Weeping at the foot of the cross: A Homily for Good Friday, 2022

April 15, 2022

I have a keen sense of the powerful emotions that are roiling through me today. Good Friday is always a day full of emotions—of grief and sadness, shame. As we listen to John’s passion gospel with its extreme anti-Judaism, we may be reminded of all the ways that text, and Christian devotion and theology surrounding the crucifixion, have fueled anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in the church and in wider culture. The weight of that history always burdens me on this day, as I seek to lead a community of Christians into reflection on Christ’s suffering and death.

But this year there are other emotions—the reality that we gather in this place on this day for the first time since 2019. We carry with us the trauma of those years: pandemic leaving millions dead and millions more permanently affected; an insurrection that used and continues to use the imagery of Good Friday, the cross and Jesus Christ in the service of autocracy, white nationalism and white supremacy; and now a war in Ukraine that has killed thousands, forced millions from their homes. It too is perpetrated in part on behalf of so-called Christian values.

With all of these emotions and thoughts running through our heads, it is difficult to find the space, the silence to reflect on the meaning of this day. Perhaps that’s as it should be. Our pain, grief, fear, anger, and trauma have brought us to this place, to the foot of the cross, and to Christ’s arms, outstretched in love.

It may seem somewhat surprising that the gospels have little to say about the emotions of those who were closest to Jesus, as they watched the events of his last days unfold. There are hints of what they might have been feeling; certainly fear, perhaps bewilderment as they tried to make sense of what was happening, the dashing of their hopes for a restored Israel and divine intervention against the Roman Empire. Luke mentions the disciples’ grief on at least one occasion, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Luke writes that Peter, James, and John fell asleep “because of grief” while Jesus prayed.

There’s a passage that struck me this year during the reading of Luke’s passion narrative this past Sunday. Luke is describing Jesus’ walk to Calvary and in 23:27 writes that:

 A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. Then Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.

It’s one of those details that may be familiar and well-known, it is one of the stations in the traditional stations of the cross, for example. But it’s a detail that can take on new significance or meaning in a different context.

Weeping women. I’ve also been reflecting on the traditional medieval hymn, the stabat mater. A baroque setting of that hymn by Pergolesi is featured in the concerts performed by Madison Bach Musicians this week, tonight, here at Grace. The Stabat Mater reflects on the emotions of Mary, Jesus’ mother as she witnesses the crucifixion of her son. 

It’s a bit curious that John gives a prominent role to Jesus’ mother at the crucifixion because she’s mentioned only one other time in the gospel, at the very first miracle of Jesus, the turning of water into wine at the Wedding at Cana. Surprisingly, Jesus addresses her in the same way both times, calling her “Woman.” In fact, nowhere in the gospel of John is she mentioned by name.

Only John writes that Mary and the Beloved Disciple were at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion. In the synoptic gospels, the disciples abandon Jesus after his arrest and we’re told by Mark that the women disciples who had followed Jesus from Galilee looked on the crucifixion from afar.

John’s version has become the dominant version in the Christian tradition. Countless visual images, paintings especially, show Mary and the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the cross. In medieval churches, carved statues of the crucified Christ flanked by Mary and John were often prominently displayed atop the rood screen. And the Stabat Mater, helped to focus devotional attention on Mary’s grief and suffering as she watched her son die and asks that we share in that grief and suffering:

O thou Mother! fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
Make my heart with thine accord:

Make me feel as thou hast felt;
Make my soul to glow and melt
With the love of Christ my Lord.

Such sentiments may seem somewhat alien to us in the twenty-first century, but it is the case that much of what we do on this day, our prayers and hymns try to connect Christ’s suffering with our own and are meant to elicit even deeper emotions from us than we might have been feeling otherwise.

But perhaps instead of intensifying our emotions it might be better for us simply to name them: to name our fear, grief, despair. As we do that, we might also name the emotions that Mary and Jesus’ other disciples were feeling, and the emotions that so many humans across the globe are feeling. We may be particularly affected by them on this day as we contemplate Christ’s suffering and death and we may find it difficult to acknowledge, to process all of them.

