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A Sermon from Sherborne
The Good Friday Three Hours’ Devotion
Conducted at Sherborne Abbey on Friday 19 April 2019 by the Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes
The Way of Calvary: the Path to Heaven
- Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23: 34)
Reading: Luke 23: 33-38
In these addresses I have taken four of Jesus’ ‘Last Words’ for us to meditate on and put into the context of the Way of Calvary, the Way of the Cross. That may sound pretty gloomy, and of course the crucifixion narrative itself is sheer horror, made, if anything, more intense for us by the spare and unadorned language the Gospel writers use to describe it. Yet what Jesus is recorded as saying – with one exception – can only uplift us and give us hope, show us light in the darkness.
So we begin with forgiveness. Even as he is being nailed to a cross and lifted up to die in agony, Jesus forgives his tormentors. Perhaps the Passion of Christ would be too much for us to listen to and visualize if forgiveness did not come first. It reminds us of two of the most important things about sin and forgiveness: first, that forgiveness is always there, waiting for us, if we will have it; we cannot earn it – it is God’s free gift to us. Second, it is not an easy or casual matter for us. We need to face what we have done, our failures, moments of cowardice or avarice, unkindness or verbal cruelty; times when we have exploited others or shown no love of any kind; things we should have done but failed to do. Forgiveness does not involve forgetting: that would be to trivialize our sins, as though they were never of any importance. True reconciliation can only happen when people first acknowledge what they have done to each other or have had done to them; then they can move forward in a stronger, renewed relationship. And so it is when we lay our sins at the cross of Jesus, as on Good Friday especially we do, and find in it a sure ground for hope and the assurance of sins forgiven.
What is the opposite of giving and receiving forgiveness? Resentment certainly; an inability to let things go and move on; anguish or even hatred focused on a particular person or event, which may take one over entirely and eat one up.
All these things we find encapsulated in Jesus’ wonderful parable of the Prodigal Son and his resentful brother. The younger son, the wastrel, you remember, has behaved very badly, making a premature grab for his inheritance and then blowing it all on a huge slice of riotous living. Of course it can’t last: the cash runs out, friends drift away, there’s nothing left for food and lodging. He who was so independent now has to swallow the bitter pill of returning home and begging to be taken back, knowing that his father might reject him: “You’ve made your bed, son, and you’ll just have to lie on it; goodbye.” The boy is well aware of what he has done – he has, after all, ‘come to himself’ – and the last thing he wants is a humiliating lecture.
Instead, what a life-altering welcome he receives! His father, in his anxiety, has been watching and waiting for his return, and now sees his son a long way off; he runs to welcome him with open arms and an overflowing heart. There are no conditions imposed: forgiveness is unconditional.
That is a sad contrast with the response of the elder son. When he hears the preparations for the welcoming feast going on, his feelings of anger, fear and bitterness are matched, one imagines, only by those of the fatted calf. And it is not even as if he is going to be killed.
These differing responses remind me of a television documentary some years ago which featured people speaking of their reactions to what others had done to them, sometimes intentionally, often not. Those who had found it in them to forgive had been able to move on in a positive way. Those who could not forgive seemed trapped in their own bitterness and deep resentment. There was a poor fellow – one’s heart went out to him – whose daughter had been killed in a car accident involving a drunk driver. He could only think of the driver as a murderer and was consumed by hatred of him. By contrast we saw a parish priest, Michael Counsell, whose young son had been killed by a car. He had, no doubt after a serious inner struggle, reached out to forgive the driver; and indeed described how, after the court hearing, he and the driver had embraced each other: “I couldn’t do anything else,” he said. He went on to have a fruitful ministry until he retired; his son is commemorated by a stained-glass window.
Forgiveness then, as we see from the words and actions of the father of the Prodigal Son, is unconditional and freely given. It also frees the giver and receiver from the bonds of guilt and acrimony, and restores their relationship. Yet when it comes to our relationship with God – even though we know His grace, love and forgiveness to be ever within our reach – we can still harbour feelings of unworthiness, guilt and fear. Such feelings are given intense expression in John Donne’s poem A Hymn to God the Father, and made even more personal to the poet-priest himself by the pun on his own name in the penultimate line of each verse: ‘Thou hast not done’, and, finally, ‘Thou hast done.’ It is possible that there is a further pun in the last lines of the first two verses: in his 20s he married – secretly, since their families were not in favour – Anne More, the niece of his employer’s wife, his employer being Sir Thomas Egerton, Keeper of the Great Seal. John and Anne were deeply in love, and it was a durable marriage. But it is likely that Donne felt shame at the deception involved: ‘For I have more.’
