Saturday, April 11, 2009

Good Friday, Year B, Friday April 10, 2009

Isaiah 52:13--53:12; Psa 22:1-11; Hebrews 10:1-25; John (18:1-40),19:1-37

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

In the early centuries of the church, many Christians went to the Holy Land on pilgrimage, especially during Holy Week, to walk and pray along the path that Jesus walked during the last hours of his earthly life. Over the centuries it became the custom to recreate the experience of pilgrimage by having “Stations of the Cross” and to read the passion narratives in church services. A little service of prayers and readings was developed for those who wanted to walk the Stations of the Cross, either individually or with a group.

In our church, we have 14 crosses which represent each of 14 key events in the Stations of the Cross, from the trial of Jesus before Pilate to his crucifixion, death, and burial. Following this service we will be walking the Stations of the Cross, as if we were on pilgrimage in Jerusalem, and I invite you to stay and participate with us.

In some churches, in addition to the crosses, there are also paintings that depict each of these events. A few years ago I was asked to paint little icons for a chapel to represent each of the 14 Stations. It was a project that took me many months, and I finally sent reproductions of my (not quite completed) work to the person who had requested them. I still have the originals, and still have not quite finished them.

I’m having the most difficulty with the icon for Station 11, where Jesus is nailed to the cross and crucified between the two bandits. My first attempt showed the three crosses from a great distance, perhaps the view that distant passersby would have seen. Next I tried a close-up of one of his hands with a nail. I wasn’t satisfied with either view, and then realized that I was either running too far away or coming up too close. I couldn’t bring myself to paint someone nailing him to the cross. It is just too terrible.

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” It would be so much easier to go directly from the “Hosannas!” of Palm Sunday to the glory and joy of Easter. But it seems that God led Jesus and also is leading first us into the shadow of death.

“Were you there…?” the old song asks. Very few were, and even now it is hard for us also. We can try to go there together and to stay there at the cross, as a community, supporting each other as we go. We can try to go deeper into the story by reading the roles of the characters, and listening to the narrative, and shouting with the crowd: “Crucify him!”

Both for those who were there and for the disciples who fled and hid and denied that they knew him, it was the darkest possible moment. We can only imagine what Jesus was feeling. In the Gospel of Mark, we hear Jesus say that God has forsaken him. In the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus say “It is finished”.

Perhaps both are true to what happened. By emptying himself completely into human death and suffering, Jesus felt completely abandoned by his companions and even by God, in the depths of his human suffering. In his divinity, perhaps he knew that all was finished, completed, accomplished. All the work of creation was leading up to this moment, when the very fabric of the temple was torn open, and when earth and heaven were joined as Jesus made a complete and perfect self-offering so that we might learn of God’s devotion and compassion for us.

Many years ago I was visiting patients in a Roman Catholic hospital. Each room had a crucifix on the wall facing the bed, with the body of Jesus on it. We chaplains were instructed to visit all of the newly admitted patients, and one of the questions we were to ask was whether they wanted the crucifix, or a plain cross, or no cross at all. One day I was visiting a new patient who was in a great deal of pain, and it was very difficult for him to find a comfortable position. We talked about his situation, and then I asked him about the crucifix. He looked at it for a long time, and then said, “Please leave it there.” And after he thought a while longer, he pointed to the crucifix and he said, “He knows. He knows what I’m going through.”

Jesus was born, and walked among us, and he knew the whole range of human suffering. In his death on the cross he shows the complete devotion and compassion of God for our human condition. In giving himself voluntarily to a shameful and painful death, he knows our grief and carries our sorrows.

“Were you there?” Today’s Gospel narrative takes us there, right to the foot of the cross. In a few moments, we will be kneeling at the cross, literally, with the Canterbury cross here in the sanctuary. We can, for a few minutes, be there with Jesus, in the mystery of his suffering and death. While we read the appointed anthems, we can imagine the cross as a holy receptacle to which we can bring all our prayers, confessions, thanksgivings, and adoration. We can bring whatever makes our hearts heavy and whatever makes us grateful. We can bring absolutely anything to the cross. In the infinity of God’s grace, all that we bring in sincere prayer is acceptable and will be received and held in gentle compassion, in God’s infinite love.

So, as we pray for ourselves, our parish, and for the state of our world, at the foot of the cross, and as we receive the reserved sacrament of his Body and Blood, let us remember the loving gift of Christ, this gift of his life for our salvation.

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