Sermons

The Three Hours ~ Good Friday

Good Friday
10 April 2009
Rochester Cathedral

 

 

 

 

Introduction

God in Jesus has stared over twenty centuries from unfathomable darkness into unfathomable light – so ends R.S. Thomas’ astringent and penetrating verses entitled Crucifixion; it is this phrase which frames our Good Friday reflections at the foot of the cross.

During the first part of the Church’s solemn celebration of Jesus’ passion we will hear the account according to St Mark and then reflect on it as refracted through the prism of R.S. Thomas’ poetry.

Along with hymns and silence, we place ourselves in the darkest and most forbidding hour and place for humankind. Here at the foot of the cross we offer the world that we know amidst the darkening and threatening context of the unknown heart of suffering. Our act of being here is indeed the Christian hope that there is salvation even for that which is unspeakable and unthinkable.

For the final hour, we move into the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday celebrated across the world. Here, amidst the austerity of the stripped cathedral, hymns and music will be offered as the stark and cruel cross is brought into the cathedral and where we are challenged to kneel before it, to touch it or kiss it, in an encounter with the love that lives and saves where no other can.

To this unfathomable darkness and light we bring the world in prayer and then receive in silence the presence of Jesus, the crucified one, in the bread of affliction and salvation – Holy Communion, the broken body of Christ.
Neil Thompson 2009

 

 

 

 

Mark 14 : 53 – 65

 

They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, ‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.” ’ But even on this point their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, ‘Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?’ But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus said, ‘I am; and “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power”, and “coming with the clouds of heaven.” ’ Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?’ All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’ The guards also took him over and beat him.

 

 

 

"God’s fool, God’s jester
capering at his right hand
in torment, proving the fallacy
of the impassible, reminding
him of omnipotence’s limits.

I have seen the figure
on our human tree, burned
into it by thought’s lightning
and it writhed as I looked.

A God has no alternative
but himself. With what crown
plurality but with horns?
Whose is the mirthless laughter
at the beloved irony
at his side? The universe over,
omniscience warns, the crosses
are being erected from such
material as is available
to remorse. What are the stars
but time’s fires going out
before ever the crucified
can be taken down?
Today there is only this one option
before me. Remembering,
as one goes out into space,
on the way to the sun,
how dark it will grow,
I stare up into the darkness
of his countenance, knowing it
a reflection of the three days and nights
at the back of love’s looking –
glass even a God must spend."

 

Unfathomable darkness and unfathomable light

The darkness of his countenance

Throughout history, people have regarded public executions as entertainment – there is a streak in our human nature that regards cruelty and death with fascination.

Even today, people are killed before crowds but thank God, not in this country.

Such blood–lust and contempt for the sanctity of human life is truly an obscenity, and in that context, I have to say that the last place that I want to be is here at the cross this afternoon.

It is not an attractive place.
No, a place of torture and agonising death is repulsive and however stylised and distanced, there is a terrible and chilling darkness that associated with primeval terror.

We will hear St Mark’s account of the crucifixion and death of Jesus accompanied by verse from R.S. Thomas.

The Gospels are poetry as well as narrative, history, theology and testimony.

And much poetry is a form of condensed truth – words that carry a meaning that leads us into a deeper and larger reality below the surface of our senses and reason.

Like the cross, poetry is not ornamental. We can debase it and turn it in something decorative and pleasing per se but its real truth and power involves us in an encounter and confrontation in which words sear and burn away our preferences and strategies for avoidance.

R.S. Thomas is not an easy poet to hear and read and understand, just as in his life he was not an easy priest or human being – he had a complex, austere and contradictory personality.

His work reveals a disturbing creativity that relentlessly asks questions of the reader and projects us into the dark side of truth, beauty and love.

I have chosen some of his lines to refract the Passion story.

They are a contrast to the familiar accounts of Jesus’ death in the Gospels.

And their intensity and darkness confronts us with the energy of God, which comes to us now in self–giving, in risking and in dying – to bring new and indestructible life.

Such power in darkness and death is here at the foot of the cross.

