“He opened wide his arms for us on the Cross”[i] An address for Good Friday 2012 by Roberta Berke.
Often words become so familiar that they simply wash over us. We don’t think about what they really mean. Some of these familiar words are: “He opened wide his arms for us on the Cross.”[i] We hear these words in the preface of the second eucharistic prayer. This is one of the very earliest Christian prayers, dating back at least to the third century AD.[ii] “He opened wide his arms” literally describes Christ’s arms being stretched open on the cross. Yet when we stop the think about it, this opening of Christ’s arms seems unnatural: we close our arms when threatened. When faced with danger, we huddle, and clench our arms together. Why should Jesus open his arms? Why did he choose to die?
Jesus’ whole life was “open” in so many ways. Most of all, he was open to His Father’s will. Often he would withdraw from the eager crowds, and even from his disciples, and in a quiet place he would pray and seek his Father’s will. Jesus was open to all sorts of people: good people and bad people; the respectable and the despised; those considered pure and those ritually unclean; Jews and Samaritans, Greeks and Romans. Jesus was open to his enemies: the Pharisees who condemned him as a blasphemer and a rabble-rouser. Jesus was even open to Judas, his own disciple who betrayed him. Jesus washed Judas’ feet, he gave him the bread and wine he had blessed. Jesus was open to the risks and dangers of love. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”[iii] Jesus’ openness was an embrace, but his openness also exposed him to wounds that would be fatal. Jesus was open to his Father’s will. Agonising on Gethsemane, he prayed, “yet not my will, but yours be done.”[iv]
Jesus knew full well that within hours he would be tortured to death on a cross. Jesus knew he was about to die. Most of the time we shut our minds to our own deaths. We know in our heads that, sooner or later, we’ll die, but somehow we still imagine that death is something far off that happens to other people. Although someone in extreme pain, or disparately depressed, may want to die, most of us do everything we can to avoid death. In these three hours as we contemplate Jesus’ death, let us also consider our own deaths, which we cannot escape.
Despite Jesus’ repeated warnings, his disciples shut their minds to the possibility of his shameful death. Jesus was open to his own death. He had a choice; he could have escaped. Jesus knew how dangerous it was to proclaim his message openly. Several times he had slipped away from angry mobs.[v] Jesus was realistic about how painful his death would be. “I am deeply grieved, even unto death.”[vi] But he made none of the complaints that most of us would make: “why me?”, “what have I done to deserve this?”, “it isn’t fair”. Jesus was open to his own death. Jesus’ death was not a suicide. Jesus’ death was voluntary; he was not a victim. “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”[vii] Jesus’ death was not a sacrifice to appease an angry God. Nor was Jesus’ death a ransom paid to Satan. Jesus was God’s Word become flesh. Jesus’ death was part of God’s complete acceptance of a frail human body. The helpless baby in the manger became the man nailed naked to a rough cross. His humiliation was total: he couldn’t even move his arms to cover his bare genitals. Jesus’ openness on the cross shows God’s absolute openness to us.
Most of the disciples fled from the sight of Jesus dying on the cross. They thought his death had closed all their hopes forever. Only John and the women remained until Jesus was buried. The tomb was shut, sealed with a huge stone, and guarded by Roman soldiers. Later, when the women came to anoint his body, they worried, “Who will roll away the stone for us?”[viii] But the tomb was not closed, but wide open. At the moment of Jesus’ death, the veil of the innermost part of the Temple was ripped open. The holy of holies, believed to be the dwelling place of God himself, was open to everyone. In the same way, Jesus was open to everyone on the cross. The earth itself shook and split open. Tombs burst open.[ix] Jesus had opened the gates of hell. Jesus had opened the gates of heaven.
“He opened wide his arms for us on the cross, he put an end to death by dying for us; and revealed the resurrection by rising to new life; so he fulfilled your will and won for you a holy people.”[x] When the soldier’s spear opened Jesus’ side, water and blood poured out. Through the water of baptism and the wine of communion, Jesus opens the gates of heaven for us. Today Jesus’ death confronts us. Death will confront each of us. Let us open our hearts and give thanks for Jesus’ sacrifice. Let us give thanks for God’s gift of eternal life. “Let us open our hearts to the Lord, who has prepared good things for all who love him.”[xi]
Copyright © 2012 by Roberta Berke. All rights reserved.
[ii] Eucharistic Prayer B from St Hippolytus (c.170 – 236 AD) and St. Gregory the Great (540 -604 AD)
[iii] John 13.1
[iv] Luke 22.42
[v] Luke 4.29-30; John 8.59; John 10.39
[vi] Matthew 26.38; Mark 14.34
[vii] John 10.17
[viii] Mark 16.3
[ix] Matthew 27.51-53
[x] Common Worship, (London: Church House 2000) Prayer B, p188
[xi] Common Worship, after I Corinthians 2.9ff. See Invitation to confession B17 in New Patterns for Worship on www.churchofengland.org/prayer-worship/texts/newpatterns/contents/sectionb.aspx. Viewed 27/03/12.