A Hymn to God the Father John Donne (1572-1631)
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin through which I run,
And do run still: though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt thou forgive that sin by which I’ve won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two: but wallowed in a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done,
I fear no more.
Let me end this section by telling you about Jim, whose story is both relevant and touching. He was a young man – in his late teens – who lived with his parents in a small terraced house. He found both their way of life and the restrictions they placed on him petty and irksome. Often he would go out drinking with his friends until the small hours; and then when he returned home his worried parents would be waiting up, and there would be recriminations and anger. Sometimes, to avoid these scenes, he would stay out all night, half agonizing over his parents’ distress, half infuriated by it. Then one night Jim came in, high on drugs and alcohol, started smashing things in the house, and was violently abusive when his parents angrily protested. Next morning he packed a few clothes in a suitcase and left, for good. He roamed about the country, picking up jobs here and there, living a mean existence. Finally he went to sea, as a crewman on a trader, and spent some years in and out of ports in the far east.
As time went on, he found himself thinking more and more about his mother and father – how they were, whether they were even still alive – and regretting his impetuous departure. Once, on leave in England, he picked up the phone in a call-box. But he did not have the courage to make the call: what if they simply hung up on him? It would be too awful and final. Instead he decided to write to them. He told them which day he would take the train that passed the bottom of their garden; and he asked them, if they would have him back, to tie a white handkerchief to the tree in the garden. If the handkerchief was there, he would get out at the little station half a mile down the line; if not, he would go on, never to see them again.
Jim took the train out of London. Gradually the city gave way to suburbia, and then the gardens running down to the track began to narrow. As the train approached his parents’ house, Jim could not bear to look out of the window. Instead, he explained to the man sitting opposite him in the carriage what to look out for, and asked him to tell him what he saw. Then he covered his face with his hands, torn between fierce hope and despair. When he knew they must be passing the garden, and the train was slowing down for the station, he asked his fellow passenger if he could see the tree. He replied, “I can’t see a handkerchief, nor even a tree. All I can see is what is covering it – a great white sheet.”
“For this my son was dead and is alive again; was lost and is found.” (Luke 15: 24)
Prayer: It was your love, Lord Jesus,
that caused you to be nailed to the cross.
It was your love that held you there
when you might have called for legions of angels.
It was your love that pleaded for your murderers
and prayed “Father, forgive them.”
Help us, most gracious Lord,
to grasp something more of your love,
to receive your forgiveness,
and to learn to forgive others
even as we have been forgiven,
for your love’s sake. Frank Colquhoun
2. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)
Reading: Psalm 22: 1-8
We now approach the darkest hour of Jesus’ crucifixion and his bleakest utterance. Appropriately all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) tell us that there was darkness over the whole land for three hours. Jesus, approaching death, says these words of terrible dereliction. Yet we may note two things about them. They come at the start at Psalm 22; so Jesus, who would have known the Psalter – that great treasury of devotion that covers all human life and expresses all human emotion – since his boyhood, is saying his prayers in these well-known words. Second, although he chooses this particular psalm, with its cry of abandonment, he is still addressing the God he feels so far from. This is not outright and utter despair: it is ambivalence.
That may be something to hold onto if we ever feel totally abandoned by God. The hostage Brian Keenan, imprisoned in a cellar under Beirut, described in his book An Evil Cradling how his whole life had been left without meaning in that cell, his relationship with God void: “I am full with nothing. My prayers rebound on me as if all those words that I sent up were poured back upon me like an avalanche tumbling around me. I am bereft even of God. My own words become bricks and stones that bruise me. I have been lifted up and emptied out. I am a bag of flesh and scrape, a heap of offal tossed unwanted in the corner of this filthy room” (p. 67).
Few of us, fortunately, have to suffer such dreadful privations. But other things may induce feelings of meaninglessness, despondency or desolation: illness or pain, perhaps; being badly let down by a trusted friend; the death of one we love; a serious bout of depression. These and any number of other causes may leave us feeling that God, on whom we have previously relied, is absent; the light has turned to darkness. In a memorable sonnet, Gerard Manley Hopkins charts a bleak, but not uncommon, experience, that of lying awake at night, being tormented by dark thoughts – with God far away. Here is the first part (the octet):
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! What sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives, alas, away.
