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Vol I No. 1
PBS News & Events

Good Friday Sermon

by William J. Martin

Good Friday Sermon

by

Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff

My God, my God, look upon me;

why hast thou forsaken me…

Psalm 22, 1

In the Name of the Father Son and Holy Ghost…. AMEN

Today we come to the darkest point in the church’s liturgical calendar

In a bare and somber church intentionally emblematic of the utmost earthly desolation

–as is uniquely appropriate to that terrible moment which we have just heard narrated in the Gospel, namely the death of Jesus Christ.

Who was there then,  and who is here now, who is not tempted to echo at this point those last words which, rather terrifyingly,  were also those of Jesus Christ himself

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken   —- me ?”

They are without question very difficult words,  not least because they seem to invite the ultimate challenge of the sceptic,  who is apt to ask if we Christians take these words seriously enough?

After all, if these are the last words of Jesus,  and he then died,  are they not perhaps best viewed as the last word on the whole Christian story itself?

Should we not simply recognise that all the rest

–all the later hopes and aspirations of Christians down the ages

are simply wishful thinking on the part of people, unwilling or unable to face the stark and dismal fact that the central figure of it all, Jesus himself,  reached a state of despair — and then died.

This may  have a particular force this year,  when most of our churches have been obliged to close – thus prompting some to ask too I fear ‘why has the Church forsaken me?’

That closure decision – especially in regard to its completeness to the point of lacking and barring the doors—will no doubt be the subject of appropriate reflection at an appropriate time, when things have been restored to some semblance of normality.

Yet, for now, on this of all days it can perhaps actually assist us in deepening our sense of the Good Friday desolation.

We can perhaps use this strange and unprecedented moment in the course of Western civilization – with our churches closed–  to recognise that we all contemplate the death of Christ at the end of the Crucifixion narrative through the lense of what we know is to follow.

This is a massive fact which radically changes our experience as we journey through Holy Week.

However much the liturgical solemnities, even if we can participate merely through an “audio web cast” at present, invite us to undertake an act of anamnesis – which is to say to participate in a re-presentation of that past reality, as though it were happening afresh now before is now, and our attempt to do this now is deeply limited by our knowing the end of the story.

In other words, despite the best efforts of the liturgy and no matter how bare and dark we make the mood and feel of the church,  we experience this whole liturgy from the perspective ultimately through the reality of Easter which we know today will follow after the Passion.

We simply cannot do otherwise

All of which should prompt reflection on what Good Friday is all about REALLY.

In saying this,  I am suggesting a moment of reflection as we ask: Is today ultimately about a re-participation (anamnesis) in the experiential moment, so to speak ,of what it was like for those present at the time of the Crucifixion and death of Jesus  –Something one might think of as a uniquely intense effort at empathy?

Or,  is today about grasping the meaning of what that event, and the Crucifixion “achieved” (what changed on the cosmic scale) and then of dwelling upon what that means for us here and now.

The answer, perhaps inevitably, is both – which has the further consequence that each of these dimensions affects and changes the other.

An illustration of this can be made in two ways

Think about the way in which it is very natural to speak of the wrongful prosecution and killing of Jesus in a manner that subverted due process and law as “tragic”.

Yet the word “Tragedy”  is one with a much richer meaning than simply something terrible – for it comes to us with all the interpretative apparatus of Aristotle and later thinkers  and with such terms as Fatal Flaw (hamartia) in the central tragic figure,

in a story replete with reversal of fortune that arouses pity and fear in us as observers and ultimately occasions that mysterious thing known as catharsis.

What this brings out, is that the experience of events as tragic is inseparable from the category of tragedy itself , and the interpretative framework implicit within it.

And what I have just set out,  should of course also make it abundantly clear that whatever the Passion story is – it is NOT and can never be,  for the Christian,  a tragedy. (Save in the sense that man’s situation -possessed as we are since the Fall–with a truly fatal flaw in Original Sin,  would indeed be tragic without the transformation which the Passion made available to each and every one of us.)

But now think of something different again – let us think specifically of sacrifice

A while back now Arrnaud Beltram, a Colonel In the Gendarmerie in France was killed in the Trèbes siege after he took the place of one of the original hostages.

He was rightly honored with a State funeral in Paris,  during which President Macron commented in paying tribute that

“He took this decision which was not just a sacrifice but was first of all being true to himself, true to his values and true to what he was and what he wanted to be.”

Putting aside the French President’s rather distracting shift of the focus away from the act of sacrifice,  towards authenticity (which is very contemporary but awkward,  since the terrorist who murdered the Colonel was doubtless being highly authentic too,  which illustrates why authenticity is not of itself a real virtue or at least a second order one only when it stands in relation to first order good)

What is notable here, that in reflecting upon those terrible events,  the specific concept of sacrifice came so naturally to mind as having an immediate applicability and explanatory force – even though in France there is such a deep enthusiasm in any State context for Laïcité

I have at times wondered, if the notion of sacrifice was losing its meaning in modern culture and it is therefore deeply interesting to see here an instance where it was immediately recognised as being central to what had happened.