Here in these moments away from High Streets and holiday outings, shopping, entertainment and any sort of diversion that can take us away from this death.

Because this death encompasses everything including absence, vacuity, nothingness, your death, mine and all that has died and will die.

And it starts in the face of Jesus which reflects and radiates the love of God, the love that is the darkness of his countenance as he faces trial and torture and death.

Our opening passage from St Mark sees Jesus’ bound and on trial before Pilate.

The Roman governor asks: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ and Jesus’ answer says something so disturbing because it is a statement that redirects the question to the questioner: ‘You say so’.

Here is the darkness that penetrates the light of our reason and shows us our motives, our self–centredness, our inability to commit to God and his love.

The chief priests interject with a list of accusations and so Pilate asks again ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you’.

But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

Why was Pilate amazed?

I believe that this is recorded not only as a part of a quasi–legal interrogation but because the countenance of Jesus propels Pilate and all of us caught up in the political conventions and personal viewpoint into the darkness that is the truth, the truth of God.

This Good Friday experience teaches us that God’s salvation and mercy is forged, won and given in darkness.

If we cannot face that – then all that we profess about God is hollow and delusional.

That seems to be a terribly hard and judgmental thing to say but the cross is not an accident and it is the only hope for humankind in a world where the cancer ward and AIDS, the torture chamber and the gas oven cry out of history’s page and today’s unrelenting atrocities.

That is where God dares to be until the end of time – and it is there, in darkness, that God will find us now and at the hour of our death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfathomable darkness and unfathomable light 2

Our over–furnished faith

 

Mark 15 : 1 – 5

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

 

 

"Not the empty tomb
but the uninhabited
cross. Look long enough
and you will see the arms
put on leaves. Not a crown
of thorns, but a crown of flowers
haloing it, with a bird singing
as though perched on paradise’s threshold.

We have over–furnished
our faith. Our churches
are as limousines in the procession
towards heaven. But the verities
remain: a de–nuclearised
cross, uncontaminated
by our coinage; the chalice’s
ichor; and one crumb of bread
on the tongue for the bird like
intelligence to be made tame by."

 

 

There is plenty of darkness about. There is plenty of suffering and death. And really we would rather not know.

The ostrich syndrome of make believe and fantasy is a powerful engine in our human psyche.

It is so powerful that it can hi–jack our religious faith because of our desperate need for comfort, a quiet life, certainty and above all the survival of our ego, our identity.

Yes, religion can implode so that rather than opening us up to God it underwrites and even feeds our prejudices and partialities, our world view and centre of gravity.

So make God all the things that we want, and Jesus is either the victim of God’s wrath, someone has to pay, or a fluffy lovable saccharine saviour who makes light of everything that is dark and unanswerable.

And that kind of God can make our progress through this life so much easier – R S Thomas gives us the image of a limousine journey.

And such a vehicle will never make it to the heaven that can redeem Buchenwald and Auschwitz, the gulags, the pogroms, the blood of Abel through time.

Religion can become a distraction made in our own image, regulated to satisfy our desires and to bring us a false comfort and a misplaced hope.

So R S Thomas says – look, look at the cross.

Forget the empty tomb: look at the cross.

What grows there is true life, the life that is not the illusory power and impermanence of mortal men and women.

This is not the cross of cheap grace and quick fixes: the cross contaminated by our coinage.

This is the cross that offers us the sparse food of divine sacrifice that can nourish the emaciated love in our souls.

Pilate asks us this morning – ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’

Have we got it in us to cry against the crowd and the mob, public opinion and the mores and pressures of today?

But surely we aren’t like those jealous and worried chief priests?

R S Thomas wants us to revisit our position because the answer may well be not what we want to hear.

Would you shout ‘Crucify him?’ – would I? – I tremble at the truth.

And perhaps I shout all the more.

Barabbas seems the better bet. I want a King who will make this world what I think it should be, and who will live in the glory that upholds my sense of self and pride and wellbeing.

