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2014 Good Friday Meditiations

by Gerry Lynch last modified 19 Apr, 2014 01:41 PM

Bishop Nicholas presented these meditations for Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross at Sherborne Abbey on Good Friday, 18 April 2014.

1. Pater, dimitte illis, quia nesciunt, quid faciunt.

Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.  Luke 23.34

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ Luke 23:33-35

Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian life. It is not incidental that this is first in the collection of the seven last words. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray he gave them a prayer which included, ”Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them who trespass against us.”

He taught us to forgive even our enemies.

I used to be the chaplain of a group of Far Eastern Prisoners of War, recently depicted in The Railway Man, the film about Eric Lomax.  They were marvellous men. When they first invited me to preach at their annual service they told me not to preach about forgiveness because I didn’t know anything about what they had been through. It was a problem for the preacher. Of what was I to speak? As I got to know them better they told me that they had learned as a group - but it took them until the 1960’s - that if they did not forgive the Japanese the only ones they hurt were themselves. Forgiveness sets us free, not just the enemy.

Yesterday it was reported that an Iranian man was about to be hanged for a murder committed in an impulsive street fight.  He stood in a blindfold,  the guards pushing his head towards the noose. At that moment the murdered man’s mother came forward, slapped his face and said she forgave him. She asked the large crowd if they knew "how difficult it is to live in an empty house".

The father of the victim then removed the noose from around the murder’s neck as the convict's own mother ran up to embrace the woman who had saved her son. They stood and sobbed in each other's arms.

The mother of the victim said, "I am a believer. I had a dream in which my son told me that he was at peace and in a good place. After that, all my relatives put pressure on me to pardon the killer. The murderer was crying, asking for forgiveness. I slapped him in the face.

The murderer who had been spared said that "slap was the space between revenge and forgiveness".

Who is to blame for the crucifixion of Christ? You can feel the difficulties of this in the Gospels themselves; responsibility and blame shift around. Matthew, the most Jewish of the Gospels, blames the religious leaders: Pontius Pilate washed his hands of the matter and the people were like sheep without a shepherd. John’s repeated use of ‘the Jews’ opens him to later charges of anti-semitism. Or was it the Roman soldiers who brought him to the place of crucifixion and cast lots for his clothing?  In reality we’re all caught up in this crucifixion, through our anger, or indifference, or our self-centred determination to survive above all else, our lack of love.

It doesn’t really matter who is blame: we’re all at fault. And there is forgiveness. It changes the world.

Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.

2. Hodie mecum eris Paradiso.
Today you will be with me in Paradise.   Luke 23.43

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise. Luke 23.39-43

How do we sort things out that have gone when they have gone terribly wrong? Every religion has to answer that question which is asked of us all.

Peter denied he knew Jesus but allowed himself to be remade in the community of the resurrection. In the chapter added to the end of John’s Gospel the risen Christ is back on the shore of the Sea of Galilee fishing with the disciples where they were first called.  Three times he asks, “Simon, son of John do you love me... feed my sheep” as if cancelling out the threefold denial before the cock crew.

Whereas Judas despaired. He had done something so terrible that nothing could put him right with God. He went out and hanged himself.

At the height of the personal crisis that led to the Reformation Martin Luther thought if only he could confess every sin and do penance he would put himself right with God.

Luther later reflected,  “I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, readings and other work.” Yet it was all to no purpose.

I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him! (quoted by Bainton p 44)

He made his confession for three successive days and still there was more. His confessor exploded, “Martin, don’t you know the physician heals the patient not by picking scab by scab. He heals the whole man” What was needed was repentance, not doing pence but turning around to Christ who forgives our sins.

In a beautiful passage summarising Luther’s new understanding of his hope, he wrote:

Up until now I have not been able to satisfy the demands of God because of an innate evil and weakness.

If I wasn’t allowed to believe that God for the sake of Christ forgives me this daily lamented shortfall, then it would be all over with me.

I must despair. But that I will not.

I must hang myself on a tree like Judas. But that too I will not do.

I will hang myself around the neck or on the foot of Christ like the sinner. Even though I am worse than her I will hold on to my Lord.

And then he will speak to the Father: this little appendage must also go through. He has never kept anything and all your commands he has transgressed. But Father, he hanged himself on me. Nothing to be done! I died also for him. Let him slip through.

