Good Friday Meditation 2020

Introduction

This Good Friday meditation is designed to be used either purely with the text displayed below, or, if you prefer, with the material spoken to camera and with music incorporated on a playlist in YouTube, which you can find at this address, perhaps opening it in another window so you can continue to follow the text and view the pictures:

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL-3dmSZAT03uy2tLoCkTTQHBud3cqwY5Z

or you might prefer to play it here:

The material has come from various things I have written and quoted over the years, I am afraid that I cannot easily tell what is mine and what is the work of others, things become interwoven over the years and attribution becomes difficult. So please do not think that all these thoughts are my thoughts, or all these words are my words, only that they have impressed me and helped me in my understanding.

I have chosen this year as a theme the words of Jesus from the cross. Such a theme is problematic as it muddles up the work of all the gospel writers, and can confuse their very different intentions. The all wrote for different people, in different places, at different times, and we should never loose sight of that fact. Where they departed from Mark’s gospel it was for good reason, their reason. But each tried to show a facet of who they understood Jesus to be, and what the purpose of his life was. The cross is for each of them the focus for answering both those questions, Jesus identity and Jesus’ purpose, who was he, and why was he? And in some ways the words they quote from Jesus reveal their answers. Don’t expect them to harmonise with one another, contradictions will occur, perhaps because witnesses disagreed, but far more likely because they had no interest in telling the same story, their concern was that people should understand as they had understood. We may differ as to whose understanding we like the most, and change our mind with the years, but in the end, who Jesus was was far too large a question to permit only one answer. 

Art and music have always figured in my Good Friday Meditations, and I would like this year to be no different. However, YouTube and art don’t easily mix, I have therefore posted on this site the picture I suggest we look at together. So at points Youtube will have to be paused and this web page returned to. The advantage of using this being online is that you can travel entirely at your own pace. I have tried to include versions of the hymns with words, where I haven’t found a suitable version, to my taste at least, then words may either be found below or in the description panel. The only one without is Drop, drop slow tears where the diction is perfect and the music good enough to sit and listen to in awe and wonder.

Each of the ‘last words’ comes with a passage from the Psalms which you might like to stop, pause the playlist, and read for yourself.

Tintoretto ascent to calvary

Bible reading Luke 23.32-34; Ps 103

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 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.

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

The first of our words from the cross comes from St Luke, he who is always concerned about forgiveness, who tells us about the prodigal son and the lost coin, who includes as a part of his Last Supper sanctification of the wine the words “for the remission of sins”. Not all ancient versions of this gospel contain these words from the cross, there seems to be some dispute amongst them as to whether they were in Luke’s Gospel. But there is something compelling about them, something that reflects the heart of Jesus and now that we have them they are hard to leave out.

But who are the “them” that are to be forgiven? His executioners, the Romans? The Pharisees and Sadducees that demanded his death and rigged an illegal trial to ensure that it happened? Or was it the people who called for Barabbas’s release, and so Jesus's crucifixion? Or was it all of them, and all of us, and all of humanity that cannot live without violence and relishes another’s pain.

If we look carefully we see that Jesus does not forgive them, maybe he thinks he has not the right, what he does is to ask the Father to forgive them. “It is as though this act of forgiveness has cosmic proportion, as forgiveness always does. The extremity of his situation is matched by the extremity and urgency of the prayer. He asks of the Father an outrageous act of self giving, for who among us wants to forgive the killers of our beloved son or daughter? But Jesus knows the heart of the Father who is at heart a forgiver.”

Psalm 103 contains an amazing inventory of what the Father does: forgive, heal, redeem, crown, satisfy. They are all actions that correct the deficiencies of the world, because the Father wills the world to well-being. These are God’s characteristic and recurring actions, and the first one is “forgive”!

We can characterise Jesus and the people around him as following two ways in the world, the way of suffering love and the way of anxious violence. The narrative invites us to choose, and at the heart of the choice lies the prayer for forgiveness.

Hymn There is a green hill

Bible reading Luke 23:39-43; Ps 27

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.”

2. Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

More words from across which we owe entirely to St Luke. This saying is a response to the conversation between those crucified with Jesus, the one can think of nothing but scorn, the other replies with faith and a prayer. He believes in the kingdom to be ruled by Jesus, he hasn’t understood that the kingdom is for us to create, here and now. It is too late for him to be a part of that kingdom. But it is not too late for Jesus to help him look ahead, past this agony and suffering, and beyond, back into the garden of well-being that we see imagined in Genesis, before there was such violence. Jesus doesn't say “heaven”, but paradise - the garden at the beginning of the world is a firmer concept.

Jesus talks of today, not of some future glorious resurrection of all souls, but today, the moment of life and living. And the invitation is to be with him, Paradise is a place of relationship and presence.