I don’t want a friend, or a king or a saviour that leads me to the grave.

And yet, I have no choice.

Because of that one thing I can alone be certain.

However much I plump up the cushions of belief, the sofas of reason and truth, and make this world my home as if for ever, I cannot escape my true and certain end.

Will God meet me there?

Only if I agree to be there for him ...for that is what today is about.

Do I want the divine king and our God to reign from the cross?

And do we have to recognise and worship him there?

Our over–furnished faith might well say no.

Dare you and I reach out to touch and kiss and kneel before that crude and cruel cross?

Soon, it will be set up here – just as it was on the first Good Friday.

God sets us free to choose.

Will you and I do so today?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfathomable darkness and unfathomable light 3

Kisses of the infected needle

Mark 15 : 16 – 22

Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. They compelled a passer–by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull).

 

 

 

"He atones not with blood
but with the transfusions
that are the substitute of its loss.

Under the arc–lamps
we suffer the kisses
of the infected needle,

satisfied to be the saviour
not of the world, not
of the species, but of the one

anonymous member
of the gambling party
at the foot of the cross."

 

 

 

Who invented the cross? What a terrible invention – humankind is ingenious in its ability to think of ways of torture and death across the ages.

There is a dark shadow side to every human society, in which the grotesque and cruel, the perverse and the obscene live in individual lives and a common imagination.

From the earliest days of childhood we knock down of bricks or even pull off the legs or wings of insects; we taunt one another and pick on the weakest: humanity has a streak of godlessness that erupts through time and contaminates the respectable and empties us of love.

It is this truth and this situation that God confronts on Good Friday as Jesus is set upon by the destructive furies and emotions that dehumanise our reason and make us godless gods.

The hardest thing of all is to recognise ourselves and our perspective of the world and our neighbour in the story of Good Friday.

But for the grace of God, you and I could be any one of the characters that betrayed, denied, tortured, mocked or killed Jesus.

And equally true, is our contemporary culture of complacency and neglect in this land, that doesn’t even care or want to know the story and the truth of God in Jesus.

In our hearts most people know that evil and sin are not inventions or fairy tales, but it is hard to own them and to fight them in our own mindsets and prejudices.

God in Jesus, on this day, offers us a new chance, a fresh opportunity.

We hear how he is mocked and beaten by the soldiers – and this rings so true with the guilt and shame of Abu Ghraib, the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp and stories of atrocities that leak out week by week in a trickle of horror and disgrace.

Christ is mocked and beaten today just as he was 2000 years ago.

And R S Thomas, in dense and difficult lines, wrestles with the ambiguities and contradictions of our humanity and God’s love in the crucified Christ.

How does Christ’s healing and forgiving blood get into our bloodstream?

We are victims of the vicious circle, in which both nature and nurture infect us with that selfishness which gambles God for self gain.

Jesus the man is dying and in this very act of extinction, love is making itself real and accessible not only to the world and the species but to the callous self–absorbed thrower of a dice for the executed’s coat.

Here is a love beyond understanding and control and description.

Here is God: and he reaches out to everywhere that we say he cannot reach.

Jesus the saviour is breaking every barrier and taboo of our selfish making.

We have all suffered the kisses of the infected needle and helped to build a world where such infection thrives and even becomes respectable and acceptable.

Here at the foot of the cross, you and I are challenged along with all humanity with the risk of eternity: forgiveness.

And this forgiveness is born of the blood being shed and it risks so much more than the gambler, playing dice at the foot of the cross.

God’s risk is my rejection and yours; the indifference as well as the hostility of our human nature are both our freedom and our prison.

Strangely, and we see this in the dying Jesus, in another way, it is also God’s freedom and prison.

As St Catherine of Siena said: nails were not enough to hold Jesus on the Cross, had not love held Him there.

And so it is that God’s Good Friday love bleeds now throughout time and brings both judgment and salvation.

What we cannot do is find a cheap and easy way out.

Rejection or acceptance of God’s love is going to cost us everything:
Good Friday has changed all time and all human reckoning.

