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GOOD FRIDAY 10 April
O my people, what have I done to thee, or wherein have I wearied thee? Answer me. Because I brought thee out of the land of Egypt, thous hast prepared a Cross for they Saviour.
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
Because I led thee through he desert forty years, and fed thee with manna, and brought thee into a land exceeding good, thou has prepared a Cross for thy Saviour.
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
What could I do more for thee that I have not done? I planted thee, my choicest vine, and thou hast become exceeding bitter unto me; for when I was thirsty thou gavest me to drink vinegar mingles with gall, and pierced with a spear the side of thy Saviour..
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
We venerate thy Cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify thy holy Resurrection: for by virtue of the Cross, joy has come to the whole world.
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
Faithful Cross! above all other
One and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peer may be;
Sweetest wood, and sweetest iron!
Sweetest weight is hung on thee.
Sing, my tongue, how glorious battle,
Sing the ending of the fray,
O'er the Cross, the victor's trophy,
Sound the loud triumphant lay:
Tell how Christ, the world's Redeemer,
As a Victim won the day.
God in pity saw man fallen,
Shamed and sunk in misery,
When he fell on death by tasting
Fruit of the forbidden tree:
Then another tree was chosen
Which the world from death should free.
Therefore when the appointed fullness
Of the holy time was come,
He was sent who maketh all things
Forth from God's eternal home:
Thus he came to earth, incarnate,
Offspring of a maiden's womb.
Thirty years among us dwelling,
Now at length his hour fulfilled,
Born for this, he meets his Passion,
For that this he freely willed,
On the Cross the Lamb is lifted,
Where his life-blood shall be spilled.
Bend thy boughs, O Tree of Glory,
Thy too rigid sinews bend;
For awhile the ancient rigour
That thy birth bestowed, suspend,
And the King of heavenly beauty
On thy bosom gently tend.
Thou alone wast counted worthy
This world's Ransom to sustain,
That a shipwrecked race might ever
Thus a port of refuge gain,
With the sacred blood anointed
From the Lamb for sinners slain.
He endured the nails, the spitting,
Vinegar and spear and reed;
From that holy Body pierced
Blood and water forth proceed:
Earth and stars and sky and ocean
By that flood from stain are freed.
To the Trinity be glory,
To the Father and the Son,
With the co-eternal Spirit,
Ever Three and ever One,
One in love and one in splendour,
While unending ages run. Amen.
Tr. Percy Dearmer : J. M. Neale
A Sermon for Good Friday
(Also available as an Audio File)
The tension at the heart of Christian existence is seen most vividly on Good Friday, is seen on the Cross. For if you are seeking the risen Christ, you begin here in his death on the Cross. If you are looking for the living God, seek him in a man dying, a man dying an unspeakable death, a man dying on a Cross.
A priest of my acquaintance was having a drink one evening in the Working Men’s Club in his parish. Towards the end of the evening a group of boisterous teenagers, in their late teens, began questioning him about his faith. They were good-humoured and lively. Drink had been taken but not such as to make them intolerable. They displayed that youthful cynicism and scepticism born more of ignorance than principle or learning or knowledge. They had their views and opinions, and they were as good as anyone else’s.
The priest dealt with them and their questions with civility. He argued his case but they were not convinced. He did not know what further he could say. He told them to follow him. They left the club and he led them down the road to the parish church. He opened the doors and marched them to the sanctuary. Standing before the altar, he pointed to the crucifix and said to them, “That is why I am a Christian. That is why I believe. Because he did that for me.” Dramatic perhaps, melodramatic even, but to a degree effective in that at least one of the youths was subsequently baptised and confirmed.
Look, then, look at the crucifix, look at the Cross on which hangs the Saviour of the world and see there a man dying, see there the Lord in agony dying. Dying is a lonely business until we remember that God is everywhere with us and that God is love and that love never fails nor ever deserts us. That makes all the difference, all the difference in the world. In human terms, even surrounded by family and friends, death can seem lonely and, in its proper meaning, dreadful, full of dread. It is our final confrontation in this life with our God. We are at our most vulnerable and we find ourselves in a confrontation that we can no longer postpone, nor can we escape. It is the point of utmost testing. Because we are human, and therefore, we are frail, it is the moment when even in extremis we might come closest to despair, nearer to the abandonment of the gracious virtue of hope. Cut adrift from reliance on others, shorn of excuses, we stand alone before God, and we wait for the final judgement that shall surely be ours: alone before God.
