Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 (alternate)
In churches that follow a liturgical tradition, the readings for Good Friday evening should stand alone, without the need of a sermon. Most that I am familiar with are doing some form of “Stations of the Cross,” “The Seven Last Words,” or some series of reflections.
My offering for this blog post today is partly personal – actually, very personal.
You see, on Good Friday, 2009, my mother died. The date was April 10, since Good Friday obviously doesn’t fall on the same date every year. When I began this daily discipline nearly 40 days ago I knew I would come to this day. Even back then I wondered what I would write when I would come to this day. It has been seven years, after all, but the grief never really goes away. It lurks, like Satan, until “an opportune time.” And it seems that, at least for me, it always reappears on Good Friday.
I’ve told this story so often to so many people that I can’t remember whether I’ve shared it on this blog or not. But each Good Friday, I have to express it somehow, or the day will haunt me. So if you’ve read or heard me tell my Good Friday story before, I apologize in advance for walloping you once again with this less than winsome narrative.
I remember receiving the call around noon from my sister in Columbus that the nurse had phoned from the palliative care unit at Riverside Hospital to tell her that Mom was in what medical people call “terminal anxiety,” and in anywhere from six to 24 hours she would be gone.
I had a decision to make at that moment—whether to leave immediately or stay and lead the Good Friday worship that evening and leave afterwards. I discussed it with a colleague of mine who encouraged me to go. “A lay person can lead the liturgy,” she said. I was torn at that moment, but I stayed.
Part of my decision was based on the fact that I had said all my goodbyes to my mother in the weeks preceding her death. I had told her everything I wanted and needed to say. I had sat by her bedside and read psalms to her. In her lucid moments she had even requested a few of her favorites.
A couple of weeks earlier I had received a call just after midnight that her blood pressure was dropping quickly and I bolted out of bed and drove the two hours to Columbus only to find out when I got to the hospital that her blood pressure, though still low, was improving. I thought that perhaps this time the nurses would be mistaken again.
I led the Good Friday service, and immediately afterwards, my wife, Linda, and I began the journey. As we were getting onto I-71, I received a call from my niece that my mother had died just before nine o’clock that evening. I don’t need to tell any of you what a sorrowful rest of the journey that was.
I share this story with you in hopes that you realize that my call to a vocation in ministry doesn’t make me more righteous than anyone else; and it doesn’t spare me from difficulty, pain or suffering.
It is in times of grief and loss when we feel most powerless.
Last night Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. This night, we stand at the foot of the cross.
Death confronts us on this night. The death of One who is well loved. The death of One who is condemned unjustly. The death of One who is young and who dies horribly. How many of us have faced such pain? How many parents the world over can identify with the sorrow of his mother because they too have lost a child? How many mothers and fathers have seen a son or daughter destroyed because of war? And how many of us have lost beloved friends?
On this night let us confront the reality of death and let us think of all those who are suffering because of the death of a loved one, because of the death of an innocent. This night we remember, we pay attention, we grieve.
God gave us the capacity to grieve. We are allowed to shed tears and to cry out in supplication.
For those of us who grieve over the world’s suffering, this teaches us not to expect miracles but to be reassured that we have a God who hears our cry and understands our pain.
This, after all, is the Christian message of the Cross – that God entered our human experience fully, even unto death. A God who hears us is a God who shares in our suffering.
Yet the relationship of the cross to our salvation, the connection between the suffering of Christ and human suffering, the need for God to become physically entangled in the world’s evil and pain – this is too great a mystery for intellectual comprehension.
We human beings live by the pleasure principle. We can do no more than avoid pain, whatever its source – other people, the economy, failure, risk, truth. We are all practical self-indulgent to the core, asking no more of ourselves than that we have a nice day.
But death is real. Death will come to each and every one of us sooner or later. We live daily in the shadow of death. We cannot explain cancer, or any other life threatening illness. We cannot explain heart attacks, or any other sudden death.
So what can we understand, intellectually speaking, of a twisted, mangled body hanging from a cross?
It is not by understanding that we are saved. The theologian Karl Barth says, “Here is a truth we cannot understand — we can only stand under this truth.”
In the Latino culture, the crucified Christ is a powerful symbol. In many cathedrals south of our borders the body remains on the cross, pierced, wounded, bleeding, suffering. Regrettably, many of those of European and North American background would strip the body off the cross, embalm it and cover it with cosmetics, render the cross in bronze, polish it, make it triumphant and clean.
This night, we see the cross made so explicit. This night, we hold the nails in our hands. This night, we hear the word of God lay out our failures and shortcomings as a people. But overall on this night, we are drawn to the simple truth that “Jesus did it all for me.”
On this night of remembered death, let us also remember to grieve and to cry out to a God who hears us.
For even as we find death in life, we find life in death. We know that Jesus is resurrection and life, and those of us who believe in him, even though we die, we will live. That is the message of the Gospel. That is the message that we embrace. This is the message we proclaim. And for that we say, “thanks be to God.”