Good Friday, March 25, 2016, Church of the Advocate, Chapel Hill, By Kenneth R. Bullock
At the cross her vigil keeping,
Mary stood in sorrow, weeping,
When her Son was crucified.
Although all the gospels speak of the women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee watching as Jesus was crucified, only John explicitly states that Jesus’ mother stood at the foot of the cross, together with Mary, the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, and the disciple whom Jesus loved. It is hard to imagine what it was like for Mary as her son was executed as a threat to the powers that be. Thirty-odd years earlier the angel Gabriel had appeared to her to announce that she would bear a son, whom she was to name Jesus. Today is not only Good Friday, when we contemplate Jesus’ death on the cross. It happens that it would also be the Feast of the Annunciation, if the Prayer Book were not explicit about stating that Feasts falling during Holy Week or Easter Week are to be transferred to the following week. Still, it is worth contemplating that these two events happen to fall on the same day this year.
But today we turn our attention, not to Mary encountering an angel with an announcement that would radically change her life, but to the cross, where Mary, the grieving mother, stands, watching her beloved Son suffer and die.
While she waited in her anguish,
Seeing Christ in torment languish,
Bitter sorrow pierced her heart.
We are used to seeing crosses in many forms. The cross is at the heart of the Christian gospel. Whenever we move in procession, a cross of carved wood leads us. Today I am wearing a silver cross, sand-cast by a Navaho silversmith in Santa Fe. When we see the cross in these beautiful forms, it is easy to forget that it was a brutal, rough, instrument of execution, of state-sponsored terror. But that was the cross at which Mary stood vigil.
With what pain and desolation,
With what noble resignation,
Mary watched her dying Son.
But what is the meaning of the cross for Christians? Did Jesus die because humanity’s sins are so great that God’s justice requires the death penalty, and he died as a substitute for us, to atone for our sins? Or did he die to free us from injustice endemic in human civilization, and from death’s stranglehold on human life? From the Middle Ages on, from the time of Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century, Western Christianity has all too often emphasized the suffering of Christ on the cross as a substitution to pay the debt for our sins. Eastern Christianity, in continuity with a tradition from the first millennium of the Christian era, emphasizes the victory of the Cross, in which God, through the death of Jesus, invades hell, breaking into the realm of Death itself, freeing humans from captivity to death.
For early Christians there was no separation between Christ’s passion and resurrection. The earliest liturgies did not separate them. A single, three-day event proclaimed Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection, culminating in the Easter vigil and Eucharist. If you look carefully, you will notice that our own Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday liturgies begin without an opening acclamation, and conclude without a dismissal. It is all part of one story, to be continued.
In Jesus’ day the Romans used crucifixion as a punishment for, and a deterrent to, rebellion. It was a cruel, brutal form of punishment. In the century in which Jesus lived there were many thousands of people crucified around Jerusalem alone. The Roman Jewish historian Josephus tells of torture and crucifixion in the year 70 C. E., during the siege of Jerusalem that destroyed the temple and dispersed the people:
“The majority were citizens of the poorer class … five hundred or sometimes more being captured daily. … so great was their number, that space could not be found for the crosses nor crosses for the bodies.”i
John Dominic Crossan notes it was not the fact that the victim suffered, that was significant, but the complete annihilation of the person, as the body was consumed by carrion birds, wild beasts, and roving packs of dogs.
John’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion is a theological statement, not a factual reporting of events. For John, Jesus was not a victim of forces beyond his control. On that Friday afternoon two worlds met in conflict; the world of Caesar, represented by Pilate, the Roman governor; and the world of the one whose kingdom is not of this world, Jesus. Jesus was not the only one in first-century Judea to whom the titles son of god, Lord, redeemer, and even savior of the world were applied. They were also titles by which Octavius, Caesar Augustus, was known, titles that continued to be very much a part of Roman imperial theology under the successors of Caesar Augustus. In ways that we find difficult to imagine, there was a very real clash of empires, between the Roman imperial world whose motto was “peace through victory” and the kingdom of the God of Jesus, whose vision was “peace through nonviolent justice.”