In Our Lord’s Passion there comes that point: there comes that moment when Jesus is alone with his Father, alone with his God. In the agony he had forgiven his enemies and persecutors, those responsible for his death: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”|LS|1|RS| He had pardoned the penitent thief in compassionate and beautifully reassuring words: “This day you will be with me in Paradise.”|LS|2|RS| He had commended his sorrowing Mother to the care and love of the Beloved Disciple, and him to her maternal embrace. His task was nearly complete, the strife almost over, the battle almost won. The hostile crowd that had hurled insults and taunts at him had grown sullen, bored and restless. Bored and indifferent Roman soldiers, were, yet again, going through the tedious routine of execution, throwing dice.
Christ hangs alone at the centre of this harrowing scene. Like Mary, we fix our eyes him. We look on him across the distance of two millennia. Look, look at the Cross. See now what they saw then. See what they did to him. See what we do to him. There is a man dying. In that man dying we witness the salvation and the redemption of all humankind: and if that is too cosmic a concept to grasp – we witness our salvation, our redemption, mine and yours: a man dying on a Cross. A man alone, a man hanging on a Cross, caught in a moment of history. “The killing had been done already: there was nothing he had not offered up, nothing that had not been dissolved in his natural being, when his conscious mind was reduced to a snatch of verse just floating above the rising oblivion.”|LS|3|RS| In that extremity, he uttered the most “enigmatic and heart-rending cry in all the sorrowful history of mankind"|LS|4|RS| those words which still have the power to haunt and to disturb, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”|LS|5|RS| If there is one moment in Our Lord’s Passion when we see his perfect humanity fully revealed and his perfect divinity perfectly expressed, it is here, it is in these words which in their evocation of the slaughter of the Paschal Lamb for the Passover Feast in the old dispensation, foreshadowed the new covenant of the Lamb without blemish now on the Cross sacrificed, the sacrifice of innocence, the immaculate and unblemished sacrifice.
It was a cry so intensely human that its impact softened the hearts of the indifferent Roman soldiers and moved them to action. They gave him vinegar to drink. An action at once compassionate and curious. It is a cry that still strikes us in its direct, raw humanity. It is a cry that goes to the depths of Our Lord’s Passion and of his atonement for sin. It roused the soldiers and it roused the sullen, bored and disconsolate crowd once more into action. They rediscovered their voice of mockery and cynical derision and humiliation. “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, ‘I am the Son of God’.”
To the outward eye, to the casual spectator in the crowd that day on the hill of Calvary, here was nothing unusual, nothing out of the ordinary. Here was the execution of a criminal, perhaps not the usual sort of criminal, but a criminal nonetheless. Here was the death of a man, albeit it a cruel and distressing death, but not an unusual one.
His body hangs twisted and contorted by the torture of the Cross, covered in festering wounds from the lash of the scourge. Blood, dark red, flows from the wound in his side; blood, dark red, runs in rivulets down his face from the mockery of the crown of thorns pressed hard on his brow; blood, dark red, drips relentlessly from the wounds in his hands and his feet where the nails have been hammered in, blow by blow, crushing bone, ripping muscle and tearing tissue contorting his hands and fingers into a gesture of grotesque agony. His life ebbs away, slowly, agonisingly, dreadfully. The Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, despised and rejected, familiar with suffering. Ecce homo. Behold the Man. And all that for us, for those youths. All that for you and all that for me.
Look at the crucifix. Behold the Man. See a man dying. See him half flogged to death, wearing that crown of thorns and that purple robe which were intended to mock his pretensions to kingship. But we see there the signs and symbols of the kingdom, of God’s will on earth, paradoxically achieved through mockery and annihilation. See him take up his Cross upon which he is to die. See him nailed, hands and feet, upon it. See him suffer the agony and the bloody sweat. See his side pierced. See the blood and the water flow from the wound in his side. See his life ebb away. Hear him cry. See him die. And then dare to say that it is nothing to you. It is for you.