The scene of Christ crucified, his mother and the beloved disciple at his side, is not just about his suffering and ours. It is, above all, about love, the love that brought him among us, the love that brought him to this place of execution, the love that draws the whole world to himself. It is a love that was not just present then and there, but is present with us, among us, in our suffering, as he suffers beside us and with us.

It is also a love that binds us to him and to each other. From the cross, Jesus said to his Mother, “Woman, here is your son” and to the Beloved Disciple, he said, “Here is your mother.” At the cross, Jesus was creating new relationships, new community among his followers. Even as his body was being broken, he was knitting together a new body, the body of Christ.

That may be the most important and profound message for us on this Good Friday, when we have felt the pain of isolation and separation so intensely for so long, when we have struggled to gather as the body of Christ, the community of the faithful. We are bound together by Christ’s love. His outstretched arms embrace us and invite us to embrace each other. May the cross be a place where we experience Christ’s all-embracing love and may it empower us to embrace the world with that same love.

He loves us to the end: A homily for Good Friday, 2021

            
Good Friday

April 2, 2021

            A second Good Friday, a second Holy Week observed in strange and unsettling circumstances. The numbers are staggering, more than 550,000 lives lost in the US. The losses we have all experienced, isolation, jobs, routines, what used to be ordinary and common-place—a gathering with friends, a meal in a restaurant, seem strange indeed. The familiar rituals have become unfamiliar, the usual observances suspended because of pandemic and restrictions on public worship. We struggle to connect our current lives and world with the religious lives we have known in the past. We struggle to connect the suffering we are experiencing, and the suffering in the world around us, with the familiar, dramatic story of Jesus’ arrest and execution.

But there are resonances if we pay attention. As we worship today, the trial of Derek Chauvin, accused of the murder of George Floyd, is taking place less than a half-day’s drive away. This week we have heard the testimony of bystanders who watched, bore witness, and shared the last minutes of George Floyd’s life. The Tuesday night group that read James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree may see those resonances and make those connections between the crucifixion of Jesus, the widespread practice of lynching, and the death of Floyd and so many other African-Americans at the hands of police officers who too often face no consequences for their actions.

There are other resonances, too, that echo through the centuries. In the vitriolic Anti-Judaism of the Gospel of John’s portrayal of Jesus’ death, and in fact, of so many other episodes in the gospel, we see the roots of two millennia of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism that forced Jews into hiding during Holy Week in fear of the violence that Christians might visit upon them. We see the roots to of the Holocaust, and of the revived anti-semitism in 21st century America.

And the crowd, stirred up into a frenzy by politicians and religious leaders seeking to use them for their own purposes, well, we have seen the seductive power of crowds and of mass violence. Or the desire to find a scapegoat for our own troubles and suffering, and lashing out at Asian-Americans, or succumbing to conspiracy theories.

The hatred, violence, fear, and anxiety we experience in the world find parallels in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, and even if we want, for a day at least, to put all those other things out of our minds in order to focus on the profound and powerful death of Jesus, we bring with us those events, our context and world, our suffering and our deepest fears, into our spiritual lives, into our encounters with the cross of Christ.

There’s a tendency in Christian devotion to focus on Christ’s suffering, the pain, the blood he shed. We see that tendency in the high culture of medieval and renaissance art. We see and hear it in the hymns that are being sung today—O sacred head sore wounded, and the Pange lingua. We hear it in the revivalist and gospel songs of 19th and 20th century American evangelicalism. For some of us the focus on Jesus’ suffering, his pain, the blood seems morbid and overdone. It may lead us to want to avert our eyes, turn away, even ignore the events of Good Friday.

Still, the story we heard just now, a story that many of us know so very well, not only through the words of the gospel writers but through the centuries of Christian reflection and devotion on it—the art, the hymns, the popular cultural appropriations, and even the movies, is a story that is gripping, powerful, and disturbing. As we hear it read again, as we contemplate its imagery, listen to the hymns, images powerful, painful, emotional pass fleetingly through our minds, perhaps catching our attention for a moment, more likely vanishing to be replaced by other images, visual or verbal.