Rubens between 2 thieves

Psalm 27 is an anticipation of this welcome and assurance. “The song could have been on the lips of the man who addresses Jesus with “remember me”. The psalm anticipates the “land of the living”. He is so confident of Jesus that he can picture himself in the land of the living, welcomed there by the ruler of that land of life. Rome by contrast is the land of dying, the land of killing, the land and leaving behind. This is like the land we inhabit all too often. And in the midst of it, there is this bid for welcome and the response that defies the world of death. Death will not win. Because Jesus has invested his life against it. And the other man knows it. When he sees Jesus, he knows that God’s will for life is stronger than death. He knows that forgiveness will outrun violence. He knows that generosity will beat fear and hate. He knows that paradise is any place where the presence of Jesus prevails; and he can dwell there.”

Hymn Glory be to Jesus

Bible reading John19.25-27, Ps 68.1-6

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.

3. Woman, look, here is your son; look, here is your mother. 

The Soldiers have divided and cast lots for his clothes. But near the cross, John tells us, a group of women have gathered, family and friends, and one man whom John calls, ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. There couldn’t be a greater contrast between the two groups.

Rogier_van_der_Weyden,_Netherlandish_(active_Tournai_and_Brussels)_-_The_Crucifixion,_with_the_Virgin_and_Saint_John_the_Evangelist_Mourning_- low res

To his mother, who is still not named in this gospel, and to the disciple, also not named, he calls to look at each other afresh. To see each other as family, to bear responsibility for one another, to care for one another. In their distress they are to comfort each other. In many ways these unnamed people are unnamed because they represent more than just historical people. Jesus’s mother is all that has brought him to his ministry, his tradition, his people, the world that has given him his humanity. The beloved disciple is the future, all that will be him in the world after his death, the  community that will bear his body to the world. He brings the two into relationship, one to the another, the one cannot deny the other without fracturing the family, somehow lessening the truth of his life.

What happens at this moment, this final moment of agony and completion must be of ultimate importance. John tells us that the soldiers cast lots for his clothing to fulfil the Scripture. The God of Jesus is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Torah may not be our law, but if we are of Christ then it is our inheritance, because it was his.

The new family that Jesus makes is not made of blood connections, but a connection of love that overrides all kinship. The new family that Jesus is forming here on the cross, is a family of those who embrace God’s will and purpose - which is the purpose of love and peace and justice. The Messiah makes new families and calls us out to meet new brothers and sisters, new mothers and Fathers, new sons and daughters. Such new family violates old boundaries of exclusion and defensiveness.

HYMN Drop, drop slow tears  

Detail for Rogier_van_der_Weyden decent from the cross

Bible reading Mark 15.33-39, Ps 22

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

4. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

‘Popular, easy, reassuring religion imagines God’s constant attentiveness to us. But we know better. We know that to live in God’s world is to live being abandoned, to face free-fall and absence and aloneness that go all the way to the bottom of reality. This Friday cry of Jesus calls us to relearn about faith and obedience and discipleship. 

‘Jesus is not the one to know about being forsaken. He quotes a Psalm. Old Israel knew, well before Jesus, about being abandoned by the God in whom they trusted. 

Jesus, Mark, tells us, gives a loud cry, at which the curtain in the temple is torn in two. The old, exclusive religion that hides its mystery behind a curtain, is exposed. The cross is no palliative for safe, little religion. It is an upheaval that shatters all the institutional assurances that we treasure, and the holiness of God is left raw in the world.

Rubens crucifixion

The response to this cry of abandonment, is not a sneering comment by his executioners, but the most remarkable line in Mark’s gospel. ‘When the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s son.’ The soldier saw that the honesty of the cross breaks phoney assurances given by voices of (fraudulent entitlement) fake comfort. He heard in this forsaken loud cry an utterance of truth. Even in the moment of abandonment Jesu surrenders himself to death. You can stay alive pinned to the cross for many hours, days even, Jesus chooses not to. He may have felt abandoned but it didn’t stop him trusting that he will be received into those arms - even that have abandoned him.

Hymn O sacred head sore wounded 

O sacred head, sore wounded,
defiled and put to scorn;
O kingly head surrounded
with mocking crown of thorn:
What sorrow mars thy grandeur?
Can death thy bloom deflower?
O countenance whose splendour
the hosts of heaven adore! 

In thy most bitter passion
my heart to share doth cry,
with thee for my salvation
upon the cross to die.
Ah, keep my heart thus moved
to stand thy cross beneath,
to mourn thee, well-beloved,
yet thank thee for thy death.

Bible reading John 19.28-29, Ps 42

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill 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.

5. I thirst

Jesus on the cross was thirsty, it has been 18 hours since his Last Supper, and probably his last drink. He has been beaten, lashed, lacerated, and nailed to a wooden cross, and now hangs by the nails driven through his wrists and ankles. His thirst must have been immense. This fifth world from the cross was taken to heart by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Every convent chapel of the Missionaries of Charity throughout the world as a bloody crucifix and by it, always, two words, “I thirst”. 

Not only do they remind the sisters of the Lord’s suffering that they also bring to mind the words from St Matthew’s Gospel, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and give you drink? And when was it that we saw you stranger and welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” The answer comes “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.”