When we understand the full extent of his suffering, we can then, and perhaps only then, fully appreciate the extent of his love. The world does not understand this. The world prefers the sanitised image of Christmas to the harsh reality of Good Friday. There is a world of emotional distance between the image of an infant in the tender embrace of his mother and the startling spectacle of that same child come to manhood suffering, scourged, rejected and lifeless, taken down from the Cross to lie once again in the arms of his loving and grieving Mother but this time no longer a child but a man broken and bleeding. Her tears wash away his blood. Betrayal and mockery; shame and humiliation; desolation and dereliction.
“What more could I have done for you?
I planted you as my first vine,
but you yielded only bitterness;
When I was thirsty you gave me vinegar to drink,
And you pierced your Saviour with a lance.”|LS|6|RS|
We can connect with Christ’s agonised cry and the inner conflict of his humanity and his divinity because we are a conflicted humanity. We resolve it by remembering that S. Paul pointed out that “God made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”|LS|7|RS| In the darkness of Calvary, though sinless, Our Lord felt the depth and the “corrosive isolation”|LS|8|RS| of the world’s sin. In that cry wrung from the core of his humanity, he felt and we hear the fatal consequences of sin in the loss of God, in a bleak separation from God, being forsaken by God. It is a primal scream having seen a vision of Hell in its pitiless reality.
Look at the Cross. Here is the Son of God, the light of the world enveloped in darkness, closed in by the dark night of human sin. It is a moment of stark and frightening humanity: the loss of God, the occlusion of the Beatific Vision, the loss of light and hope. In that cry, in his humanity, Christ is looking into the abyss of nothingness. Yet, in that human extremity, in that desperate moment, he calls upon God. He had committed himself into the Father’s hands in the Garden and he remained faithful to the uttermost to the love of God. Even if God seems to have betrayed and abandoned him, God is still God, God is still to be trusted, still to be called upon. It is a love and mercy that will not fail because it cannot fail. So this was not a cry of despair for fallen humanity and its inexorable fate. Rather, it was a song of triumph and exaltation, of the faithful soul that has experienced the reality of the faithfulness and the love of God. It remains a constant wonder, astonishment and solace that it is so.
What the world did not understand, what his followers did not understand, what the bystanders and the idly curious did not understand on that first Good Friday is what we know now and what we understand and believe. The moment of his apparent defeat in the eyes of the world, the moment of his final humiliation and degradation was also the moment of his supreme, transforming, transfiguring triumph. He had not been forsaken. He could then utter those astonishing words: “It is finished.”|LS|9|RS| At the ninth hour, at that precise moment in human history, on that hill of Calvary, at that precise place, the Cross of shame and defeat was transformed into the sign of ultimate hope, triumph and victory. He turned defeat into victory, the Cross of shame into the Cross of glory, the despair of the Cross into the hope of the Cross.
That final cry did not signal the end of things. It was not the tragic cry of failure and defeat. It was not the dying, despairing cry of a dying man. It was a final assertion of triumphant accomplishment, not an end but an accomplishment, a consummation. The task is completed in triumph.
“The strife is o’er, the battle done,
The victory of life is won,
The song of triumph has begun.
The powers of death have done their worst,
But Christ their legions hath dispersed.”|LS|10|RS|
The world saw the humiliation of human fear and weakness, the scourging, the crown of thorns, the mockery, the spitting, the sordid indignities. They saw the final, cruel abasement of a human spirit in death, in a particular and cruel death. But it also and decisively was a moment of exquisite glory. It is the definitive answer to Christ’s Prayer at the Last Supper, “Father the hour is come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee.”|LS|11|RS| In the suffering and the endurance, we see the irrefutable proof of the nature and of the faithfulness and of the infinity and finality of God’s love. It makes sense of those apparently ridiculous words, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”|LS|12|RS| In the Cross is the victory. “In hoc signo vinces.” In this sign he conquered and we conquer. Easter is not the victory. The victory is won this day, on the Cross. The Resurrection is not the triumph: the Cross is the triumph. Easter and the Ascension are the natural consequences of the victory over death, the proclamation, the making known, of the triumph fully achieved and gained on Good Friday. He died to live. On the Cross “we see Jesus made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honour,”|LS|13|RS|
The victory he won, the glory he achieved, he gained not for himself but for us; all that for you and for me. He died for us in our ordinariness and in our inadequacy and in our imperfection. He who had done no wrong took the sins of the world on his shoulders and died that we might establish a new covenant with the Father and be liberated from the snares of death, from the tyrannies of sin and self, from the petty philosophies of a materialistic world in its apathy, its complacency, its casual cruelty, its dreary sensuality, its moral squalor. He turned the dismal values and expectations of a fallen humanity upside down. He bore witness to the truth even to death and it is that truth that has set us free; free to be truly and completely human.