While our minds and hearts, like our tradition, may focus on the manner and extent of Christ’s suffering on the cross, it’s surprising that the gospel writers themselves pass over the crucifixion with relatively little attention. It’s almost as if the crucifixion takes place in the background. The focus seems to be on the responses of the crowd and the executioners. Of Jesus’ suffering, only his thirst is mentioned in the gospels, and immediately after that, his death.

All our focus on Jesus’ suffering, which is often intended to increase our feelings of guilt, shame, and need for repentance, can distract us from other aspects of the cross, the way the gospel writers tell the story, the way they want us to understand what is happening and why. 

Which brings us back today to other themes from John’s gospel, powerful images and words that are often obscured when we focus too much on Jesus’ suffering and on human responsibility for his suffering and death. 

For the gospel of John, the cross isn’t ultimately about Jesus’ suffering but about his glorification; the cross isn’t a focus of our own guilt and shame, but a symbol of Christ’s triumph over sin and death. But more than that, the cross is a symbol, indeed the very fact of God’s love. 

For God so loved the world, the Gospel writer says, that God gave his only son. 

And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself, Jesus says, in reference to his crucifixion, being lifted high on the cross.

And then, as we read last night at our Maundy Thursday service, “Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

He loved them to the end. His love for us, for the human race, for the world, brought him into confrontation and conflict with the powers of the world, the religious establishment and the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. His love brought him here, to trial before Pilate in a kangaroo court where the verdict was foreordained by the interests of empire. His love for us, for the world brought him here, to this place of execution.

It’s a love that is incomprehensible, unimaginable, that offers us and the world the possibility to hope for a different kind of world, where power, greed, oppression, and self-interest hold no sway but where love invites us to imagine we ourselves giving our lives for others: “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

As we contemplate Christ’s love for us, expressed in his crucifixion, may we open our hearts to receive and to be embraced by that love. And may that love inspire us, move us to share that love, to express Christ’s self-giving love in the world around us. May it give us hope that our world might be redeemed and transformed by Christ’s love, breaking down the barriers that divide us, bring justice to those who are oppressed, hope to those living in fear and anxiety. May we be Christ’s love, binding up wounds, mending the broken-hearted. In this world where so many are overcome by suffering, oppression, fear and despair, may Christ’s love shed abroad by us show us the way from cross to resurrection, from despair to hope, from death to new life, into beloved community, and a world created anew. 

Scandal and Glory: A Sermon for Good Friday, 2019

We have heard again the dramatic, heart-breaking story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution as recorded in the Gospel of John. For those of us who know it well, it is a story that grips us with gut-wrenching power. It also may repel us because of the ways it has been interpreted, the ways we’ve internalized the story and meaning of the crucifixion, and in John’s case the unrelenting, offensive anti-Judaism that jumps out at us. Continue reading

W. H. Auden imagining himself in Jerusalem on the first Good Friday

“Just as we were all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worth while asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing. None of us, I’m certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in an agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good churchmen enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all-too-familiar sight — three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, “It’s disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can’t the authorities execute criminals humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?” Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the nature of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.” W. H. Auden, in A Certain World: A Commonplace Book

Source: Alan Jacobs

Drawing all people to himself: A Sermon for Good Friday, 2018

It is finished. We have heard again the familiar, haunting story of Jesus’ passion as recorded by the gospel of John. We have heard of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, his trial, and his execution. We have watched as Joseph and Nicodemus took his body down from the cross and buried it in a tomb. We have listened as the world fell silent, our hearts broken.

It is finished. Those are the last words Jesus speaks in John’s gospel. Last night, at our Maundy Thursday service, our gospel reading began with the words, “And having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” The words translated here as “finished” and there as “end” derive from the same Greek word “telos.” So we could just as easily, just as accurately translate Jesus’ words from the cross, “It is complete.”

