A re-posting from Good Friday 2015:
From Jane Butterfield’s Good Friday homily today in Trinity Church, Shelburne, Vermont:
There is something in the human soul that needs to feel the absence of God.
We need to feel the depth of the emptiness that God fills.
God took the risk of absence, the risk of powerlessness.
God entered the darkness, that we might know our own darkness.
We are used to the notion of God in Christ sharing our journey, sharing the suffering of the human family. Striking in Jane’s reflection is the recognition that Good Friday deepens our awareness of the suffering of the human family. It pushes out the boundaries of the wasteland. As Frederick Faber wrote in his hymn “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”:
There is no place where earth sorrows
are more felt than up in heaven.
Our prayers often have the subtext, “God, don’t you realize how painful this is?” In fact, God knows the pain more deeply than we do because, unlike us, God doesn’t push the pain away. In the cross God helps us realize just how much we need saving. The fact that God experienced degradation helps us see just how deeply we’ve degraded the human situation.
Two bits of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion are especially vivid in this regard. At the opening of Part 2 the soprano sings:
Ach! mein Lamm in Tigerklauen!
Ah! my lamb in tiger’s claws!
And, as religious leaders and thieves reproach Jesus on the cross, an alto sings:
Alas, Golgotha, hapless Golgotha!
The Lord of glory
must wretchedly perish here;
the blessing and salvation of the world
is placed on the cross like a curse
(Wird als ein Fluch ans Kreuz gestellt).
Making God into a curse. We’re familiar with that from the inclusion of God’s name and Jesus’ name in expletives both casual and passionate. At Golgotha God was willing to be regarded as a curse and to become a curse as a life-and-death matter. Actually, a death matter. Dying.
The scandal of the cross is the scandal of particularity, the contraction of the universe’s spiritual and moral structure to a wretched and disgraceful episode on a Friday outside Jerusalem. Yet that is where God engaged the darkness and became its victim.
We have a few desolate words from Jesus on the cross. Psalm 22, which we recite on this day, elaborates eloquently the inner desolation.
The latter part of Psalm 22, beyond the Good Friday lection, anticipates the missional reach of redemptive suffering, a missional reach that fulfills God’s promise to Abraham that in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed:
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall bow before him. . . .
My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s for ever.
They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done.
May it be so.
What I add in 2017 is reference to the link between forgiveness, which is among God’s gifts to us from the cross, and powerlessness, on which Rowan Williams meditates in his recent book Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life:
To forgive is to share in the helplessness of God, who cannot turn from God’s own nature: not to forgive would be for God a wound in the divine nature itself. Not power, but the powerlessness of the God whose nature is love is what is shown in the act of forgiving. The disciple rooted n Christ shares that powerlessness, and the deeper the roots go the less possible it is not to forgive.