On this Good Friday, in the whole of our lives as followers of the one who was crucified for us, we bear witness to the truth. We embrace the Cross ourselves; we imprint it on our hearts as we ascribe it from brow to chest, from shoulder to shoulder; we dig a pit for the Cross in our lives to be the fixed point about which our lives revolve; we preach by word and action a Gospel of Christ crucified in love and hope; we unite ourselves to the Divine Victim in his self-offering and self-sacrifice. In all this we seek to be faithful as he was faithful; to endure as he endured; to combat the forces of evil and falsehood as he resisted the temptations of the Devil; to witness as he witnessed; and hardest of all, to love as he loved, conscious, that the love of God in Christ Jesus has lifted us up, out of the dreadfulness of merely living.
We must do that in the full knowledge that the world finds us puzzling, quaint, deluded, irrelevant: Sadly, no longer dangerous or challenging. But we too have learned the uncomfortable truth that the disciples learned. The lesson for them and the lesson for us is a simple but a hard lesson. We have to live a dying life. A life from which the thought of death, his death and our death is never wholly absent because it gives us a contempt for the hollowness of worldly things, because it instils a sense of urgency and haste because our life is short, our time is circumscribed. As the children of Israel passed to their deliverance through the dark waters of the Red Sea, so Christ, the Saviour King, delivered us by passing on Good Friday through the dark gates of the tomb.
What in the eyes of the world is and was failure and defeat was and is the revelation of his glory. “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.”|LS|14|RS| “See my servant will prosper, he shall be lifted up, exalted, rise to great heights.”|LS|15|RS| And today, perhaps above all days, we can have that blessed assurance that:
“The forgiveness of God spoke in his death
and the slow gasping of his painful breath.”|LS|16|RS|
The truth of these things is clearly articulated in what is one of the most moving and consolatory poems written in the last fifty years. It is a lamentation by the poet Peter Levi on the death of his friend Alasdair Clayre, a gifted philosopher, poet and film-maker who died by his own hand at a tragically young age in a moment of acute depression:
The last pure light is streaming on the sea
And the first star is dying quietly.
Here on the sand your driftwood fire has died,
And the charred sticks have spluttered in the tide.
The green waves breathe their monstrous breath,
They make a stony music of their death
Foaming and fawning on the pebble shore.
There is no sound of voices any more.
The waves break, break, in their cold miseries,
They will not leave their last lamenting kiss,
Suck soul from stones and vapour it away,
Which groaning they return, sighing repay.
Sleep Alasdair, cold ash by the cold sea,
And be as cold as sea or stone can be:
Until from this bare green and crested white
The wasted ash of men shall rise in light.|LS|17|RS|
We may share in that resurrection light because, “It is finished … It is accomplished.” Consummatum est.
|LS|1|RS| S. Luke 23: 34
|LS|2|RS| S. Luke 23: 43
|LS|3|RS| Austin Farrer, The End of Man p. 8
|LS|4|RS| Gregory Dix, God’s Way with Man p. 47
|LS|5|RS| S. Mark 15: 34
|LS|6|RS| Part of The Reproaches for Good Friday. Missal.
|LS|7|RS| II Corinthians 5: 21
|LS|8|RS| Gregory Dix, op cit p. 49
|LS|9|RS| John 19: 28
|LS|10|RS| Text: Anonymous Latin; trans. by Francis Pott, 1832-1909 Music: Giovanni P. da Palestrina; arr. by W.H. Monk Tune: VICTORY
|LS|11|RS| S. John 17: 1
|LS|12|RS| S. John 16: 33
|LS|13|RS| Hebrews 2: 7
|LS|14|RS| John 17: 1
|LS|15|RS| Isaiah 52: 13
|LS|16|RS| Peter Levi, Good Friday Sermon 1973. The Tablet.
|LS|17|RS| Peter Levi, For Alasdair Clayre from Shakespeare’s Birthday London, Anvil Press Poetry |LS|1985|RS| p 38