Good Friday: Never Alone

Franciscan CrucifixA sermon offered at Evensong on Good Friday, April 10, 2020. Because our church is closed to the public during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, our worship services have been adjusted, streamed live, and recorded. The scriptures are Psalm 22Isaiah 52:13-53:12, and John 18:1-19:4.

Watch the sermon HERE.

Good Friday can feel like a lonely day: the spare, quiet church, the prayers of penitence, psalms of lament, and mournful music. It all can contribute to a sense of aloneness, of individuality, and isolation. The focus of the day is Jesus dying on the cross.

But as most of you know, what happens on the cross is described somewhat differently, depending on which Gospel one reads.

In Matthew’s Gospel, which we heard on Palm Sunday, Jesus cries out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) Jesus is mostly alone, surrounded by strangers and criminals.

In a similar way, Mark’s Gospel also includes this cry of abandonment—this cry of frustration, of loneliness, of fear, even.  Last Sunday, we admitted that many of us sometimes feel the loss of Mark and Matthew and wonder about God’s presence.

But here is where a little bit of biblical literacy can be a helpful thing.  Just as each Gospel has a particular point of view, it’s important to learn what we can from each one and especially when we identify strongly with one perspective, it can be helpful to notice another point of view.

Maybe it’s for this reason that while the appointed Gospel for Palm Sunday changes each year, Good Friday every year draws from John.  And in John’s Gospel, no sense of abandonment. Jesus is not alone. God is there. Fully, richly, completely.

The theologian Jürgen Moltmann explains it this way:

To understand what happened between Jesus and his God and Father on the cross, it is necessary to talk in trinitarian terms. The Son suffers dying, [but] the Father suffers the death of the Son. The grief of the Father here is just as important as the death of the Son. The Fatherlessness of the Son is matched by the Sonlessness of the Father…. (The Crucified God, p. 243).

And so, in John’s Gospel, Jesus dies on the cross, but he is not alone. There is the company of the Father, and the presence of the Spirit. But this community extends into our world, there at the foot of the cross, where Mary the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God stands watching (and weeping.)

Fridays during Lent (while we still could), we walked and prayed the Stations of the Cross, and we sang of the Virgin Mary’s presence.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is there, along with her sister. Other Mary’s are there: the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene. The Beloved Disciple is there.  Even though the Beloved is not named, tradition points to John, and if, in fact the Beloved Disciple is the author of this Gospel, his anonymity might be explained by humility.

From the cross, Jesus speaks to Mary and the Beloved Disciple. “Woman, here is your son.” And then to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” As I wrote in my reflection on the Twelfth Station, a Canadian priest suggest that by giving Mary to the disciple and the disciple to Mary, Jesus is forming a bond, a new relationship, between the CHURCH and the TEACHING OF THE APOSTLES (which is to say, the tradition of the church that we have inherited and continue to live out).

The Canadian priest, Tim Perry writes, “On the one hand, all people who would receive the salvation Jesus brings (symbolized by the mother of Jesus) must come under the care of those who knew Jesus best, the apostles (symbolized by the Beloved Disciple)…. [But on the other hand]”… the apostles’ teachings are cared for, preserved, protected, and indeed understood nowhere other than the Church.” (Blessed is She: Living Lent with Mary, p. 91-92).  Both need each other.

In other words, Mary can represent the Church at its best—showing up, serving, doing, praying, loving, abiding in the love and life of Jesus. John, the Beloved Disciple, represents the apostolic tradition in which we all play a role—learning, teaching, meditating on the way of Christ, deepening our lives and the life of the Church through spiritual disciplines. Mary and John need each other.

Perry suggest that reading Mary as symbolic of the Church and the Beloved Disciple as symbolic of the apostles can serve both as a warning and a promise for us.

As a warning, it reminds us that it’s not all about me. It’s not about “me and Jesus.” As some of us find in this current place of isolation, the scariest neighborhood to be in is up in our own head.  And the Church risks losing its soul when it drifts too far from the teaching and wisdom of the apostles. Both happen in our day just as much as they have happened in history.

But there is also great promise in this relationship of Mary with the Beloved. The cross does not leave us alone. We are never forsaken.  We have been grafted into the church through baptism and we have been entrusted into the care of the apostles. When we hear the scriptures, when we receive the sacraments, when we walk and talk together in faith, we are in the presence of the Risen Christ.

At the Fourteenth Station of the Cross, as Jesus is laid in the tomb, we affirm, “You will not abandon me to the grave: Nor let your Holy One see corruption.” And then we sing, with Mother Mary and the Beloved Disciple, and all the Company of Heaven,

Jesus, may thy Cross defend me,
And thy saving death befriend me,
Cherished by thy deathless grace.

When to dust my dust returneth,
Grant a soul that to thee yearneth
In thy Paradise a place. Amen. (Stabat Mater, Jacopone da Todi, 13th c.)

The love and presence of the Holy Trinity means that no matter how we might feel, no matter what the presenting evidence might suggest, WE ARE NEVER ALONE.  With God’s abiding and loving presence, may we be kept safe until we, too, are brought to new life in the Resurrection.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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