A broken and fallen humanity is no longer an excuse: a new dimension of morality and humanity is born as Jesus dies.

The infected needle has snapped in the possibility of everyone’s present moment.

The diseases and scars of our human condition are no longer a barrier or an excuse: there is a cure and a freedom and an eternity – and all these are won in this moment of agony and death.

 

 

 

 

Unfathomable darkness and unfathomable light 4

The equation that does not balance

Mark 15 : 23 – 32

And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

 

 

 

"Silent, Lord,
as you would have us be,
lips closed, eyes swerving aside
towards the equation:
x + y2 = y + x2?
It does not balance.
What has algebra to do
with a garden? Either
they preceded it or came
late. The snake’s fangs
must have been aimed
at a calculable angle
against a possible refusal
of the apple of knowledge.
Was there a mathematics
before matter to which
you were committed? Or is it
man’s mind is to blame,
spinning questions out of itself
in the infinite regress?
It is we gave the stars names,
yet already the Zodiac
was in place – prophesying,
reminding? The Plough
and Orion’s Sword eternally
in contradiction. We close
our eyes when we pray
lest the curtain of tears
should come down on a cross
being used for the first time to prove
the correctness of a negation."

 

 

 

Balance, order, power and control – all these appeal to the human mind for they impose order on chaos, and bring about reason and explanation in the face of a hostile, threatening and overwhelming creation.

But as we know, the mind might be able to answer ‘how?’ to many questions but ‘why’ leads us into a mystery that disturbs and takes us from the unknown into the unknowable.

I don’t know much about mathematics: only that it is not only useful but also beautiful. And its beauty is born in balance, order, power and control: leads us out of chaos into resolution.

On Good Friday it appears to be the very antithesis of Christ’s crucifixion.

There is no classical beauty in what is being done on this hillside outside Jerusalem.

Perhaps there is a terrible beauty born of evil and darkness in which the calculated imposition of pain and annihilation as resolving a problem is perpetrated by our tormented and self–obsessed humanity.

Yet this crucifixion challenges every human assumption and position and there is indeed a disturbing symmetry involved in Jesus’ death...

...a sentence under the reason and process of law and the physics of his outstretched form, the pressure of the nails and the counter forces of muscle, sinew and bone.

Although balanced by two criminals on either side, Golgotha, Calvary, is no mathematical exercise: it is the barbaric place of public execution – the place of a skull.

We all know that, but nevertheless in many ways we trust or want to trust that science and mind alone can explain everything

Yes, we put intellect and reason on the throne. It makes a neater solution to the questions, riddles and confusion of the material world.

Good Friday asks so much more of humanity. We are confronted by being and dying, the mystery of suffering and the darkness of negation and loss.

Here is the equation that does not balance that R S Thomas speaks of.

It is in silence not in thought and words, that the power of God is witnessed and experienced on this Friday afternoon.

And when the mind stills and can reflect at depth below the surface of the siren voices of activity that come from self and return there, then the equation of ‘God and us’ does not balance.

The scene at the cross suggests that Jesus’ enemies triumphed: people passing by mocked the dying Galilean as a powerless charlatan and loser. The chief priests, the scribes and even the crucified thieves on either do the same – and Jesus life is ebbing away in mortal agony.

The equation that the world wants to write and live by is the negation of the God who suffers and redeems in humble self–giving.

But as R S Thomas lines question, did mathematics exist before time and matter, and are not all our concepts, thoughts and words merely a part of the passage of time?

And this takes us to the truth of God which is an impenetrable mystery embedded in agony and death, vulnerability and debasement, in the cross of Christ.

Here in the most unlikely and repulsive way, the true imbalance of God and man is revealed.

It is here as the darkness of the midday eclipse begins to gather around the dying Jesus, that we can see most clearly and brightly the imbalance of grace, salvation and eternity.

Yes, our very future and all eternity wells up and flows from the very heart of darkness, the broken and crucified one.

Love is not in our control: we can only be possessed by it, and that possession will always involve loss and sacrifice and pain if it is of eternity.