To the poet it seems that his long night’s watch will go on for ever, for years, for life. His prayers (for Hopkins was a most devout and spiritual priest) are like dead letters sent to an absent deity. And yet Hopkins knew that “dead letters” were still there, poste restante, to be collected. I sense that that phrase gives us a hint of resurrection, a glimpse of light in the otherwise unrelieved darkness.
Psalm 22, which Jesus is using as his final prayer here, also provides some hope as it continues: “But thou art he who took me out of my mother’s womb: thou wast my hope when I hanged yet upon my mother’s breasts. I have been left unto thee ever since I was born: thou art my God, even from my mother’s womb. O go not from me for trouble is hard at hand: and there is none to help me” (vv. 9-11). To the psalmist God may be far away, but He has not altogether disappeared. Indeed the psalm concludes with an unexpected (though welcome) paean of praise (“in the great congregation”) to the Lord whom the nations shall worship.
We do not know whether Jesus got beyond verse 1 of this psalm as he prayed on the cross. What we do know is that, when we ourselves suffer anguish, doubt, fear or pain, he has been there before us. To quote Rowan Williams, “Christ is the model for the tempted Christian: he has gone before into the dark places of doubt and fear and weakness, and endured to death” (The Wound of Knowledge, p. 10). We thus, he says, have a model and a guide “in living as a believer, living in the insecurities of faith, ‘the conviction of things not seen’.”
I like the phrase “the insecurities of faith.” It is perhaps a more common experience to have to deal with our doubts than to feel utterly cut off from God. And here too Jesus can show us the way: “I know,” he seems to say to us in our anxiety; “I have been there too, and I am right beside you.” It is worth reminding ourselves that our trust in God is not diminished by doubt. Indeed a faith that goes unchallenged could simply be moribund. To move forward in our spiritual life we need to inquire, to ask questions, to discuss and to read. In this matter we can call two of our greatest poets as witnesses. First, John Donne, whose Hymn to God the Father we have already considered. Now a few lines from his Satire 3 (not in the more modern sense of the word):
…doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is.
And then Tennyson takes up the baton. He answers those who would claim that doubters are weak by holding up as an example a man he knew who faced his doubts squarely and honestly, and gained a stronger faith in consequence.
You tell me, doubt is Devil-born.
I know not: one indeed I knew
In many a subtle question versed,
Who touched a jarring lyre at first,
But ever strove to make it true:
Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out:
‘There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.’
He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,
He would not make his judgment blind,
He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them: thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own;
And Power was with him in the night,
Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone. (From In Memoriam)
So we see that out of darkness, even the all-pervading gloom of the crucifixion, light may spring. As we face Jesus’ agony on the cross we can also be aware why, paradoxically, this is Good Friday. Nor is it Jesus alone who suffers for us: as Rowan Williams asserts, it is “an illusion that God is to be found apart from Jesus crucified.” All the sins and sorrows of the world fall on God’s shoulders. So let us look at the printed poem for this section of our meditation, by the fine medievalist, translator and poet, Helen Waddell.
A God who Suffers Helen Waddell (1889-1965)
Calvary was only a piece of it,
The piece that we saw – in time.
But the dark ring goes up and down
The whole length of the tree.
We only see it where it is cut across.
That is what Christ’s life was:
The bit of God that we saw.
And because Christ was like that,
Kind and forgiving sins and healing people,
We think God is like that.
And we think God is like that for ever
Because it happened once to Christ.
But not the pain. Not the agony.
We think that stopped!
All the pain of the world was Christ’s cross.
God’s cross. And it goes on.
Prayers: Lord Jesus Christ, who, being made sin for us, endured the darkness of a spiritual ereliction, that you might bring us to God:
Be near to those who suffer alone and are conscious only of pain and darkness. In the immensity of your compassion reveal yourself to them,
O Lord, that they may know that they are not forsaken but are surrounded by your love; for your tender mercy’s sake. Llewellyn Cumings
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified:
Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace;
Through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Collect for Lent 3, C.W.
3. Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23: 43)
Readings: Psalm 39: 6-8; Ephesians 5: 1-2, 14
St Luke relates how one of the criminals crucified with Jesus in his pain and bitterness casts words of scorn in his face. Probably unconsciously echoing words of Psalm 22, “let him deliver him if he will have him,” he mocks Jesus by saying, “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.” But the other criminal has insight into Jesus’ true nature and asks, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” And Jesus promises, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
Those of you who been paying strict attention will realize that these words should really come before Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God….”, which we have already considered. If this is a lapse on my part, it is a deliberate one. The title of these meditations is The Way of Cavalry: the Path to Heaven. So I want now to move from the desolation of Calvary towards that light of grace and salvation which Christians have always recognized as the greatest gift bestowed on us by the crucifixion – why indeed today is Good Friday. These words of Jesus, uttered in the horror and darkness of Roman execution, are the first intimation of that heavenward journey that he promises.
They are amazing words. Today in paradise. Our Lord himself has not yet died, let alone risen again, and yet he gives this perceptive criminal a stunning assurance – that they will shortly be heaven-bound, both of them. We may wonder whether this man – perhaps a habitual thief – appreciates the irony of his getting into heaven free; that is what he is offered, because there is no entry fee, not for him, not for us. As we focus on the cross we, like him, are invited to accept this extraordinary gift of God’s grace with a good grace. Have you noticed how difficult it can be to receive presents, or even compliments, graciously? We can often feel more comfortable as the giver; for then we are in charge. But with God’s gifts we cannot be in charge, because He is: that’s what being God means. We can indeed direct our lives towards godly living and walk in His ways; we may pray, with the General Thanksgiving, that we may give up ourselves to His service and walk before Him in holiness and righteousness all our days. All that will certainly draw us closer to God on our journey. But it can never be enough in itself; “for the means of grace and for the hope of glory” we must look at Christ on the cross and listen to these words of his, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” The “means of grace” – a somewhat theological term – is simply God’s free gift to us of love and forgiveness, through Jesus’ death. That is what the Prodigal Son discovered, against all expectation, when he came home to his father, expecting to be treated as a hired servant but in fact receiving the blessings of a father’s welcome to his son. The “hope of glory” speaks for itself. It is the promise of that most glorious life – in paradise, if you like – with God for ever. As Rowan Williams puts it, it is a “life free from the threat of death and annihilation” (The Wound of Knowledge, p. 13).
That threat was a very serious one for many centuries in Judaism. We see it in the psalms, where there is generally no real hope of an afterlife, certainly not of glory hereafter; perhaps a shadowy, unreal existence in Sheol. “Who will give thee thanks in the pit?” says the psalmist to God. “Verily every man living is altogether vanity,” we heard just now in the reading from Psalm 39. If there is nothing, or not much, after death, a lot of the meaning can be sucked out of our existence. The psalmist does have hope: “now, Lord, what is my hope? Truly my hope is even in thee.” But we have the impression that it is for this life only. By the time of Jesus most Jews, apart from the Sadducees, did believe in a resurrection, so the repentant criminal would easily have understood Jesus’ meaning. Yet Jesus promises him not simply an afterlife, but paradise. That word in its primary meaning tells of a pleasure ground or beautiful garden, and is used in Genesis of the Garden of Eden. I think “pleasure” is the operative word here: this is no solemn place filled with earnest people rather too pleased with their own virtue. Rather, it is somewhere of exuberant happiness. In this context Fr Timothy Radcliffe O.P. quotes one of his great Dominican predecessors of the 14th century, Meister Eckhart, who writes this about the Father and the Son: “The Father laughs at the Son and the Son laughs at the Father, and the laughter brings forth pleasure and the pleasure brings forth joy, and the joy brings forth love.” Eckhart goes on to describe God’s joy as like the exuberance of a horse that gallops around the field, kicking its heels in the air. (Quoted in Radcliffe: Seven Last Words, p.18.)
And so it must be. Jesus himself tells us that there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repents (Luke 15: 7). Some time ago I was expressing mild disapproval at clapping in church services, at which Eric our Rector remarked, “There will be a great deal of clapping in heaven.” I readily agreed; but that still hasn’t stopped me disapproving of clapping in church.
As God delights in us his children, causing joy which brings forth love, so should we imitate Him in our heavenward journey on this earth. We heard St Paul saying exactly that to the Ephesians in our other reading just now: “Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5: 1-2).