That shall be my faith. (Transl. by Bernhard Schunemann)

Is there anything we can do that puts us beyond God’s love?  We Christians can be strengthened and  our hope renewed to know, really know, the truth of St Paul in Romans chapter 8 that “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

The opening of the music is beautiful, uplifting, lyrical. This is about our redemption: Today, Christ says to the thief on the cross and to us, today you will be with me in Paradise.


3. Mulier, ecce filius tuus.
Woman, behold your son.    John 19.26

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. John 19.25-27

The disciples are very disappointing under pressure. Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied he even knew him. At best the others stood at a distance, as they may have been compelled to do, or they ran away. The women did better, a fact that is striking to a church that has struggled to ordain them.  On Easter Day Mary Magdalene will become “the apostle to the apostles”.  And here at the foot of  the cross stood Mary his mother.

There is nothing harder for a parent than the death of their chid. It doesn’t matter at what age.

It had been a long journey for Mary from the Annunciation when the angel declared to the young girl, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.”  We read at the Christmas services that she asked, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” Then Mary said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She couldn’t have known the half of it. She has wondered how this could be and pondered things in her heart. There were such high hopes for this child.

An American Theologian, Stanley Hauerwas has written movingly about the Christian care of the of the incurably sick. There’s nothing you can do for them but to be with them. It is demanding to do. Most of us experience the temptation is to fight or flight, either to take on the medical establishment who must be able to make them better, or simply not to turn up either physically or emotionally. To be really present to s a sick person when we can do nothing is costly. “There at the foot of the cross stood Mary his mother.”  She becomes an example to us all.

Christ shares and transforms our suffering. In John’s Gospel Jesus is raised up on the cross and his glory is seen there. This is the first of three sayings from John. They exemplify the Johanine theme that Jesus gave himself freely and God is in control.

At a human level the eldest son would have been responsible for providing for his mother.

A New Testament scholar says that, “Catholics interpret Mary as the mother of the Church symbolized by the disciple. On the other hand, since the mother is given into the disciples care, she may represent Judaism being entrusted to the Church. Yet others see them as a new Adam and Eve, beneath another Tree and being obedient this time.” (Richard Burridge, John, p.222)

It is an enigmatic saying. Death is a dislocating experience. It fractures relationships.  Here on the cross Christ is restoring the relationship.  Woman, behold your son.

4. Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me?
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?   Matthew 27.46

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until threein the afternoon. And  about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’ At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. Matthew 27.46-48

The words come from the beginning of Psalm 22. It is often read as a cry of desolating despair but Haydn deals with it much more gently and I think that is in keeping with Matthew’s intention to express a sense of abandonment but not despair. In its way, this is a prayer.

The Psalter is the Prayer Book of the synagogue and the Church. The Book of Common Prayer Book divides the saying of the Psalms between the days of the month so that those who say Morning and Evening Prayer say all 150 every month. The Psalms enter into you, and you enter into the Psalms.

In churches and cathedrals there is always a question about whether or not to say the nasty bits, the imprecatory words. What does it do to the children, or the visitors who just happen to arrive when the choir is singing to Anglican chant, “Blessed be he that taketh thy children and throweth them against the stones”? (Psalm 137.9).

There can be no hard and fast rule, it depends on the context, but in saying the difficult imprecatory words there is what in the last century we have recognised as a psychological realism to the saying of the Psalms that owns the dark side of our natures and not just our sunny dispositions.

My predecessor but one at St Martin-in-the-Fields wrote a prayer which caught this accurately and when used in broadcasts always generated a post bag from people wanting a copy because they knew it to be true:

I am two men;
and one is longing to serve thee utterly, and one is afraid.
O Lord have compassion upon me.

I am two men;
and one will labour to the end, and one is already weary.
O Lord have compassion upon me.

I am two men;
And one knows the suffering of the world, and one knows only his own.
O Lord have compassion upon me.

And may the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ
Fill my heart and the hearts of all men everywhere.

Austen Williams (1912-2001)

In the Synoptic Gospel there was darkness at noon until three in the afternoon.

The place of disturbance and confusion is the place of creativity and that is where we are called to be and to know that God meets us here.

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

5. Sitio
I thirst   John 19.28

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. John 19.28-29

The account of the Last Supper in John’s Gospel is of foot washing and Christ teaching his disciples about service and giving them a new commandment to love one another.  John says nothing about Jesus taking bread and wine, making the link with his body and blood and telling us to do this in memory of him.  Perhaps John takes it for granted that a Christian community know this already because in many ways his is the most Eucharistic of the Gospels with the rich symbolism of the bread of life and true vine?

