Weekly Preaching: Good Friday

April 11th, 2017

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.

The brilliant theologian Robert W. Jenson, after assessing the historic doctrines of the atonement, quite shrewdly concluded,
“The Gospels tell a powerful and biblically integrated story of the Crucifixion; this story is just so the story of God’s act to bring us back to himself at his own cost, and of our being brought back. There is no other story behind or beyond it that is the real story of what God does to reconcile us, no story of mythic battles or of a deal between God and his Son or of our being moved to live reconciled lives. The Gospel’s passion narrative is the authentic and entire account of God’s reconciling actions and our reconciliation, as events in his life and ours. Therefore what is first and principally required as the Crucifixion’s right interpretation is for us to tell this story to one another and to God as a story about him and about ourselves.”
Then, in awe, we pray, perhaps with St. Francis:

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.

After this, Francis bore, in his body, the actual wounds (the stigmata) of Jesus, which he hid for the rest of his life out of humility.

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.  
Rowan Williams’s newest book, The Sign and the Sacrifice, is predictably and wonderfully thoughtful and eloquent (and brief). For him, the Bible parses the cross as proof of God's love for us, and a demonstration of the kind of God we're dealing with: "When Pilate, on behalf of all of us, pushes Jesus to the edge, God in Jesus gently but firmly pushes back, doing what he always did: loving, forgiving, healing. This is a God whose actions, and whose reactions to us, cannot be dictated by what we do.  That's the good news: our powerlessness to change God's mind. God's love is both all-powerful and completely vulnerable. It has a magnetic force because it is a love that can't threaten us.

Whether the following things “make it into the sermon” or not, I think it’s important for me to “survey the wondrous cross,” simply pondering images of Jesus’ suffering — especially in contexts different from my own. Here are just four examples:
Behold Thy Son, 1956. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Copyright David C. Driskill.

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.”


Portion of the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald

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.

The Alexamenos graffito

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.

Image courtesy Paramount Pictures via Facebook

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.”

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