Friday, April 10, 2020

Holy Week 2020 at All Saints', Benhilton - Good Friday

  He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities,
Surely he bore our sorrows,
And by his stripes we are healed. 
          - Isaiah 53:5

So often in our culture the cross is experienced as a beautiful ornament. People wear gold and silver crosses around their necks. Great cathedrals have jewel encrusted crosses on their altars, drawing attention to the place occupied by the cross in Christian devotion.

But Cicero commented: ‘It is the most cruel and shameful of all punishment. Let it never come near the body of a Roman citizen - not even his thoughts or eyes or ears.’ Crucifixion was for criminals. It involved unbearable thirst, stabbing pain, psychological torture and a slow lingering death. 

Christian devotion to the cross - evident from the earliest days as we see from ancient graffiti in Rome - was for non-Christians a very strange thing. Richard Holloway once pointed out that the modern equivalent might well be a decorated gallows, or even a brightly painted model of a brain tumour hung over an altar! 

Yet for us the cross - the sign of weakness, tragedy and defeat - is the centre of life, the centre of history, the centre of the universe. He who hangs there is innocent. His sufferings are undeserved. He is betrayed by a friend and executed after a mock trial. 

He had said to his followers: 'The Son of Man will give his life as a ransom for many' (Mark 10:45), and 'When I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all men unto myself' (John 12:32). Behind this death is the design of God’s redeeming love. Indeed, we boldly announce that it is God who dies that day!

On the cross God enters the very depths of our human experience, even the tragedy of that sense of forsakenness we find haunting our culture and dominating so much contemporary art, music and literature. 

He hangs there bearing the weight of our sins so that we can be forgiven.

He suffers in his human flesh. He reaches out from within his sufferings to you and to me, to support and strengthen us - to save us. From the cross he gathers to himself all the the brokenness and sinfulness of the world, transforming it from within by the power of his suffering love. 

On the cross hangs the human flesh of God, suspended between heaven and earth, bridging the gap, unleashing torrents of redeeming love into the world we had made the gutter of the universe. 

From the cross that anguished look of suffering love melts our hearts into a response that at least in its intention can be no less than total. 

For the early Christians the cross was no miserable defeat followed by the intervention of the Father at the Resurrection. 

No! The cross itself is the victory. On the cross our salvation is won. On the cross Jesus triumphs over the powers of darkness and hell. From the cross, his outstretched arms draw everything in heaven and on earth into a cosmic embrace. Resurrection is the logical consequence of the victory of redeeming love. It is the public demonstration that the victory has been won.

Difficult questions remain. Ambiguities continue to confront our tidy minds. Our hearts are still torn apart by the injustices of life and the unexplained suffering of good people and innocent children. 

But the fact remains that for two thousand years, all who have allowed themselves to surrender to the embrace of Jesus from the Cross have come to know the reality of his love, of his risen presence, in the tragedies and joys that mingle in every human life. 

The Church is the community of love gathered around Jesus, crucified and risen, celebrating the victory of the cross, receiving the life of Jesus through prayer and the sacraments, in the midst of our pain, sinfulness, anxiety and fear. And we reach out to others who so desperately need to know the healing power of such redeeming love. 

In joining together at Holy Mass week by week on the Lord’s Day - Sunday - the Day of Resurrection, we not only celebrate the story of Jesus as something that happened a long time ago; we allow him to merge his story and our stories together, experiencing afresh the reality of death giving way to new life.

The Russian Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware expresses the mystery in these amazing words:

‘It has truly been said that there was a cross in the heart of God 
before there was one planted outside Jerusalem; 
and though the cross of wood has been taken down, 
the cross in God’s heart still remains. 
It is the cross of pain and triumph - both together.  
And those who can believe this 
will find that joy is mingled with their cup of bitterness. 
They will share on a human level 
in the divine experience of victorious suffering.’

Well, this afternoon we will sing to the Cross. We will venerate the Cross. We will kiss the feet of the Crucified One. 

But much more importantly, as we gaze on the mystery of Divine Love, trembling and shaken to the core of our being by the beauty and terror of it all, may our hearts be so deeply moved that we surrender again to Jesus – especially if our walk with him has grown old and stale - and experience anew the forgiveness and healing that flows from Calvary’s Tree. 

I know a fount where sins are washed away;
I know a place where night is turned to day.
Burdens are lifted, blind eyes made to see;
There’s a wonder-working power
In the Blood of Calvary.
- Oliver Cooke (1872-1945)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

On this day, the church is bare of all adornment. The sacred liturgy is in three parts:

1. THE WORD AND THE PRAYERS: The priest and servers enter and prostrate themselves before the altar (i.e. lying face down on the floor while the people remain kneeling) for a few minutes, while everyone prays silently. Then follow the ‘collect’ and the readings, including the long Passion from St John’s Gospel. This part of the service concludes with intercessory prayer offered for the Church, and for all people throughout the world.

2. VENERATION OF THE CROSS: The Crucifix is brought in from the back of the church and unveiled very slowly and deliberately in three stages as we sing each time: v. Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world. R. Come, let us adore.'  It is then placed in full view of all. We sing hymns of adoration and then all line up to make an act of reverence to our Lord usually by kissing the feet of the crucifix.

3. HOLY COMMUNION: The Blessed Sacrament is brought from the Altar of Repose to be consumed in Holy Communion. This corresponds to our Lord’s leaving the Garden to be consumed in death for our salvation. Jesus is no longer present in our church in the Blessed Sacrament. The Tabernacle on the High Altar is empty with its doors wide open. As a parish community we experience something of the desolation felt by Jesus’ followers even as we await his resurrection from the dead.


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