Andrea Mantegna

Here too, is an image of a thirsting Lord. Mother Teresa’s sisters and brothers they hear these words in the present. They hear “I thirst” in the stumpy limbs of the leper, in the slumped shoulders are depressed and unloved, and in the rasp the dying. The insight, the recognition that gives rise to action, is that these words are true for God in the present. Christ is present in those who suffer. As Mother Teresa put it in a letter to her community, “I thirst”, and “you did it to me” – remember always to connect the two.”

Hymn Were you there when they crucified my lord

Bible reading John 19.30, Ps 93

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

6. It is finished

The writer of St John’s Gospel records Jesus’s final utterance as a single word Tetelastai. Things have reached their telos, their conclusion and also their goal. It is fulfilled. It has been accomplished. These words may well be a deliberate allusion to the old Testament. In the second chapter of Genesis after six days of creation and the earth fruitful and blessed, “God finished.” In Exodus 40 after Moses had completed the Tabernacle he said, “it is finished.” In Joshua 19, the promised land had been carefully distributed amongst the 12 tribes, Joshua could report, “it is finished.” All of these finishes report on God’s great work. 

And now the finish of one more victory on Friday, one more achievement by God, one more gift to the world. What is now finished is the victory of God’s way in the world enacted by Jesus. Jesus has practised the way of suffering love, of compassion, mercy, forgiveness and generosity. 

The Friday victory is the defeat of the power of death. The Friday victory is the defeat of the Roman Empire, and all empires that depend on muscle and militarism. The Friday victory is the defeat of all those who colluded among his own people who thought they could compromise and manipulate their way to well-being.

For St John this final cry was no cry of defeat or abandonment, it was a cry of victorious completion.

Hymn When I survey the wondrous cross

Bible reading Luke 23.46, Ps 31

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.

7. Father, into your hand I commend my spirit

These are St Luke’s final words from the cross. Jesus trusts his very life to the Father, the creator of all that is seen and unseen. His life had sprung from the Father, and now he gives his life back to the Father. Here is trust and obedience, and confidence, so much so that he can relinquish his life readily to the Father.

This yielding of his life stands in sharp contrast to our need to fend off death, as if it is the worst thing that can happen to us. It is natural, and most desirable that we should fight for life. But it does not do us any good if we imagine that we are all there is, and that there is nothing beneath us, no tether when we get to the end of ours, no wall when we have our back against it.

In the psalm of complaint, Psalm 31, in the midst of all the poet’s suffering and hurt he must say in the heart of his poem, “but I trust in you O Lord; I say, You are my God. My times are in your hands.” The hand is the image of power, my times are in your power, in other words 'I commend my life into your power'. With these words the psalmist can confidently relinquish his very self to God.

He has no doubt that the hands of his God are hands of love, mercy, and hope - that in his power he will be safe.

Christ-Crucified-Velázquez

Good Friday Litany

My people, what wrong have I done to you?
What good have I not done for you?
Listen to me.
I am your Creator, Lord of the universe;
I have entrusted this world to you,
but you have created the means to destroy it.
My people, what wrong have I done to you?
What good have I not done for you?
Listen to me.
I made you in my image,
but you have degraded body and spirit
and marred the image of your God.
You have deserted me and turned your backs on me.
My people, what wrong have I done to you?
What good have I not done for you?
Listen to me.
I filled the earth with all that you need,
so that you might serve and care for one another,
as I have cared for you;
but you have cared only to serve
your own wealth and power.

Holy God, holy and strong,
holy and immortal,
have mercy upon us.

My people, what wrong have I done to you?
What good have I not done for you?
Listen to me.
I made my children of one blood
to live in families rejoicing in one another;
but you have embittered the races
and divided the nations.
My people, what wrong have I done to you?
What good have I not done for you?
Listen to me.

I commanded you to love your neighbour as yourself,
to love and forgive even your enemies;
but you have made vengeance your rule
and hate your guide.

 

My people, what wrong have I done to you?
What good have I not done for you?
Listen to me.

In the fullness of time I sent you my Son,
that in him you might know me,
and through him find life and peace;
but you put him to death on the cross.

Holy God, holy and strong,
holy and immortal,
have mercy upon us.

My people, what wrong have I done to you?
What good have I not done for you?
Listen to me.
Through the living Christ,
I called you into my Church
to be my servants to the world,
but you have grasped at privilege
and forgotten my will.
My people, what wrong have I done to you?
What good have I not done for you?
Listen to me.
I have given you a heavenly gift
and a share in the Holy Spirit;
I have given you the spiritual energies
of the age to come;
but you have turned away
and crucified the Son of God afresh.
My people, what wrong have I done to you?
What good have I not done for you?
Listen to me.
I have consecrated you in the truth;
I have made you to be one
in the unity of the Father and the Son,
by the power of the Spirit;
but you have divided my Church
and shrouded my truth.

Holy God, holy and strong,
holy and immortal,
have mercy upon us.

Turn again, my people, listen to me.

Father, hear our prayer and forgive us.
Unstop our ears
that we may receive the gospel of the cross.
Lighten our eyes
that we may see your glory in the face of your Son.
Penetrate our minds
that your truth may make us whole.
Infuse our hearts with your love
that we may love one another for Christ’s sake.
Father, forgive us.

Hymn Were you there when they crucified my lord