Isaiah 52.13-end of 53; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10.16-25 or Hebrews 4.14-16, 5.7-9; John 18.1-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.
THE collect used on Good Friday is exceptional in form. Unlike most collects, which begin by invoking an attribute of God, offer a petition, and describe an outcome or development, this prayer is solely a request. It asks God to “look with mercy” on the “family for which our Lord Jesus Christ was content to be betrayed”. That is all. Yet simplicity is sometimes deceptive: the collect both demands attention on its own odd features, and gives us the only words that could be said in response to the events of the Passion.
Two words stand out. “Family” suggests the love and protection that should characterise properly functioning families, and, in particular, the love and protection we are emboldened to expect from God as children adopted through the grace of Jesus Christ (Romans 8.15, Ephesians 1.5, Galatians 3.26).
It also carries the resonances of its origin in the Latin familia, or household, of the Sarum Use. Households could include servants as well as children, all subject to the paterfamilias, or head of the household. The prayer’s expectations are tempered with respect and awe.
Then there is “content”, which hardly seems to suit the situation of an innocent person who has been betrayed and criminalised. Again, the Latin gives a different shading. It tells us that Jesus did not hesitate (non dubitavit) in being handed over to those who sought to harm him. This is chosen obedience. The English is less active, and more indicative of something accepted. The culmination of the great mental battle in Gethsemane, described in the Synoptic Gospels, as Jesus accepts his Father’s will, is there to be glimpsed.
In John’s Gospel, which has no Gethsemane, the struggle is dramatised differently, reaching its height in the prayer for the unity of the disciples, under the protection of the Father (John 17). There could have been no more doubt in the disciples’ minds about the identity of Jesus, having overheard that great act of intercession.
The world remained to be convinced, however, and the scenes leading to Jesus’s death are all attempts — limited, clumsy, and informed by self-serving motives — to establish exactly who he is.
For the quite unnecessary gathering of soldiers and police who appear to arrest him, the task is simply to capture the right person. Even so, the effect of confronting the name that they have been given is unexpected: what they meet is authority, not fear, and they fall to the ground (John 18.1-6).
Pilate’s interests are different. He wishes to establish whether Jesus is the king of the Jews: a title that his detractors have reported him for claiming. It is difficult to tell whether he has a real interest in the possibility that Jesus might be his people’s king, or whether he repeats the name outside the Praetorium just to provoke the crowd (John 18.33-40).
If his purpose has been provocation, then he finds himself in difficulties. Now he is faced with a more serious accusation: not merely that Jesus is the king of the Jews, but that he is claiming to be the son of God (John 19.9). What seems evident is that Pilate would do almost anything rather than crucify Jesus. Reasons for release could be found easily if the prisoner would only identify himself (John 19.8-10), but things have gone too far, and the crowds are opportunistically protesting loyalty to the Emperor (John 19.12, 15).
The inscription over the cross might equally be mockery of Jesus, a mockery of the people who have insisted on crucifying him, or a sign of Pilate’s genuine uncertainty, to the end, about the man he has just sent to his death.
The Old and New Testament readings have become devices for the Church’s ongoing struggle to grasp the meaning of that death. From a very early time in the Christian tradition, Isaiah 52.13-53.12 was being read in relation to the crucified Jesus (for example Acts 8.26-39).
The “servant” (Isaiah 52.13, 53.11), whose physical appearance was marred, who took on himself the “infirmities” and “diseases” of a whole people, and submitted to unjust death and dishonourable burial (Isaiah 53.4, 7-9), would be “lifted up” in glory and make others “righteous” (Isaiah 52.13, 53.11).
Alongside that portrait, the Letter to the Hebrews develops the image of the high priest who has shared our flesh and knows our weaknesses (Hebrews 4.15). With that understanding, he pleads for us at the right hand of God (Hebrews 7.25). These texts are aids, not explanations.
Alec Motyer’s Christological meditation on Isaiah 52.13-53.12 makes the point: “What do we understand by God’s ‘finding pleasure in sending the beloved Son?’”; and finding pleasure, too, “when . . . he was delivered into lawless hands to crucify and put to death’? No, that is a love beyond our possibility of experience” (Isaiah by the Day, Christian Focus Publications, 2011).