Paul continues with an image of death as resurrection, like waking from sleep: “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (v. 14). So let us explore this ultimate transition a little further. The poet John Davies, a contemporary of Shakespeare, likened death to a third life – the first two being life in the womb and life on earth. It is, he wrote, like being born all over again:
“In this third life, Reason will be so bright,
As that her spark will like the sun-beams shine,
And shall of God enjoy the real sight,
Being still increased by influence divine.” (From Nosce Te Ipsum)
This perhaps picks up the conversation in John’s Gospel where Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3: 3). We may also call to mind 1 Corinthians 13: “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face” (v.12).
So to Mary Coleridge’s poem There. This too speaks of death as another birth, but also weighs up our ambiguous feelings about it. The first three lines of each verse linger over the familiar scenes and rhythms of our life here on earth that we are comfortable with and fear losing. There is a reference in the first verse to Revelation 21, where, at the end of all things, there will be no more sea but a new heaven and a new earth. The second verse dwells gently on the alternation of day and night, light and dark, which marks out our lives here. The third expresses a sense of loss for what has inspired our faith – certainly the poet’s faith – throughout life: great sacred spaces, a spiritual tradition handed down the generations.
But this sense of loss is answered in each case by the promise of something far greater, something beyond our total comprehension at present but for which we yearn. And this is the answer found, simply expressed, in the last half-line of the verses. “There” we shall find a new earth, with all that we value in perfection; Him who is the true Light, brilliant and unquenchable: God Himself, in paradise.
There Mary Coleridge (1861-1907)
There, in that other world, what waits for me?
What shall I find after that other birth?
No stormy, tossing, foamy, smiling sea,
But a new earth.
No sun to mark the changing of the days,
No slow, soft falling of the alternate night,
No moon, no star, no light upon my ways,
Only the Light.
No grey cathedral, wide and wondrous fair,
That I may tread, where all my fathers trod.
Nay, nay, my soul, no house of God is there,
But only God.
Prayer: Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven,
To enter into that gate and dwell in that house
Where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light;
No noise nor silence, but one equal music;
No fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
No ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
In the habitations of thy glory and dominion world without end. John Donne
4. Jesus said, ‘It is finished’: and he bowed his head and gave up the ghost (John 19: 30)
Reading: 1 John 4: 7-11
Do not let us think that these words (one word in Greek) mean ‘It’s all over’, in the football commentator sense. Jesus is definitely not saying that his life and ministry have hit the buffers, that this is the end. Of course there is an awful finality about it, and that is probably how the women standing by the cross understood it. But actually it is a shout of triumph, something like ‘All is accomplished.’ St John always shows Jesus in control of any situation, even his arrest in Gethsemane; and this is no exception. The cross is not a defeat, to be rectified on Easter morning: it is the ultimate triumph of love, the breaking of the power of sin and death.
The word ‘power’ is important: sin, as we know, continues and the world is full of evil, alongside the good that is done. But it is the ultimate power of evil that has lost its grip. We might have thought of good and evil as being equal and opposite, like two opposing armies, either of which could win. What Christ’s triumph on the cross tells us is that sin, evil and hatred cannot and will not finally win; ultimately God’s will must prevail. He is, after all, God.
But when we ask, ‘How is this achieved?’, and look at the cross, symbol and instrument of all that is evil and hateful in the world, we find a conundrum. The cross is defined by suffering, of the most terrible kind; that is why we speak of the Passion of Christ, passio meaning suffering in Latin. But those of us who were at the moving and thought-provoking meditation in words and music last Monday may recall one of the extracts from Michael Mayne’s writings, in which he linked passio with compassio – suffering with or for others, compassion. That seems to me to be the vital clue: not that Jesus merely suffered, but that he suffered – and still does – alongside us. He suffers with us by taking on his shoulders – God’s shoulders – all the evil and pain of the world. Look back for a moment at the Helen Waddell poem at the end of the second section of these talks, and note particularly the last four lines.
It may be counter-intuitive, but it is also true, that Christ’s victory on the cross over the forces of evil was achieved not by strength of arms but by the power of love shown in physical weakness. Ubi caritas et amor, ibi Deus est, as the Maundy Thursday liturgy has it: where dear grace and love are, there is God. When at the very outset of his ministry Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, the devil shows him all the kingdoms of the world and coaxes him with the words “All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them.” But there is of course a condition: “If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.” And Jesus affirms with vehemence, “Get thee behind me, Satan” (Luke 4: 5-8). For that is not God’s way. His way is compassion, the way of love and of the grace of forgiveness. As St John wrote in his First Epistle, which we heard just now: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son, to be the propitiation for our sins.” If our sins are to be atoned for and we are to be reconciled with God, then, John says, there is a reciprocal charge on us: “If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (ch.4: 10-11).
