Good Friday 2019
19th Apr 2019
Good Friday 2019
“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Matthew 27.45-46 and Psalm 22.1
The Gospel writer Matthew has Jesus cry out in utter desolation. This cry issues out of the mouth of the dying Christ as his last words. So different from the more controlled words of Luke’s ‘Into thy hands I commend my Spirit’; and John’s direct ‘It is finished’. Matthew’s cry of dereliction is the cry concentrated into the one final, terrible utterance. This cry is the cry of all who have ever cried. When we see or hear someone crying from a place deep within we cannot fail to be moved. We recognise that sense of human frailty which is the lot of us all. We all cope with a sense of life as light and shadow, and of our own unknowing and of Shakespeare’s “… thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to…” Life is lived as a kind of Cross because in order to see life in its true light we have to admit the shadow, too. Our inward cry of longing is the cry that life can be both wonderful and terrible. We come to know the futility of living life as though it were a personal possession. It can truly be lived only in communion with the one who is its giver, God alone. Only then can we live lives which are not in vain, but it must mean that, in God, we will tend to live provisionally.
Jesus’ cry of dereliction is disturbing. At the moment of encroaching death He feels utterly forsaken and alone. And the question he puts before God is “Why have you left me?” “Why aren’t you there anymore?” The cry of the suffering one. The cry of the one who feels his suffering has not been heeded and for which there is no explanation. Good Friday sees the worldwide Church stand still today as it takes in the full meaning of Christ’s exposure to these elements. The Cross lands upon this world’s understanding with a loud thud. Our churches are stripped down, statues and images remain covered, and everything is laid bare. We observe not merely the dramatization of an event that happened 2,000 years ago, but are confronted in the present with a Cross which challenges us to the roots of our being.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Hebrews 4.12
The Cross lays bare in us what was once laid bare in Christ. And this ‘laying bare’ hinges on the fact of our lives as God sees them. In his Son Jesus Christ, we are given to reflect upon life as a dying of deaths, and the one great dying that Christian Faith asks of us is the dying to self, and especially to the self which would make God in our own image. The dereliction happens not to be God’s but ours, too. Too often we seek and we do not find God because we have made him in our image. We witness the many substitutes which modern culture puts in place, including the simple fact that of the 50 different designs on the Easter Cards sold at Waitrose, none feature either the Cross or the tomb, instead all is bathed in daffodils and coloured in pale yellows, blues and greens, featuring chicks and bunnies and speckled eggs. It would seem that the Cross and the Tomb are no longer good sellers. In a similar vein, ‘Game of Thrones’ introduces the onlooker to an escapist mix of the heroic, the romantic, the violent, the fantastic and the cruel and this takes us away from the Cross as it proclaims the very this worldly, questioning and yet truth telling mystery which is God.
In former times, it was common to speak of a person as ‘God-fearing’. This did not speak of an individual cowering under the influence of a tyrant, but one who acknowledged the God who ‘seeks us out and knows us’ the God whose love divines the truth about us and our existence. He is to be obeyed not because this has been forced out of us but because this obedience forms the full measure of what must remain truthful for our lives. God is our proper balance and compass. Christian Faith has not given us a holiday from the path we must tread in life, with all it contains for good or ill. Rather it has heightened the sense in which a belief in God exists as a revelation and an open wound. It is only The Cross (capital ‘T’, capital ‘C’) which heals, because in it lies the truth about us and our existence. Only in communion with God can the true purposes of our life be revealed to us. For in acknowledgement of the living God comes also the acknowledgement of the need to cry to the one who will hear us. The cry comes from the heart. It cries out for the God, the Holy One, who is our Way, our Truth and Our Life. As the baby cries as it emerges from the womb so too we are never far from that crying out at the being born into a life like ours, even if the cry is stifled and subconscious. Jesus’ cry of dereliction takes up all our own cries and in Him they are nailed to the Cross, the place of what one Archbishop has called ‘Crucifixion Christianity’.
The Spanish Mystic, John of the Cross reminds us that
“…we too must have our Cross as our beloved had his Cross until he died the death of love…”
The Cross of Christ is borne in so many ways by so many people. And they emit their own cry of dereliction. One woman used to regularly telephone me. She was a depressive. She would phone to ask me to continue to pray for her. The phone call always took the same form : it could even be scripted: “Would you pray for my depression to go away?” “Would you please pray for my survival?” The request was always gentle and courteous and the same call made in regular intervals of ten days or so. It ended like this once “Thank you for your prayers and may I wish you a very Happy Easter? Goodbye” and then the ‘phone clicks and she was gone again. In this terse exchange there emerged a deep and sharing trust between us, for when the calls ended came a shared silence, a deep intake of breath and time to take in the depth of what she was saying. Hers are one of the many human crosses which cannot be avoided or discarded but which must be held in the love of God as a prayer of the heart.
The Cross is being borne by this woman and shown forth by a painter, Terry Duffy, whose contemporary work, ‘Victim, No Resurrection?’ once hung above the altar at St Martins-in the Fields. It is a thoroughly challenging and disturbing work which is both a crucifix and also a window onto a violent world in which the real crucifix still stands. It is a work which depicts victims of suffering whose cross is perpetual and whose hurts have no seeming redress. All these reflect the lives of those who, like the Christ before them, are nailed to crosses and whose cries of dereliction go apparently unheeded… ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Duffy’s Cross has travelled from New York and was exhibited at Auschwitz.
Jesus’ cry is not the cry of desperation. It is a cry that must be heard as part of a dialogue with the Father. It is a cry that finalises the death-throws that they may be transformed into Resurrection life. It does this because it keeps in tension the willing self-offering unto death with the operation of the divine will. For the Gospel writer Matthew there is no immediate answer as to why God has temporarily forsaken his Son. But not all questions, least of all this one, have immediate answers. The God of the Cross as for the God of Job gives no immediate answer. He is silent. But he has not forsaken his Son. As Jesus utters his final cry of dereliction the salvation he wins for us is already being made. His cry is part of a divine exchange which makes possible what one Pope called a “radical evolutionary leap” in which our existence is placed on a new and Christ centred trajectory. It is a cry as the ‘birth pangs of a new age’. Mark 13.8. and echoed in the words of the ‘Salve Regina’, our prayer to the Virgin Mary:
Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy,
The crucified Christ, honored and adored in this Good Friday Liturgy, stands for the cry of the one who longs for reconciliation with God. It is centered upon something that happened, the nailing of Jesus Christ to the Cross for his death. For many this would achieve forever the obliteration from the map of human memory the one who had already been acclaimed as The Son of God, the promised Messiah. But it was not to be, the judgement, the punishing death and the final breath would not bring an end to him. Even his own last words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are taken up into the heart of the Father. Nothing in the evolution of God’s grace, no moment, no prayer, no good deed is ever wasted least of all this one. It is all to be gathered up. The cry of dereliction is to be heard by the Father after all. For this is only the first day. On the third day all will be changed forever.