From the beginning of John’s narrative, Jesus is in charge. He orchestrates his own arrest. John’s poetic language, filled with allusions, suggests many levels of meaning. Like the parables Jesus told, these elements of John’s story do not tell us outright what the message is, but tease us into drawing our own conclusions about Jesus and his Passion. In John’s narrative, Jesus and his disciples cross the Kidron ravine, retracing the steps of David a thousand years earlier. In a garden there a whole cohort of Roman soldiers (some 600 men) follows him, along with the chief priest’s guards. Jesus asks whom they seek. They say, “Jesus of Nazareth.” When Jesus replies, “I am he,” they all fall to the ground. The English obscures the allusion. The Greek words, ??? ????, may be literally translated as “I am,” the very name of God revealed to Moses from the burning bush in Exodus. Questioned before the high priest secretly, then arraigned before Pilate, Jesus is articulate and ironic in reply, and we who read John’s account may perceive meanings in what he says that completely escaped Pilate or the Jewish leaders. One might ask, who is really on trial here, Jesus or Pilate? Condemned, Jesus is led to Golgotha, carrying his own cross, strong and unbroken. There he is crucified. A notice above Jesus’ head reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Despite the protests of the chief priests, Pilate refuses to change what he has written. Unwittingly, Pilate, who during Jesus’ trial cynically asks “What is truth?” tells the truth about Jesus.
At the foot of the cross stand Jesus’ mother and the disciple whom he loved. He commends them to each other’s care. They are now family. Jesus gives himself for us that we may be given to one another in God’s new community.
Who, that sorrow contemplating
On that passion meditating,
Would not share the Virgin’s grief.
In fulfillment of scripture, Jesus says, “I thirst.” After receiving the sour wine he says, “It is finished,” and gives over the spirit – in John’s Greek, not “his spirit.” It is not a cry of anguish, but “mission accomplished.” Jesus, in his final act, gives over the spirit – to the church, represented by the new family standing before him. The movement Jesus began would continue, given over to the new community of God he had established.
The soldiers divide his clothing, and gamble for his tunic, which was seamless, like that of the high priest. The soldiers, coming to break the legs of the crucified so they would not remain on the cross over Passover, find Jesus dead. Like the Passover lamb, not a bone of him was broken. He dies on the day of preparation for the Passover, as Passover lambs were being butchered. Water and blood flow from Jesus’ side, pierced by a soldier’s spear, signifying baptism and Eucharist to the early church fathers.
John’s telling of Jesus’ passion is not a story of human tragedy and heroism. Nor is Jesus a victim of events he could not control. It is the Temple authorities and Pilate who appear disorganized and powerless. No one takes Jesus’ life from him. He offers it up, to reveal the saving glory of God. He is the king, whose throne is the cross.
Although John’s account differs from the other gospels, it is not accurate to say that one is right and the others are not. Each is like a parable, proclaiming, in their different ways, that Jesus is Lord, and the lords of this world, whether feudal, or industrial and economic, or political and imperial, are not, and do not have the final say. Nor is it accurate to say that to represent the cross as a rough-hewn object made of heavy timbers is right, while to make it into a gold and jeweled necklace, or as a mark made with holy oil signed on the forehead is wrong. To portray the cross with a realistic, tortured, naked human form suffering on it is no more “right” than to portray the cross with a triumphant Christus Rex figure robed in richly colored vestments and a golden crown, or to portray it with no human form at all on it. Each represents a different way of seeing this powerful symbol.
Two perspectives in today’s readings are best seen together. One perspective, in John’s gospel, is Christ as the king who comes from God, who takes the initiative in identifying completely with sinful humans, to invade hell and rescue us from death. It is a movement by God’s initiative, toward humanity. The cross is the culmination of the divine self-emptying that was described in the ancient hymn that Paul quoted in his letter to the Philippians:
“… though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness,
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)
The other perspective, in the reading from Hebrews, represents a movement in the opposite direction, from humanity toward God, in Christ’s priestly offering to God:
“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” [Hebrews 10:19-22]
Because of Christ’s cross we are able to approach God’s presence. Our own search for God can never by itself find God. The good news of the cross is that God has come to find us, and in Christ God has freed us, so that in Christ we find our hearts’ desire and our true identity. In Christ’s cross we are reconciled with God, with one another, and with ourselves. We are made part of that new reality that Jesus preached, the kingdom of God. By our baptism we share in Christ’s passion, not only in the sense of what he suffered, but in his larger passion for God and God’s dream for a renewed heaven and earth that brought him to the cross.
Tonight we stand with Mary at the foot of the cross. The cross may stir many emotions in us, as we contemplate what it means for each of us to share Christ’s passion. In this moment the focus is on sorrow and grief, with Jesus’ blessed mother:
At the cross, your sorrow sharing,
All your grief and torment bearing,
Let me stand and mourn with you.
But the story does not end here. Jesus’ story does not end on the cross. Nor does our liturgy of the Triduum, the three holy days. It merely pauses, while we look ahead to what it means to share, in the coming days, weeks and months, the passion Jesus has for God’s new heaven and new earth, and to be a part of the Jesus movement on the way toward that new heaven and new earth. And so, like our liturgy of Good Friday, it is now “to be continued . . .”
i Josephus, War 5.447-451, quoted in John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (Harper San Francisco, 1995), p. 126.