There is a very definite contrast between the gracious generosity with which Christ turns water into wine the wine, gives living water, the bread of life, feeds the 5,000, is the true vine, with the soldiers holding a sponge full of sour wine to his mouth.  It is in fulfilment of Ps 69 which begins with the cry, “Save me O God for the waters are come in even unto my soul. I stick fast in the deep mire where no ground is: I come into deep waters so that the floods run over me....They gave me gall to eat: and when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink.” (Ps 69.1,2,22)

We won’t hear the dying Christ saying, ‘I thirst’ without also hearing the damning report on the treatment of our elderly and those terrible occasions when people have been left in hospitals and care homes dehydrated.

The observance of Lent includes self-examination and repentance by reading and meditating on God’s holy word, prayer, fasting and self-denial. It has brought home a few realities, not least my own need to lose weight! In the South Sudan, the UN are estimating 1 million people have been displaced from their homes by the present conflict since mid-December, 4 million people are at risk of food insecurity, and 1 million of starvation.

I have taken fasting more seriously this year, as one of a number of bishops supporting the ‘End Hunger Fast’ out of concern for the increasingly visible food poverty in this country. The Trussell Trust, founded in Salisbury, reported this week that 913,000 people were fed through their foodbanks for some days in the last year. It is an astonishing increase in dependence that ought give us both a sense of pride at people caring for their neighbour and alarm at what on earth is going on. Bishop Graham chaired a Poverty Hearing in Gillingham recently at which people told of their experience of delays in welfare payments. Gary waited 8 weeks for sickness benefit to be paid, and for Sarah it took 16 weeks before she received her Personal Independence Payment. They heard from hard working people on low pay unable to feed their families. The Bishop of Truro is chairing a Parliamentary inquiry into food hunger, gathering information to describe and analyse the problem and do differently.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake, the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

The movement starts with pizzicato rain drops bringing new life to the wilderness and moves quickly into a more urgent downpour, so the floods run over.

I thirst.  

6. Consumamatum est
It is finished                        John 19.30

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19.30

There are different levels of meaning, as in so much of John’s Gospel.  On the surface, “It is finished”, the games up it’s all over. It has been a failure.

But “it is finished”, the job is done, it has been accomplished. This Jesus who gave himself up willingly in John’s Gospel has fulfilled what was given him to do, and brought it all to its proper conclusion.

The ambiguity of these meanings is caught in the music which begins dramatically with a closed phrase that develops and gives way to a much more lyrical and lively song in which it is so evidently not finished.

A bit over two years ago, on the day after the small Church school in Powerstock burned down, the Headmaster picked up a nail from the floor of the charred building. At the reopening of the School  last Autumn he said that whenever the rebuilding project had got difficult, the nail had given him hope. He gave me the nail and hoped it would help me when things were difficult and that I would eventually pass it on to someone who needed it more.  The Powerstock nail helped me pray and I have solved the problem of passing it on by buying a bag of nails and giving them out to all sorts of people.  It catches on clothes and makes holes in pockets,  a reminder of the inconvenience of the cross to which the nail links us and makes me think about the suffering of the world. It also points to the power of love and the hope of resurrection and what it is for Christ’s work on the cross to be thoroughly finished and for death not to have the last word.

In the cross of Christ we find Christ shares our suffering and renews our hope

It is finished.

7. In manus tuas

Into thy hands. Luke 23.46

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’ Luke 23.44-47

In Luke’s Gospel the centurion says, “Certainly this man was innocent” and the crowd that had gathered to watch the spectacle went away, beating their breasts in sorrow for their sin.  In Matthew the tombs were opened and the bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. In Mark and Matthew the Centurion says not just that this man was innocent but, “Truly this man was God’s Son”.

A quiet ending would not do justice to the cross which changes everything. The old order of our worship is broken. The veil of the temple was torn in two.  The death of Christ has opened a new way of relationship with God.

The difficulty every Good Friday is whether to rush to Easter,  but the place of disturbance and confusion is the place of creativity and that is where we are called to wait and to know that God meets us here.

So the Seven Last Words end with Christ crying with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’  It is earth shattering and brings its own ending with the earthquake, Il terremento. 

Into thy hands.

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