Redeeming Compassion: Good Friday

Sermon offered Good Friday, April 6, 2012
Church of the Epiphany, NYC
John 18:1 – 19:42
Triduum: Act II

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our heats be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

 Lent started on Ash Wednesday – the day that left us in the dust.  As of last night we came to the end of our Lenten journey – the time intentionally set aside for reflection, for personal awareness of our lives, awareness of our relationships with each other and with God. For many of us Lent was a time for looking inside ourselves – for reflecting on the internal landscape of our lives, our loves, our relationships.  We’ve tracked the dust of mortality and morality and confession throughout the season of Lent continuing now into Holy Week.

As we move through the final three days before Easter, we’re stepping into a space of transition, crossing over and out of the boundaries that marked the Lenten journey.  These three transitional days that we’re walking through now are called the Triduum: Maundy Thursday to Good Friday to Holy Saturday.  And after sundown on Saturday the transition will lead us to the anticipated new life and light at the Easter Vigil.

Transitional spaces can often feel shadowy – they can seem dark – they can feel totally black.  Spiritual writers like St. John of the Cross call these spaces the Dark Night of the Soul.  Psalm 23 calls these dark transitional spaces the Valley of the Shadow of Death. And when we choose to follow Jesus, He leads us through darkness on the Way of the Cross.  Passing through dark transitions is the only way to salvation – the only way to the Light.

But on Good Friday the darkness wins – or at least it seems to.  As the shadows of this day lengthen, we experience this darkness as broken promises –  lost hopes –  unanswered prayers –  severed relationships  –  grief  –  or death.  God seems to be silent.  The Psalm for today expresses all this as a sense of abandonment:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? *
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress?
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; *
by night as well, but I find no rest.

. . . . . . .

To be able enter more fully into the transitional space of the Triduum,  I find it helpful to think of these three days as one continuous space, one on-going movement, one day unfolding into the next – like a theatrical play in three acts.  Last night, Maundy Thursday, was Act I.  And today the curtain goes up on Act II with St. John’s version of the Passion of Christ.

Throughout the telling of St. John’s passion, Jesus is in complete control of the situation, certainly not the typical “victim” totally at the mercy of the authorities.  He directs his own arrest and identifies himself with the divine name “I am” – ego eimi.  When he appears before Pilate, the title “King” is repeatedly associated with Jesus.  Unlike the Synoptic versions of the story, Jesus carries his own cross in John.  And He dies with his mother and the beloved disciple with him. Jesus also controls the timing of the completion of his mission – When it is time for him to lay down his life, he simply says:

 “It is finished.”

The cross is important because it gives significance to human suffering. We can identity with Christ’s suffering. I think this identity with Christ’s suffering is one reason that devotion to the cross on Good Friday goes so deep.  Using the cross as a mirror of sorts it reflects our pain back to us – it helps us relocate and reinterpret that pain.  Using the cross as a mirror is a significant and necessary step on the way to healing . . . But that is not the end of the road.

All possibility of transformed relationships is totally lost when we know and see ourselves as victims.  In his book Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel Rowan Williams points to the danger of prolonged, over-identification with Christ crucified – when identity with the suffering Christ keeps us stuck in self-pity, shame, failure and self-dramas. The danger comes if we come to believe that God is supporting us in our cause as victims – if we begin to think that as long as we are suffering, we are in the right.  Williams calls this mindset the “blackmailing logic of terrorism.”

This logic builds progressively along these lines:
First: “I am crucified, you are the crucifier; I am victim, you are oppressor; I am innocent, you are guilty .  .  .”  Therefore:” My suffering is deeper, more significant than yours. . .”  And so:  “Nothing I inflict upon you is of comparable significance to what you have inflicted upon me.”  When we become lost in this mindset the cross becomes a weapon. 

The cross ceases to be a weapon when, in Christ’s love and with God’s help, we let go of over-identifying with it . . . and when we come to recognize that the cross belongs to everyone. 

In the end it must be the risen Christ who frees us from pain.  We must make the transition through the cross, not around it.  We must take on Christ’s humility and emptiness – learn how to act without attempting to control – learn to let go of the drama.   Leaving self behind is at the very heart of the transitional journey that leads first to the foot of the cross . . . and then on through the cross . . . to Easter Resurrection.

Encountering the risen Christ and recognizing him as the crucified Christ somehow reveals to us that our suffering will be ongoing.   The ultimate question of salvation then involves allowing Jesus to transform this pain and suffering and sense of loss –allowing Jesus to transform our pain into compassion

Then, and only then – if we will accept it – if we will allow it  – – this compassion, Christ’s compassion . . . will transform the world.

. . . . . . .

(Continue reading – on to Triduum, Act III:  In Silence . . . Awe and Wonder, The Great Vigil of Easter, Mark 16:1-8)

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