“Oh, these extra chairs outside the church must be for Easter Sunday,” I said to my companions as we pulled into the compound of All Saints’ Church in the Old City of Peshawar for the noonday Good Friday liturgy.
“No,” was the reply, “these are for today: many people will come today.” And so it was. All Saints’ seats 350 people comfortably. As the clergy party entered I noticed that all the pews were filled and that a number of pews had been taken out. It soon became clear that they had been removed so that more people could be accommodated.
By the beginning of the First Word from the Cross – for this was a Seven Last Words service – a good deal of the floor space in front of the pews was filled with people sitting on the carpeted floor. By the Third Word they were up the chancel steps and all the way to the altar rail, and then they began filling in between the altar and the rail. As a matter of courtesy, most of the later arrivals were women, the men taking up seats outside the church under a tent.
Altogether no fewer than 800 people attended the three-hour service.
“People the world over are setting apart Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter as days of particular devotion,” I said to the congregation as I prepared to preach on the Seventh Word. “In the West the churches will be full on Easter Sunday. Many people attend Good Friday services, but the typical church is far from full on this day.
“You Christians of Peshawar and Pakistan know that your celebration of Easter is deeper if you first experience the gravity of Maundy Thursday and the suffering of Good Friday,” I continued. “You know that you must follow Jesus in his suffering before you can experience fully the joy of his resurrection. And, after all, we Christians are people of the cross. It is the focal point of our salvation, and on this day we gather beneath it.”
The huge gathering reminded me of the massive Good Friday observance in Jerusalem described by Egeria, the fourth-century woman from Spain who, in the first Christian book written by a woman, recounts her pilgrimage to many biblical spots. Here is an excerpt from her account of Good Friday:
Station before the Cross. The Three Hours.
And when the sixth hour has come, they go before the Cross, whether it be in rain or in heat, the place being open to the air, as it were, a court of great size and of some beauty between the Cross and the Anastasis; here all the people assemble in such great numbers that there is no thoroughfare.
The chair is placed for the bishop before the Cross, and from the sixth to the ninth hour nothing else is done, but the reading of lessons, which are read thus: first from the psalms wherever the Passion is spoken of, then from the Apostle, either from the epistles of the Apostles or from their Acts, wherever they have spoken of the Lord’s Passion; then the passages from the Gospels, where He suffered, are read. Then the readings from the prophets where they foretold that the Lord should suffer, then from the Gospels where He mentions His Passion. . . .
The emotion shown and the mourning by all the people at every lesson and prayer is wonderful; for there is none, either great or small, who, on that day during those three hours, does not lament more than can be conceived, that the Lord had suffered those things for us. Afterwards, at the beginning of the ninth hour, there is read that passage from the Gospel according to John where He gave up the ghost. This read, prayer and the dismissal follow.
From the 4th century in Jerusalem to the 21st in Peshawar – one continuous stream of devotion to the cross of Christ.
Following is the gist of my homily on the Seventh Word – “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”:
As you probably know, this morning on this Good Friday a bomb blast hit Saddar Bazaar here in Peshawar. Just outside a military checkpost at the edge of the Cantonment a suicide bomber detonated his explosives. Twelve people were killed, and thirty-one were wounded.
Those twelve who were killed – they had no time to say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” or, “Allah, the Most Beneficent and the Most Merciful, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Death came suddenly to them. One minute they were alive, and the next they were dead.
Yesterday brought news that 49,000 people have been killed in Pakistan since 11 September 2001, more of them since 2008 than between 2001 and 2008, and the vast majority of them in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the frontier Tribal Areas. Very few of those 49,000 had time say, “Father (or Allah), into your hands I commit my spirit.” One minute they were alive, and the next they were dead.
In the Great Litany of the Anglican liturgical tradition, there is the petition: “From all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared – Good Lord, deliver us.” Every part of that petition means something particular to us in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but I focus on the prayer that we be kept from dying suddenly and unprepared.
We know what it means to die suddenly, but what does it mean to die unprepared? To die unprepared is to die unreconciled with God. To die unprepared is to die in the fear of death. To die unprepared is to die amid a disordered life. To die unprepared is to die unreconciled with the people whom God has put in our path.
So a question we must face is: Are we ready to die? If death comes suddenly, will we be prepared or unprepared?
“Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ And having said this he breathed his last.” These words make it clear that Jesus was prepared to die. But he had been prepared to die for a long time – ever since he called the disciple’s way the way of the cross; ever since he set his face toward Jerusalem, the lair of his deadliest adversaries; ever since the meal where he said, “This is my body, this is my blood”; ever since his struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Yet being prepared to die did not come easily: “Lord, let this cup pass from me.” Jesus had many ties. His friends – for that is what the disciples were – were dear to him. He had been in ministry for three years and much had happened, but it had been just three years. Surely more could be done for the Kingdom of God if he had three years more, or six years more. “It is finished,” said Jesus of his mission in the world, but weren’t there more places where the reign of God needed to be proclaimed, more people who needed healing?
“Yet not my will but yours be done.” Jesus was above all a person of prayer, and it was his life of prayer with God that readied him, that enabled him to be prepared to die. “Prayer one-eth the soul to God,” declared Julian of Norwich, a great Christian woman saint. By this she meant that prayer brings us into union with God and synchronizes our wills with the will of God. Through his prayer life Jesus lived such union with God, and through his prayers he resonated with the will of God.
“Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Jesus was not only renouncing ambition here. He was willing the life force within him back into its source in the very being of God. Life is a gift, not a possession. It is a gift to be lived in gratitude, not a possession to be grasped and hoarded. In his last words Jesus gave over the gift of life and offered it back to it source in God.
“Danger is real, fear is a choice,” runs the ad for a current movie. Danger was real for Jesus. He chose to renounce fear. Danger is real for all of you in Peshawar in these days, yet you are not paralyzed by fear. Despite the danger you work. Despite the danger you bring up your families. Despite the danger you witness. Despite the danger you come in throngs to worship before the cross today.
Living as you do, always aware of the cross, and living as you do, always in prayer, you receive the peace of God that passes all understanding. Let us so cling to the life of prayer and let us so cling to the cross of Christ that we will be readied to say with him, whether death comes slowly or suddenly, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”