GOOD FRIDAY ADDRESS 2013
This is a rollercoaster of a day. In fact it is a rollercoaster of a week. The aim of the liturgy of the Triduum, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, is to put us through an emotional journey that will not leave us unchanged. We do not come to church to hear a series of improving sermons but to experience something that will grab our insides.
We inherit this way of observing festivals from the Jewish tradition. On Monday and Tuesday nights this past week, Jewish families gathered around their tables to celebrate the seder meals. If you have ever attended a seder, you will know that the idea is to experience the liberation of God for yourself, as if you were one of the children of Israel enslaved in Egypt and brought forth by God’s mighty arm. It is not about remembering in the sense of nostalgia or reminiscence or even a solemn memorial. It is about allowing yourself to experience the story at first hand.
When Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper to “do this in remembrance of me”, bear in mind that he said this in the context of a Passover seder. We are to enter into his death and resurrection with him. The old spiritual asks Were you there? It is an important question. If we do not allow ourselves to enter into the Good Friday experience, we miss the meaning. Talking about atonement is not the same thing as kneeling at the foot of the cross.
I do not mean that we should try to whip up particular feelings. But I do mean that we should lay down our arms, strip away our reserves, tear down the walls of skepticism and self-protection that keep us safe from a face to face encounter with the living God – which after all is a terrifying prospect. Born-again evangelicals make too much of the particular kind of conversion experience that a real Christian is supposed to have – but if we refuse ever to stand exposed in the loving gaze of God, we will not know what that love is like.
We are embodied creatures. We experience life through our senses. We touch the people we love, we smell flowers and taste food, we let ourselves be lifted up by music and transported by the beauty we see in nature. Created life is not abstract – it is incarnate. Our bodily senses matter just as much as our minds. It is no good pretending we are pure and rational intelligence that happens to be dressed in skin.
Some of you came to the shape note stations of the cross on Passion Sunday, and if you did you heard a raw and rather primitive sound. For those of us who sit in the hollow square and sing our hearts out week by week, Sacred Harp music is a powerfully physical experience. Endorphins are released and tears flow. It is not just about the words, though they are powerful and devotional, and in fact are mostly about the reality of death. It is also the physical act of singing as loudly as you can, but in perfect rhythm and harmony with your neighbours who are gathered closely around you.
For some people who are not able to give any intellectual assent to faith, shape note singing is still a deeply felt religious experience. It puts us in a place where we are in touch with something quite other, something beyond ourselves. The need to sing again and again becomes very compelling. It is a matter of the throat, the heart and the gut, not the head.
Sacred Harp music draws us back again and again to the experience of contemplating the death of Christ, and our own death, at an emotional level. A typical text of a shape note song is:
And am I born to die, to lay this body down?
And must my trembling spirit fly into a world unknown?
These are questions we must not avoid if we are to have a real sense of the risen life into which we are baptized. Otherwise we end up with a simplistic, upbeat kind of Californian spirituality with no hard edges. That kind of rosy optimism will never see us through the real suffering that comes to all of us. It is no antidote for the guilt that arises from our universal human tendency to make a mess of things, and the dread of our mortality that is natural to us all.
The Church invites us, in this great solemn week, not to sit and listen politely to a series of propositions, but to jump right into the experience. On Palm Sunday, after joyfully singing Hosanna, we are required by the liturgy to stay with the fickle crowd and shout Crucify him! There is no escaping our complicity in all the things that break the heart of God.
On Maundy Thursday we must endure the washing of our feet, as uncomfortably perhaps as Peter did, and reflect on what it means to have Jesus on his knees before us. What does this do to our longing for status and power? It should make us profoundly ill at ease. I am glad that both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury took up their public roles in the week leading up to Palm Sunday. Both men are obviously conflicted about being called to a position of power, with all the attendant fawning and privilege that high rank accumulates.
Pope Francis gazed in dismay at the palatial suite of rooms he was expected to inhabit and opted to continue living in a communal guesthouse instead. He has wasted no time in rejecting velvet and gold and handmade shoes in favour of base metal and old vestments. Archbishop Justin, at the enthronement he preferred to call an inauguration, requested that a teenage girl should stop him after he banged his staff to entry at the great door of Canterbury Cathedral.
She asked him bluntly, “Who are you and why do you request entry?” The Archbishop replied: “I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God, to travel with you in his service together.” She then asked: “Why have you been sent to us?” The Archbishop replied: “I am sent as Archbishop to serve you, to proclaim the love of Christ and with you to worship and love him with heart and soul, mind and strength.” The girl went on to ask: “How do you come among us and with what confidence?” The Archbishop said: “I come knowing nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified, and in weakness and fear and in much trembling.”
I am sure that his memory of standing there, being blocked by a young girl from processing grandly, and confessing out loud his weakness and fear, will be an experience that will shape his ministry in a way that simply thinking about humility would never have done. That is what liturgy is for. That is why it works.
So today we gather, many of us fasting and weary, and place ourselves where we cannot avoid the sorrow and the pity. For much of the service we do sit quietly and listen. But in the final hour, which is about to begin, the experience deepens. All year round we sit below a great hanging rood from which Christ reigns in triumph, and it is right that we celebrate his victory. But today we freeze frame the action on the slow and agonizing hours when that victory was nowhere in sight. And rather than look up at a majestic king, we are asked to kneel before the image of a man in agony.
For many years I have tried to follow a tradition established when I was a curate of watching a film in Holy Week that would help me to enter imaginatively into the experience of following Jesus to the cross. Some years the film is not overtly about the story of Jesus at all, like Dead Men Walking, which features a desperately unappealing character on death row in the American South, or The Crucible, in which moral integrity is tested to the ultimate in the face of mob violence in Puritan New England. Some years the film is more obviously related to the Biblical narrative, like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
This year I went to watch a classic black and white film on the big screen, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Gospel According to Matthew, filmed in southern Italy with ordinary local people playing all the parts. Pasolini didn’t wallow in the physical agony of crucifixion, as Mel Gibson notoriously did. Instead his camera dwelt on the suffering face of a prematurely aged Mary as she kept her eyes on the slow murder of her son.
We witnessed her willingness to be stripped of all defences and to accept the experience of entering deeply into the loss of the beloved, whatever the emotional cost. And having shown Mary in anguish at the cross, I felt Pasolini should be excused for the liberty he took in making her a witness of the resurrection. There was a completeness in permitting the same person to be fully present to both the cross and the empty tomb.
That completeness will be available to us excruciatingly early on Sunday morning, when we will gather in the (doubtless freezing) dark before dawn to enter the experience of the women who went in fear and trembling to seek the body of the Lord. Remember that today, Good Friday, whatever it felt like to the watching disciples, is Act Two of a three-part drama. We mustn’t skip ahead, but at the same time we must remember that the pain and terror of Good Friday were borne by the infinite love of God. It’s the squalid story of a man being tortured to death, but it contains within it a meaning that has the power to transform the experiences of suffering and death that all human beings must endure. The story does not end where we will leave it today, but let’s freeze the frame and stay with the experience for just a little while, so that we know and remember, with all our senses, that we too were there.
I invite you to use the silence that will follow to enter imaginatively into one moment or another of the story that has just been sung to us. Allow yourself to come face to face with Jesus at some point on his way to death. Stand in his gaze. See what he wants to say to you, and respond with your heart and not just your head.