Good Friday


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Almighty God, we beseech thee graciously to behold this thy family…; Almighty and everlasting God, by whose spirit the whole body of the church is governed…; O merciful God who hast made all men…
Hebrews 10:1-25
John 19:1-37

In the working out of the theology in Hebrews it is easy to forget two words: Ecce Homo. What can sound like an ingenious salvific device is a person of flesh and blood. The man whose blood substituted the image for the shadow, who superseded the blood of animals so that the sacrifice of his life might seal the New Covenant, was mocked, tortured and killed for us but is that the extent of God’s mercy? The first Collect refers to the family of the Church; and the Second is gracious enough to recognise that this comprises “All estates of men” (a reference to the reading of the Litany); but the Third is most definite that Jews, Turks, Infidels and, ominously, heretics are not covered by the saving act of Jesus unless they enter the Church’s fold. All this, sadly, is common enough rhetoric: the Jews were a familiar target (cf Sunday Next Before Easter); the Turks, after the fall of Constantinople in 1452, pursued an aggressive anti Christian campaign which brought them to the gates of Vienna in 1680; Infidels had been the target of the Crusades and were still possessors of the Holy places and although all but the first had been disastrous, there was a lingering attachment to the idea; and Protestantism had not been slow to requisition the Roman Church’s treatment of heretics among which some of its more radical adherents were numbered. If the ideas are in any way helpful in the abstract the list itself is surely a sorry piece of history best overlooked on this most solemn of all days when our minds should be fixed on the suffering and death of Jesus rather than on anachronistic and meretricious factionalism. Jesus regrets the hard heartedness of the Jews and the Evangelists in their different ways try to come to terms with it but nothing can obscure the boundless generosity of the death of Jesus on the Cross and its perpetuation in the Eucharist; before that historically transforming mystery all theological controversy (and intrigue) must fall; we have put in peril the mysteries of Eucharist and cross, making them, against the somewhat pious wishes of the First and Second Collects, a symbol of disunity rather than of unity.

The hearts were hard enough in Jerusalem on that fateful morning. Pilate did not show off Jesus in his crown and robe because he was sorry for him but because he hoped, in this piece of theatre, to show how trivial the whole thing was and, when it failed, Pilate dismissed him; but the Jews, who had their own backs to watch, kept on justifying themselves against Pilate’s charge of trivia. To frighten Pilate, Jesus was portrayed as an impostor but not even that could move Pilate who, surely in jest, referred to Jesus twice as “your king”, no doubt reflecting sarcastically on the claim of Jesus that all earthly power, including that of Pilate, came from him. The religious authorities lead Jesus away, mouthing the hypocritical platitude that they have no king but Caesar but Pilate has the last laugh. He cites Jesus on his inscription as King of the Jews which goads his accusers into a challenge; but the plaque remains to taunt them. After the familiar reference to Jesus’ clothes (with the elaboration of the seamless garment), John’s Passion takes a singular turn as Jesus commends his mother and the Apostle John to each other (cf St. John The Evangelist’s Day) which accounts for the persistent tradition that he looked after her until she died at Ephesus near the end of the First Century. In Luke the women are far away but here they are at the foot of the cross. This serene Jesus drinks the proffered vinegar and simply, somewhat enigmatically, says: “It is finished.” John’s account is also the only one to exempt Jesus from the final, summary process of leg breaking, instead of which, in one of the most graphical scenes in all four Passions, he calls on numerous references (Exodus 12:46; Psalm 22:16; 34:20; Isaiah 53:5; Zechariah 12:10) for the image of Jesus’ side being pierced with a lance, so bereft that there is only a drop of blood; and then water.

Of all four accounts, John’s brings us, through the depiction of the utter serenity of Jesus, to a point of silence. For Mark the Son of God, for Matthew the King, for Luke the Saviour; but for John, this is the Lamb of God who goes to the slaughter like the animals in Hebrews, ritually bled so that no drop of blood remains in him but is poured on the ground as tribute to the Father.

There are those who will use this saddest of occasions to reflect upon how our sin brought Jesus to his death on Calvary and what that death meant for our sinfulness and redemption; but just as I find it impossible to think about the incarnation on Christmas day without seeing the Cross, stark against the sky on a distant hill, so I cannot think on Good Friday, particularly reading the Gospel of John with its reference to Mary, without thinking of the crib where she suckled him. Milk, to blood, to water, the life cycle we share with the animals who were said to have warmed him with their breath. But that this child should have come to this through us and for us is almost too great a thought to articulate as we leave church in silence.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Should we preach on Good Friday or let the Gospels speak for themselves?
  2. How helpful is the imagery of animal ritual sacrifice in explaining the Crucifixion?
  3. What do John’s unique insights contribute to our understanding of the Passion?
  4. Behold the Lamb of God
  5. Compare different paintings of the Crucifixion.

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