The Challenges and Choices of Good Friday

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John 18:1 – 19:37
Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 / Psalm 22: – 21 / Hebrews 10:1 – 25
By The Very Reverend William H. Petersen

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

For the third year in a row I am grateful to find myself once more in worship with you on this most solemn day and yet again as your preacher. The prayer with which I have invoked the Spirit upon us is exactly the same one with which I concluded last year’s Good Friday sermon. It is a contemporary collect composed by Charles Henry Brent, sometime bishop of Rochester and frequenter of this very pulpit. The prayer itself is found in the BCP at the end of Morning Prayer and serves as the set collect for mission on Fridays throughout the year. It is, therefore, an apt one not only for this place but for Good Friday itself.

But more than these considerations, the prayer’s interrelated double focus is of great aid in keeping our eyes appropriately fixed on this middle day, as the poet says, of those “three holy days” that “enfold us now,” the Triduum from Maundy Thursday, to Good Friday, to the Great Vigil and First Eucharist of Easter. But what exactly are those foci as the collect sets them forth? First in any consideration is, of course, the crucifixion; second, our vision simultaneously is encouraged to take in the whole human family.

The primary focus is obvious, but it is wonderfully transformed by Brent’s spirituality. Taken alone, the crucifixion of Jesus on this day could simply be an annual occasion of attending to the grim reality of horrible execution so often depicted in tableaux from “religious art” to cinematic mistakes such as Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” that glorify suffering as such. Good Friday is not about “redemptive suffering”! It is, rather, about “suffering redeemed.” And this is the principal burden of Brent’s prayer as counter to the mis-take. To be sure, the grim reality is there in the phrase “the hard wood of the cross,” but the crucifixion is transformatively qualified as Jesus is addressed as one who “stretched forth your arms in love” on that cross “that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace…”

So, then, if our primary focus this day is on the cross, it is by this very prayer also, secondarily, upon the entirety of the human race, past, present, and to come. And the focus is without qualification. Note that it says “everyone,” that is, the whole human family, not just Christians, not just members of a particular ethnic group or citizens of a particular nation, not just kith and kin, but the whole human family – again, without qualification of any such distinctions. This is precisely why our intercessory prayers in the Proper Liturgy of Good Friday are centered upon intercession for the whole human family with great attention to detail.

So, then, here are the leading motifs of our worship on this middle day of the Triduum’s continuous liturgy. Jesus’ crucifixion and the whole human family related to each other as “what” is related to “why.” Yet even so, if these twin foci are not kept clearly before us a problem of immense proportions and, historically considered, tragic results can arise out of this solemn day. This problem, of course, is how we are to hear, take in, and respond to the Passion of the Christ as it is set forth in the Johannine Gospel, the rehearsal that forms so large an element in today’s observance. The potential problem that has manifested itself so often in subsequent history has to do with assessing the cause and the consequence, the brutality and the blame focused in Good Friday as an event central to Christianity.

Even in the face of contemporary secularization, the lingering effects and reappearances of twisted interpretations of the Cross and Christianity make themselves horribly manifest. Our own Holy Week, correspondent with the celebration of the Passover, began this year with the tragic events at the Jewish Centers in Kansas City, in the very heartland of our country. More than that, today’s newspaper headlines screamed “Pogrom” or a prelude to something very like it in eastern Ukraine as Jews leaving synagogue celebrations were handed leaflets reminiscent of the seizure of their property and mass murder under Nazi despotism. We must be ever-mindful, even as we are caught off-guard by such events as these and those of our own immediate time, of how near the surface lingers such terrible misreading of the Gospel. More than this we must be ever ready not only to denounce such events, but actively to counteract them before they occur by setting forth such a culture as is found in our Baptismal Covenant as it calls us not only to serve all persons in Christ, but to respect the dignity of every human being.

Several years ago a large parish in another diocese held a three Sunday symposium in service of promoting better understanding among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In that context, I had the dubious honor of representing the entirety of Christianity as one of three panelists: an elderly Jewish man steeped in the tradition and practice of his religion, a young Muslim woman who was also a medical doctor, and myself, the ordained historian. In the midst of a conversation that was at once polite but profound, civil yet controversial, frank and far-reaching, an inspiration occurred to me on the basis of a pointed question about terrorism asked by a Christian member of the large group assembled in that forum. I said in response, “If your religion tells you it is permissible to murder anyone, whether in word or deed, actually or metaphorically, then one of two things is true: either you’ve got the wrong religion, or you’ve got your religion wrong.” My fellow panelists, Jew and Muslim, concurred with this as we all affirmed that in the latter case, that is, if such things are permissible or encouraged “you’ve got your religion wrong.”

This maxim applied to us Christians, and especially on his day-of-days, comes down to only one result if we consider the question of Good Friday’s cause and consequence, of its brutality and blame. And that conclusion is nowhere so aptly summed up and set forth as in the second verse of the hymn “Ah, holy Jesus” that we sang in preface today to the rehearsal of the Johannine Passion:

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?

Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.

‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee.”

With that stark and unqualified confession the context for rehearsing the Passion is set and the conclusion as to cause and consequence can be laid upon none other. We have met the enemy, and it is us!

Yet while there is a certain human solidarity in sin that may be perceived in all this, even that is not the central message of Good Friday. It is, rather, the forgiveness to be found in the foci of this day that we find the crucial turning point. We are called out of sin and separation, lifted up out of death and destruction to see the one crucified on the hard wood of the cross extending arms of love to embrace the whole human family. The only question left, then is “What is the middle term that connects this double focus of Brent’s prayer into a single vision?”

We are that middle term! We have invoked the Holy Spirit of the Living God upon us. We have petitioned to be so clothed in that Spirit that we uniting ourselves with Christ may stretch forth our hands in love to the whole human family as it is desperately in need of renewal and reconciliation. If “the whole human family” seems to large a thing, it is well to remember that this great family is met each day among those with whom we live and in the communities that shape our being and form the context of our lives. When this connection is made and its conditions met, then the picture of this Friday is complete and we may confidently, that is, with faith, call it Good….looking forward, then, to that resurrection which will accomplish the Triduum and call us to participation in the risen life.

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

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