“Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
We have come together today as Christians do each year on Good Friday, to remember Jesus’death, to hear again the reading of John’s story of the crucifixion, to remember our sins, the broken-ness of our world, and above all to remember the great love of God in Jesus Christ that comes to us through God’s self-giving.
It’s tempting on Good Friday to let scripture and the powerful liturgy do all of its work without comment but I know all to well from my own experience that the images and symbols that confront us are powerful, sometimes so powerful that they seem to overwhelm us. Our emotions are rubbed raw by the story we’ve just heard, by the prayers, the words from scripture. Sometimes those images connect with half-forgotten or still tender wounds and emotions. It’s tempting to allow fear, or guilt, or sadness to overwhelm us on a day like today. It’s hard, sometimes, to hear and accept the great gift of God’s love, as we experience instead pain, suffering, or guilt.
All of Holy Week builds to this moment. From the reading of the passion narrative on Sunday and the only Sunday Eucharist of the liturgical year that ends in silence, to the darkness and silence of Maundy Thursday. I remember the first time I witnessed the stripping of the altar. I was new to the Episcopal Church then, finishing up my dissertation in the History of Christianity. Like most graduate students, I was pretty full of myself. I was certain I knew pretty much everything that was important in the history of Christianity, at least in the west, at least up to 1700. My faith journey had brought me to an Episcopal Church on the north shore of Boston, and this was my first Holy Week. I was participating in it somewhat ironically, I suppose. Observing the stripping of the altar changed all that. As the clergy and Altar Guild removed the paraments, the candlesticks, and all of the ornamentation from the chancel of St. Paul’s, it seemed that they were also stripping away all of the defenses from my heart, exposing it to the great gift of Christ’s love on the cross.
After more than twenty years, Holy Week still works its power on me. But I also sense in myself other feelings and emotions and know that others are doing the same. Holy Week is an escalating journey into the suffering of Christ until we reach its summit at Golgotha today. At times, the hymnody and other devotional imagery of Holy Week threaten to overwhelm us, especially with the focus on Jesus’ suffering and blood. It’s hard not to turn that suffering inward, toward ourselves, our sins, and guilt.
We kneel at the cross and wonder at Christ’s suffering, his love, and our sins. As we contemplate the brokenness of his body, we experience our own broken selves and our broken world. At times, our grief and pain may be so great as to render us mute, unable to speak in the face of the horror of the cross, and the horrors in the world that it symbolizes. And so we fall into silence.
As we fall into silence, so does God. For all the pain and suffering, the blood and anguish of the cross, over the years I’ve begun to understand the enormity of what follows: the utter absence and silence of God. With Jesus’death and burial, the hopes of his followers, the promised salvation of the world, comes to naught and ends in despair.
Of all the gospels, John has the most to say about the events after Jesus’death. A lot happens between Jesus’ death and his burial. In typical fashion, he draws us back to stories earlier in his gospel. The water that gushes forth with the blood from Jesus’side is a subtle reminder of Jesus’words to the Samaritan woman, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Nicodemus returns to help Joseph with the burial, having left the scene in a state of confusion much earlier, in chapter 3.
Like Joseph and Nicodemus, it’s likely we want to do something at this point, to make ourselves busy caring for the body of the one we love. Otherwise, we’re left with our emotions, left to ponder the silence and absence of God.
For at this moment, the earth is silent, God is silent. The Savior’s death on the cross brings to an end all of our vain hopes, all of our pride and self-deception. Whatever brings us to this place, to Calvary, whatever we seek now, today, comes to nothing. Our prayers are unanswered. The altar is bare. God’s Son, God’s self, lies in a tomb. What have we done?
Even more than the cross, Jesus’ death and burial are evidence of the humanity he shares with us. His body was lifeless; grew cold. He descended, as our creeds say, to the dead. His fate was the fate we all share as humans. The silence and grief we experience when a loved one dies is the silence and grief we experience now, at this moment.
Before he died, Jesus said from the cross, “It is finished.” His words continue to reverberate across the centuries. His suffering ended, he died. His life on earth, his teaching, and healing, came to an end. But that little word means more. It is accomplished; it is complete. In his death, for all of its horrors, for all that it says about us as humans, our propensity to do evil, to bring death out of life, in his death, his purpose on earth was accomplished.
Earlier in the gospel, just before he and his disciples enter Jerusalem in triumph, Jesus tells them, “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” For all the horror, for all the evil, for all the suffering in the cross, it means more, much more than that. In it, we see God’s love. In it, we experience God’s love, in it we know God’s love. The cross is the end—it is the purpose for which Jesus Christ came to us.
The cross, this day, Jesus’ death and burial mean so many things. The imagery is rich and powerful; sometimes it is offensive and off-putting. The cross can be a symbol of division and separation; to some it means pain, suffering, and guilt; to some it may mean nothing at all any more. Some see in it God’s anger and judgment; some experience in it fear and revulsion. Some of us see all of those things—our minds and hearts full of emotions on this day that we might not even be able to name or identify. And so it may be that in the silence of these two days, as we commemorate Jesus’ death and burial; as we remember the absence and silence of God; it may be that we need to be silent, too, so that we can sing in the words of that old hymn, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”