the ritual drama of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter.

But Holy Week it is even in these strange circumstances. Tonight is Maundy Thursday when we the Last Supper when Jesus instituted the Eucharist. We remember, even though we cannot celebrate it ourselves, we cannot eat the bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood, and proclaim his death until he returns.

Similarly, as our gospel reading indicates, we remember Jesus’ great act of love and service when he got up from the table, wrapped a towel around himself, and washed his disciples’ feet. When everything is about social distancing, our ordinary squeamishness at the intimacy and strangeness of footwashing becomes even more unlikely, more offensive as we consider the implications of touching a stranger in that way.

Still here we are, gathered via the miracles of technology, to remember and worship on this Maundy Thursday. Perhaps it’s enough for us to think about what both of these acts symbolize and enact—Christ’s love for us and for the world.

This is such a poignant and powerful story, introduced with language that is at once eloquent and pregnant with meaning. “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

            Think about it. Jesus knew what was going to happen—that he would be betrayed, arrested, crucified. Knowing where he had come from and where he was going. With that knowledge as background, the gospel writer continues, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

Knowing what he knew, loving his own to the end, what did Jesus choose to do? He got up from the table, wrapped a towel around himself, and washed his disciples’ feet.

Think of those feet, dusty, sweaty, from all those miles they walked. Think of all they had been through as his disciples followed and listened to him. Think of Jesus, touching, washing his disciples’ feet, as a few days earlier, Mary of Bethany had anointed Jesus’ feet with costly nard and wiped them with her hair.

It’s something with which we are uncomfortable, even if we admit the potential power of the act; getting on our knees, washing the feet of a friend or a stranger. And for us, now, we can hardly imagine doing such a thing, with social distancing, instructions to wash our hands for twenty seconds, and masks covering our faces when we go outside.

But then, after it’s over; after Judas leaves the gathering of friends to betray Jesus, Jesus has more to say. A new commandment to love one another as Jesus loved his disciples, to love one another as Jesus loves us.

In footwashing, in this intimate, offensive act, we see Christ’s love for us. In the foot washing, an act that transgresses so many boundaries, we see Christ’s love for us. We know that Jesus loves us. We see that love here, and on the cross, drawing us to him, drawing the world to him.

We see that love here, as Jesus stoops down, kneels down to act out that love. And as he does that, he provides us an example of how we are to love, by reaching out to others, by transgressing boundaries. He calls us to kneel before each other, and before the stranger, to wash their feet, to care for them, and love them.

Even now, as we rely on Christ’s love for us, as we yearn for Christ’s love across the chasm of isolation and social distancing, he calls us to reach out in love to others, he challenges us to love our neighbors, and strangers, the homeless and the hungry. As we receive the gift of Christ’s love, may we also offer that gift, our own love, to the world.