So our maths and powers in explaining and harnessing and subduing this planet and beyond are pointless, literally pointless, if unlit and untouched by spirit – the mystery and energy of divinity received not grasped.

Our strength of body and mind can mislead us into a security that grasps and possesses that which can never be ours.

As R S Thomas reminds us: better that

We close
our eyes when we pray
lest the curtain of tears
should come down on a cross
being used for the first time to prove
the correctness of a negation.

Thank God for the gift of grace and unmerited love.
Thank God for his power and his promise and his presence on the cross.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfathomable darkness and unfathomable light 5

No time at all

Mark 15 : 33 – 39

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’

 

 

 

"They set up their decoy
in the Hebrew sunlight. What
for? Did they expect
death to come sooner
to disprove his claim
to be God’s son? Who
can shoot down God?
Darkness arrived at
midday, the shadow
of whose wing? The blood
ticked from the cross, but it was not
their time it kept. It was no
time at all, but the accompaniment
to a face staring,
as over twenty centuries
it has stared, from unfathomable
darkness into unfathomable light."

 

 

 

As we begin to enter the final phase of this devotion it involves us personally in the darkness that momentarily overcomes the light.

The Middle Eastern sun shines on Jerusalem, to be eclipsed by the power beyond times and seasons, nature and creation itself.

Good Friday is a time and no time at all.
It is a day and a moment, and it opens up eternity – as a gift, a possibility, even a certainty.

How do understand or receive this gift and possibility?

It is the last line of R S Thomas’ verse that tells us – for it is God in Jesus alone who hangs in time and eternity –caught up in the utmost desolation, desertion and emptiness in which the pain and exhaustion of Calvary overwhelms and triumphs over the humanity of God.

It is this death that touches every human death with light and new life.

It comes only at this price and in this extreme and sacrificial way.

It is an unfathomable truth – of unfathomable darkness and light.

Jesus Christ alone lives fully in both and so can lead us from unfathomable darkness into unfathomable light.

That is salvation. It is won for us and given to us by God in Jesus alone.

And this claim includes and embraces all who seek the unfathomable light.

Back in 1862 Fr Frederick Faber wrote an extraordinarily powerful hymn that we sing from time to time.

It reminds us of the boundless mercy of the heart of the Eternal one.

There's a wideness in God's mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there's a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.

There is no place where earth's sorrows
are more felt than in heaven;
there is no place where earth's failings
have such kind judgment given.
There is plentiful redemption
in the blood that has been shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the Head.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man's mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

Yes, the love of God is broader than the measure of man’s mind.

God’s love is unfathomable, wider and deeper than anything that we can apprehend or even imagine.

Daring to gaze back at God in Jesus on the cross is the nearest glimpse we can ever get to eternity.

The crucified one dies in time, to meet us across and beyond time.
It was no time at all.

For as R S Thomas’ closing lines run:

The blood
ticked from the cross, but it was not
their time it kept. It was no
time at all, but the accompaniment
to a face staring,
as over twenty centuries
it has stared, from unfathomable
darkness into unfathomable light.

God doesn’t keep our time.

God doesn’t keep our time.

He redeems it and he asks us to live our human days by his time.

At the foot of the cross, can we kneel and surrender everything – even our time, our clocks, our timetables, our agendas and priorities?

That is how real and demanding the death of Jesus is for every human soul.

The only future that is certain and true is won for us and given to us in this paradox: in time, now – and in no time at all.

Let us not be deceived by the familiarity of the world around us and the physical light that floods this wonderful ancient space.

There is another darkness and light that is uniquely and eternally held by Jesus Christ on the cross.

It is the hope of the world and its salvation.

God alone can redeem the countless tragedies and immeasurable pain of our world.

War, disease, tyranny, natural disaster, disability and every personal fear and torment are met, embraced, touched and redeemed by Good Friday’s agony.

Death is confronted and here in the unfathomable darkness which will one day overcome us all, shines the love of God in unfathomable light.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

© Neil Thompson 2009