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Readings: Good Friday

11 April 2014

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Isaiah 52.13-53.12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10.16-25; John 18.1-19, 42

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.

THERE is a moment in the Good Friday liturgy at Durham Cathedral which always moves me deeply. It is during the singing of the seventh-century hymn

Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,
Sing the ending of the fray;
Now above the Cross, the trophy,
Sound the loud triumphant lay:
Tell how Christ, the world's Redeemer,
As a victim won the day.

This is when a very large cross, draped with a deep red cloth, and carried in procession down the aisle, finally comes into view in the corner of my eye. This year, I am presiding at the service, and so will follow it on its slow progress past row on row of people, all catching their first glimpse of it, while we sing of the victory won on the cross.

For the first few centuries, art and hymnody proclaimed that Christ reigned from the cross. Another early hymn sings:

O Tree of beauty, Tree of light!
O Tree with royal purple dight! [=dressed or adorned, as for battle]
Elect on whose triumphal breast
These holy limbs should find their rest.

These hymns express the theology of John's Gospel. Having begun with light shining in the darkness, and the darkness's not overcoming it, the Passion narrative brings this confrontation of light and darkness to a head. Pilate - raw, Roman power - was confounded: his world-view treated scars such as those of Isaiah's servant as signs of weakness; now he faced Jesus, who, by exercising power so differently, shone light in Pilate's darkness to the extent that Pilate knew that he should release him.

To quote another hymn that refers to the Passion, God is "most sure in all his ways". At morning prayer on Good Friday, we pray with the psalmist (Psalm 69.15): "Answer me, O God, in the abundance of your mercy and with your sure salvation."

Each Good Friday, Isaiah, Hebrews, and John leave us marvelling at God's wisdom in bringing victory out of horrific cruelty, destroying the power of death. Isaiah's litany of the servant's suffering ends with his making many righteous, and dividing the spoil with the strong. He prospers and is exalted, startling the powerful with the scars of his suffering.

Jesus opens the new and living way, at which Hebrews marvels. John has Jesus ending his life with victorious words of completion: "It is finished." This went unrecognised, however; for John has no centurion to recognise who Jesus was; no hint of exaltation of the suffering servant. So we end Good Friday with Jesus in a tomb, and the disciples facing a chasm of futility.

What was it like for the disciples? Thomas Troeger (Wonder Reborn, OUP, 2010) writes that "the Church needs a 'theology of sighing', a theology of the sound that is made by grief too overwhelming to speak, by grace too extravagant to name, by beauty too intense to articulate, and by prayer too profound for our lips to shape into speech." Those are the sounds of the Passion of Christ, of the suffering of God's world today, and of the victory of the cross.

Each Easter Eve in Durham Cathedral, at evening prayer, we sing A. E. Housman's poem of doubt and trust, which explores that troubling territory of meaninglessness and the devastation of shattered hope:

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

It is when we sing those two words "But if" that my heart leaps. They are the hinge of hope. Yet, for now, like the disciples, we have to wait to know whether death is the whole story. And so, on Good Friday, we pray, in stubborn, trusting faith, for God to look in mercy on us, his family.

Christ crucified draw you to himself, to find in him a sure ground for faith, a firm support for hope, and the assurance of sins forgiven. Amen.

Forthcoming Events

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Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
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