It is finished. With these words we see not only the end of Jesus’ life, the finality of his suffering and death, we may also begin to meditate on its meaning and purpose. That which he had come to us, to earth, to do, is brought to fruition.

But this story of suffering and death, as familiar as it is, confronts us with questions. Even as human suffering, the evil people do to each other every day, the horrific suffering our world has seen, and continues to see—all this confronts us, challenges our faith, even our very humanity. We want it to make sense. We want the suffering of the world to make sense, to have meaning. We want the suffering of Christ to make sense, to have meaning. And too often, the answers we give, or the answers that are given us, ring hollow, empty, leaving us in despair.

This year, as I have sat with scripture in Lent and Holy Week, while the lectionary has focused our attention on Mark, I have also been deeply moved by the Gospel of John. Reading both of those gospels, as familiar as they are, has brought me deeper into the mystery that we ponder today. I have, as I said last night, and to use one of those words so beloved in John, I have been abiding in John’s gospel, abiding with Jesus and with John.

And words, verses, have been in my mind and on my heart throughout Lent and now Holy Week, verses like one we heard last night from chapter 13, “and having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” And from chapter 3, as Jesus (or the gospel writer) reflects on his encounter with Nicodemus, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

But the verse that has burrowed into my heart and soul this year is one we heard on the 5th Sunday in Lent, and again on Tuesday in Holy Week, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

In the cross, in his crucifixion, in that symbol of Roman empire, its power, ruthlessness, and oppression, in the cross, that stumbling to Jews and folly to Gentiles, in the cross, Jesus is drawing all people to himself.

In the cross, we see the love of God, drawing us, grabbing us and not letting go. In the cross, we see God’s love offered for us, offered to us, offered to God. In the cross, on the cross, we said God, utterly vulnerable, utterly powerless. Yet even then, we see God’s love, drawing us to Godself. On the cross we see the vulnerable, invincible, irresistible power of God’s love.

Today, our hearts are broken. They are broken by the anguish we feel as we hear again the story of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, and death. Our hearts are broken by all the ways we have acted like those around Jesus, betraying and denying him, abandoning him. Our hearts are broken by all the ways Jesus continues to suffer among us, with those who are caught up in the criminal justice system, the homeless and the hungry, immigrants who fear for their lives and livelihoods, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community who are marginalized and prevented from leading lives that flourish and reach their full potential.

Our hearts are broken as we hear about families torn apart, children separated from their mothers by ICE, the scourge of gun violence that includes mass shootings, senseless suicides, and accidental deaths. Our hearts break as we hear about the opioid epidemic that rages in communities beset by hopelessness and despair.

In all that suffering, we should also see the suffering of Christ.

In the cross, we see the full power of the Roman Empire brought to bear on a rabbi on the edge of empire who dared to teach an alternative the domination, oppression, and violence of Rome, who preached peace, and cast a vision of a new reality coming into being where the first would be last and the last first, where tax collectors, sinners, and the outcast would have a place, would be welcomed and embraced. For his challenge to the religious establishment and Roman power, Jesus was crushed by Roman power.

If that were the end of the story, we wouldn’t be here. If that were the end of the story, Jesus’ death would have no more meaning, make no more sense than any other death, –the death of someone from capital punishment, or teen-aged victims of mass shootings, or an African-American man killed by law enforcement officers in Sacramento, or Ferguson, or Madison, or any other of millions of deaths, victims of wars or violence, or deaths of homeless people, or victims of disease or natural disaster.

But the cross is not meaningless. When Jesus said, “It is finished” he was saying that the work he had come to earth for, the life he had lived had been accomplished. We know that the resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus’ life and death, that the resurrection gives meaning to Jesus’ death, but in the cross we something else, Christ’s love outpoured for us, to us. And more, in Jesus, we see the love of God come to us, come for us. So that it all becomes one current, one flow—God’s gift to us of love in Christ, Christ’s gift to God and to us, himself and his love.

