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Readings: Good Friday

22 March 2013

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Isaiah 52.13-end of 53; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10.16-25; John 18-end of 19

Almighty Father, look with mercy on this your family for which our Lord Jesus Christ was content to be betrayed and given up into the hands of sinners and to suffer death upon the cross; who is alive and glorified with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

"SHE gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in a piece of cloth and laid him in a manger." "They took his tunic. . . Standing near the cross of Jesus [was] his mother. . . When Jesus saw his mother and the disciples whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, 'Woman, here is your son.'. . . There was a new tomb and they laid him there."

In this year, when we are reading Luke's Gospel, and when the Annunciation falls in Holy Week (and its observance is, therefore, transferred to after Easter), Mary's presence at the cross recalls the birth narratives that preface Luke's Gospel.

It is all one salvation story. Twice, Luke told us that Mary treasured words and experiences from Jesus's childhood in her heart, and surely some of those memories must have flooded back in the morass of emotions as she stood at the cross. So much was contradictory, the horror of the cross seemingly inverting, if not undoing, the events of his birth.

Thus John Donne wrote (in "Upon the Annunciation and Passion falling upon one day. 1608"): "Gabriel gives Christ to her, he her to John"; her tender act of clothing Jesus was callously reversed, and, once again, he was laid in something borrowed.

At the foot of cross, Mary stood her ground, physically and spiritually, only later being rejoined by the disciples who had abandoned Jesus. It was at the cross that her true mettle, which Gabriel's words had looked forward to, was revealed; that she had found favour with God.

Simeon's disturbing words, spoken specifically to Mary when she and Joseph presented the baby Jesus with such joy and hope in the Temple - "This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel . . . and a sword will pierce your own soul, too" - had probably troubled her over the years, as she pondered their meaning; now, they were horribly fulfilled.

Mary, do you remember that
one day a sword would pierce your soul?
And in your darkest nightmare did
you dream that this would be the end?
The son you once held in your arms
is held now by a cross of wood;
the face you once gazed on in love
appears disfigured, crowned with thorns.
The shepherds now are far away
and in their place a shouting mob;
no silent, breathless, timeless awe,
no angel hosts with glorious songs,
no priceless gifts from eastern lands,
but anger, and the stench of death:
the only gift a borrowed tomb,
the only sound a cry of pain.

And is there glory in this cross?
Can you, who sang Magnificat,
rejoiced in God who came to save,
still sing that song, see in this cross
amidst the shame, a Saviour come,
a sign of grace, a means of life?

Mary, once you waited, wept and
bore the pain to bear your son;
now as you stand and wait and weep,
you bear not only pain but shame.
So, is there life amidst this death?
And can you glory in this cross;
mingle your tears with hope
because you know the paradox
that God, your Saviour, first must die?

Rosalind Brown

Centuries later, Good Friday remains a day for unhurried reflection on the Passion of our Lord - something that John Donne did on horseback exactly 400 years ago. In "Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward", he contemplated the crucifixion, with its earthquake and darkened sky:

Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die?
It made his own lieutenant Nature shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.

"That spectacle of too much weight for me." Good Friday offers us the stern mercy of time to survey the wondrous cross, praying that God will look with mercy on us, the family for whom our Lord was content to suffer death.

This Good Friday, amid the horror of our Lord's suffering, as we hear the continuing, daily litany of the world's suffering, Mary exemplifies the epistle's exhortation: "Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful."

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