Thus,  a concept that could seem oddly remote and abstract become very real and immediate:  when a man voluntarily substituted himself for someone else and gave his life in that other person’s place – and did so knowing that this would likely be the result of his volunteering himself as a substitute.

We all, very naturally, respond to that, as not simply heroic of itself,  but as an action which has changed the way things are in some deeply important way – thus one might say,  that the sum of human goodness has in a quite deep way been increased and the state of the world has been changed.

Notable too here, was that this happened despite the awful paradox that the man accomplishing this good,  himself died as part of the deep change that happened. That terribly sad fact in no way diminishes however, the good that was manifest in what he did,  both as an action in itself and in terms of its consequence of saving the lives of others.

And today all around us we see members of the medical professions essentially putting their lives at risk, and doing so knowingly—for the good of others, which is very deeply impressive in the midst of a Western Culture which has so often shown every growing signs of inability ground meaning in any objective and deep sense.

This makes it  very appropriate to remember that to will the good of another is a very precise definition of love.

This enables us to see that the act of self-sacrifice for another is quintessentially a very profound action of love, which calls to mind at once  the words of St John’s Gospel (15, 13) ”Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”[2]

If we turn then, in the light of all these considerations from the particularities of what happened in France to the great drama of Good Friday where are we ?

That very distinguished Anglican theologian of the 20th Century,  Austin Farrer covers a vast amount of ground when he asks rhetorically with characteristic -if rather deceptive-simplicity,

What, then, did God do for his people’s redemption? He came among them, bringing his kingdom, and he let events take their human course. He set the divine life in human neighborhood. Men discovered it in struggling with it and were captured by it in crucifying it. What could be simpler? And what more divine”   (Saving Belief: a Discussion of Essentials)

At once,  among the many threads here one can see that, what we are confronted with in the Passion is something that —was only possible because of divinity on the one hand, at the same time as it uniquely revealed or disclosed divinity, on the other hand.

After all, it was only a man,  who was also divine, who could offer a sacrifice adequate to the sins of all mankind….

In the words of Professor Richard H. Bell  (the Nottingham one-time-physicist and later theologian, writing in 1998) , “the cross represents the divine intersection with the world—our only pure example of an unconditional love. The cross, in fact, is a sign of an incarnation where God, having taken leave of the world to allow humans to act, reenters by our consent.” (Bell, Simone Weil, 61.) albeit with the further cruel twist that it is not merely our consent involved here — for it is we as human beings who are the agents who impel the sacrifice.

All of which brings out that we are here as we stand before the Crucifixion

in a dimension of reality that can only, it seems, be expressed in paradoxical terms,  insofar as we can bring it to expression at all.

And here I turn to the French philosopher and Platonist mystic Simone Weil,

who understood so well that God created the world and all living beings through love and for love;  and who created beings capable of being restored to love in its fulness in relation to God (paradoxically) by going the infinite distance of permitting himself to torn asunder to the point of death on the Cross.

Thus do we return yet again to that point, in the crucifixion , where there is an affliction so deep that it occasioned Jesus Christ,  as the uniquely “just man to cry out against God, a just man as perfect as human nature can be,” (Weil, Waiting for God, p. 120.)  in an affliction so great that it produced the terrible cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

 “This supreme tearing apart, this agony beyond all others, this marvel of love, is the crucifixion. (emphasis added here)

A place which

“….is at the intersection of creation and its Creator. This point of intersection is the point of intersection of the arms of the Cross. Saint Paul was perhaps thinking about things of this kind when he said: “That ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge.

(Weil, Waiting for God, 137–38; the quote  of St Paul is from Eph. 3:17–19.)

Nonetheless as Weil also writes,

 “already here below we receive the capacity for loving God and for representing him to ourselves with complete certainty as having the substance of real, eternal, perfect, and infinite joy. Through our fleshy veils we receive from above presages of eternity which are enough to efface all doubts on this subject.” (Ibid p. 90)

But if that is one side of things,  there is of course an obverse – the side which the Season of preparation and self-examination that is Lent helps us to address,  and one that also fits with the mood of desolation and surrender that characterizes Good Friday.

This calls to mind that it is with an ultimate   “Yes, thy will be done,” that we offer up the final vestiges of the self, surrendering completely to the will of God, destroying our selves and our egos, ….so that the divine love may pass unimpeded through the space that this “I” once occupied.

If one maintains this consent, this surrender, this constant attention toward grace, “what [we] will discover buried deep under the sound of [our] own lamentations is the pearl of the silence of God.” (Weil, On Science, 198.) in whom alone we truly have our being

This is a silence in which I suggest we can best perceive and prepare to accept the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross which makes possible resurrection joy of Easter and the gift which is our salvation.

AMEN

[1] If we follow Matthew and Mark at this point.

[2] Even though we should remember too, that this stands in relation to the next verse which states that: “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.”

Together these verses remind us  that if love without obedience is blinded, obedience without love is empty….