Isaiah 52.13-53.12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10.16-25; John
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
Sing, my tongue, the glorious
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
O Tree with royal purple dight! [=dressed or adorned, as for
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
If in that Syrian garden, ages
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
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.