I love Good Friday, from the paradox hidden in the word “good” to the shadows and somber solemnity of our service. I preach on Good Friday, but “preach” is too strong a word. “Homily” is even too grandiose. I meditate, and briefly — or like a docent in a museum, with just a few words I point to the wonder, the horror, the beauty and majesty. May I just sigh, or shudder. That would be a good enough sermon. Maybe the choir will bail me out with Gilbert Martin’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” or one of the others listed at the end of this blog. As I ponder and prepare, I’ll listen to that moving crucifixion moment in Jesus Christ Superstar.
At our church, we do the Gospel reading in stages, gradually extinguishing lights and then candles until we are immersed in total darkness. On Good Friday, more than any other day, we are humbled by our inability to say anything — just as Jesus was all but silent as he hung for hours. On this day, more than any other, we realize we do not need to make the Bible relevant, or to illustrate it. We can and must simply trust the reading to do the work it has done for 2000 years.
My Lord Jesus Christ,
two graces I ask of you before I die:
the first is that in my life I may feel,
in my soul and body, as far as possible,
that sorrow which you, tender Jesus,
underwent in the hour
of your most bitter passion;
the second is that I may feel in my heart,
as far as possible,
the abundance of love with which you,
son of God, were inflamed,
so as willingly to undergo
such a great passion
for us sinners.
N.T. Wright’s fresh look at things, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion, is hugely important. But for my tastes, Good Friday isn’t the day to reiterate his theologically correct understanding that Good Friday was the blastoff, and our marching orders for God’s and the Church’s transformative work in the world. We’ll get back to that soon, of course; but on Good Friday, we let the sorrow linger.
Wise, deeply spiritual writers help me weigh what happened at Calvary. One of Henri Nouwen’s more obscure books, Heart Speaks to Heart, will place you in conversation with the crucified Jesus. Jürgen Moltmann’s Crucified God has hot when I was in seminary, and it still speaks to me; it should be required reading for younger generations. My copy of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschale is chock full of underlinings and exclamation points, and I return to it often.
1. The recently opened (and wonderful) National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington features a Pieta – Mary holding her crucified son – by David Driskell. After 14 year old Emmett Till was brutally murdered by two white men (who were acquitted) in Mississippi, Driskell was so disturbed by the killing, and his mother’s very public grief, that he created “Behold Thy Son.”
2. The crucifixion depiction I count as my favorite (partly because Karl Barth kept a print of it above his desk) is by Matthias Grünewald for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, whose ministry was to sufferers of the plague; I try to imagine medieval women and men suffering horrific skin diseases looking upon Jesus’ lacerated body, pitted with pricks and sores.
3. I continue to be struck by the first artistic depiction of the crucifixion we have — which is the mockery in the Alexamenos graffito, a picture of a Roman convert saluting the crucified Christ pictured as a donkey/ass. The self-evident ridicule is pitch-perfect — back then, but certainly today as well, the crucified Lord is stranger than ever in our culture.
4. There is the harrowing scene in Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence (and now in Martin Scorsese’s film) about missionaries to Japan under persecution. Fr. Rodrigues is told by the magistrate he must trample upon an icon of Christ to save his flock:
“The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world.’ The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.”