So let us look at the final poem, by James Stephens. It is a fanciful imagining of Satan after the crucifixion – after ‘It is finished’ – now that there is no further work for him to do: sin has been overcome, love and forgiveness have prevailed. He sits alone.
But then, a miracle. Following the traditional image of Satan as a fallen angel, his Father and his erstwhile friends and colleagues, the Archangels, restore him once more to heaven, where he is placed next to Jesus, who has not only conquered sin but offers forgiveness and unconditional reconciliation – even to Satan himself.
The Fulness of Time James Stephens (1882-1950)
On a rusty iron throne
Past the furthest star of space
I saw Satan sit alone,
Old and haggard was his face;
For his work was done and he
Rested in eternity.
And to him from out the sun
Came his father and his friend
Saying, now the work is done
Enmity is at an end:
And he guided Satan to
Paradises that he knew.
Gabriel without a frown
Uriel without a spear,
Raphael came singing down
Welcoming their ancient peer;
And they seated him beside
One who had been crucified.
“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15: 22).
Prayer: How can I tell of such love to me? You made me in your image
and hold me in the
palm of your hand, your cords of love, strong and fragile as silk,
bind me and hold me.
Rich cords, to family and friends,
music and laughter echoing in memories,
light dancing on the water, hills rejoicing.
Cords that found me hiding behind carefully built walls and led me out
love that heard my heart break and despair, and rescued me,
love that overcame my fears and doubts, and released me.
The questions and burdens I carry you take,
to leave my hands free – to hold yours, and others,
free to follow your cords as they move and swirl in the breeze,
free to be caught up in the dance of your love,
finding myself in surrendering to you.
How can I tell of such love? How can I give to such love?
I AM, here am I. Catherine Hooper
5. Liturgy of the Cross
We come now to the central focus of Good Friday, the cross itself, which we salute and honour as the bearer of our Lord Jesus in his agony and death; and so as the means of our salvation, and the world’s.
In these addresses I have suggested four ways in which we might consider this literally crucial event, based on four of Jesus’ own last recorded words. So as we approach the cross, we may see it first as the focal point for forgiveness. Jesus, even as he hangs on it in bitter suffering, forgives his tormentors, for “they know not what they do.” This unmerited forgiveness is not just for that time and place: it is always on offer, spreading out from Calvary to the ends of the earth, to the end of time. To receive it and make it our own we need to face our failings as honestly as we can; and, as we ourselves are forgiven, we should be ready to forgive others.
Second, Jesus prays on the cross those searing words which open Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In that cry of dereliction we ourselves are unexpectedly assured that we are not alone in our suffering, our pain or despair: Jesus has been there before and is alongside us in that darkness. We noted that Jesus, even when God seemed far away, still prayed to Him.
Third, and perhaps most significantly, we see the cross as the means of our salvation. The very earliest disciples recognized after the resurrection that Jesus’ death was not a dreadful mistake to be rectified on Easter morning, but had a vital significance of its own. It opens up the path to heaven, as it did for the criminal who recognized Jesus’ true identity and was promised, “This day shalt thou be with me in paradise,” which in my book means being with God for ever and becoming fully who we were intended to be. As Jesus says to Nicodemus, in John’s Gospel (3: 14-15), he is “lifted up that whosoever believeth in [me] should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Our final view of the cross (“It is finished”) is therefore one of triumph – the triumph of love over death and sin. So the 4th century saint, John Chrysostom, speaks of it in rapture and wonder thus:
“The Tree [Cross] is my eternal salvation. It is my nourishment and my banquet. Amidst its roots I cast my own roots deep. Beneath its boughs I grow… Its fruits bring perfect joy….., fruits which I now freely eat. This tree is food, sweet food, for my hunger and a fountain for my thirst; it is clothing for my nakedness; its leaves are the breath of life.”
But now let the final word, appropriately, be Sir Walter Raleigh’s. In his famous poem The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage, quite possibly written the night before his execution, he writes of the heavenly judgement at the end of the journey:
And when the grand twelve-million jury
Of our sins, with direful fury,
‘Gainst our souls black verdicts give,
Christ pleads his death, and then we live.