We can’t understand that love, we can’t comprehend it. We can’t explain it. But it is love we can know, love that is ours to become and to be, ours to share. We experience that love of Christ, as we are embraced by his arms outstretched on the hard wood of the cross; as we are drawn by him, drawn to him. As he is lifted up, he draws us to him, lifts us up to him, he bears our sorrows and our sins. In his love, in his gift, we see the possibility of new life and a world remade in, by, and for, love.

May our knowledge of this love, our experience of his love, remake us in his image and help us become and be that love in the world.

Were you there? A Sermon for Good Friday, 2017

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The old, familiar spiritual that we will sing again in a few minutes has taken on new meaning for me in this season. A few weeks ago, as I was preparing for one of the sessions in our Lenten Study on the meaning of the cross in the twenty-first century, I came across a movie of lynching postcards compiled and narrated by James Allen. By themselves, the images are haunting and horrific. They depict the gaunt, celebratory faces of white people surrounding black bodies hanging from trees. Continue reading

Good Friday in the Shadow of the Lynching Tree

To understand what the cross means in America we need to take a look at the lynching tree in this nation’s history–that “strange and bitter crop” that Billie Holiday would not let us forget. The lynched black victim experienced the same fate as the crucified Christ and thus became the most potent symbol for understanding the true meaning of the salvation achieved through “God on the Cross.” Nietzsche was right: Christianity is a religion of slaves. God became a slave in Jesus and thereby liberated slaves from being determined by their condition.

The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst. Faith that emerged out of the scandal of the cross is not a faith of intellectuals or elites of any sort. This is the faith of abused and scandalized people—the losers and the down and out. It was this faith that gave blacks the strength and courage to hope, “to keep on keeping on,” …. The cross and the lynching tree interpret each other. Both were public spectacles, shameful events, instruments of punishment reserved for the most despised people in society. Any genuine theology and any genuine preaching of the Christian gospel must be measured against the test of the scandal of the cross and the lynching tree…..

As I see it, the lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians. When we see the crucifixion as a first-century lynching, we are confronted by the re-enactment of Christ’s suffering in the blood-soaked history of African Americans.

Thus the lynching tree reveals the true religious meaning of the cross for American Christians today. The cross needs the lynching tree to remind Americans of the reality of suffering-to keep the cross from becoming a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety. Before the spectacle of the cross we are faced with a clear challenge: as Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino has put it, “to take the crucified down from the cross.”

Yet the lynching tree also needs the cross, without which it becomes simply an abomination. It is the cross that points in the direction of hope, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor….

Though the pain of Jesus’ cross was real, there was also joy and beauty in his cross. This is the great theological paradox that makes the cross impossible to embrace unless one is standing in solidarity with those who are powerless. God’s loving solidarity can transform ugliness–whether Jesus on the cross or a lynched black victim–into beauty, into God’s liberating presence.

—James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward by John Donne

GOOD-FRIDAY, 1613, RIDING WESTWARD.
by John Donne

LET man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th’ intelligence that moves, devotion is ;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey ;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl’d by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul’s form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die ;
What a death were it then to see God die ?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes ?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us ? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul’s, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg’d and torn ?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God’s partner here, and furnish’d thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom’d us ?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They’re present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them ; and Thou look’st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang’st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity ;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I’ll turn my face.

Vulnerable Bodies, Vulnerable Love: A Homily for Good Friday, 2016

 

A photo from the aftermath of Tuesday’s bombings in Brussels moved me deeply. Two women were sitting on the ground, their backs leaning against a building. One woman was on her cellphone. The other was dazed, her legs splayed, her clothes in tatters. She seemed to be in shock, robbed of her dignity and humanity, utterly vulnerable. In her body, weak, frightened, vulnerable, I was reminded of Christ’s body, stretched out on the cross.

Continue reading

Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis by Denise Levertov: Poetry for Good Friday

Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis 

by Denise Levertov

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
A soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
In a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
That He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of his depth,
like anyone who has taken herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.