Sermon for Good Friday, Friday, April 14 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Is 52:13-53; Ps 22; Heb 10:16-25; Jn 18:1-19:42
The day begins, as so many days around this world begin, with interrogation and torture. The day begins with everyone stripped down to their worst, most compromised selves, the manoeuvres of power undisguised now, the workings of the machine laid out in the morning light. The man from Nazareth is in custody, and yet somehow he remains beyond their control, as they try to force him to speak, to beat him and turn him into an object of mockery, to kill him, to end him, to make this challenge stop.
I think of the already famous photograph of Ieshia Evans, at a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge, tall and still in her summer dress, utterly calm in handcuffs, as riot police fall back in confusion. I think of Jesus in the garden, and the soldiers falling down in fear before his gentle presence—and yet seizing him anyway, choosing to turn their petty tools of violence against him, because to do otherwise would disrupt everything they believe to be true, and that they cannot bear.
John’s account of the events is terrible precisely because it shows us so many people making awful choices, or—most often—failing to make clear choices at all, and ending up complicit in this murder. It is terrible because we see this, every day, because too often we live it.
We need to read John carefully, and especially to realize that his sweeping statements about “the Jews” come out of his own time and his own conflicts, reflect a recent and very bitter split between his community and the synagogue; it’s more or less the language of divorce, and can’t be generalized into any kind of statement about the Jewish people. But what he has to say about all of us, in times of danger and conflict and choice, that does not change, that is as terribly true as ever. There may be no greater tragedy in all of scripture than that appalling game of chicken between Pilate and the religious leaders of Jerusalem, Pilate the weak and vicious puppet governor flirting with truth and turning away, manipulating the crowd as he knew so well how to do, and the representatives of a colonized people trying to work the levers of imperial violence in the ways in which their oppression had trained them, slowly turning into their own oppressors, until that terrible moment when a group of devout Jews stands in front of the Praetorium and cries, “We have no king but Caesar!”, betraying their own deepest beliefs, frantically struggling on the hook of power from which they cannot escape, while a single still human body bleeds in front of them.
Here is the man. This human person, bearing the same suffering as human persons around the world and through all time, all the anonymous victims, the tortured and the disappeared, the bodies in the mass graves. All the missing and murdered indigenous women, all the abandoned pregnant teenagers, all the trans kids contemplating suicide, all the black men killed by the police, all those broken by political and social powers, all the losers, all the failures. Here is the absolute revelation of God, the God of the lost.
And while all this is happening Peter, the leader of the disciples, first tries to respond with violence, with the easiest and most brutal tool at hand, and, when that fails, gives up and denies his own truth, while the other disciples scatter and run, try to avoid that choice, try to hide from the stark division in the day’s gathering heat, cannot face the choice of standing with the victim, the possibility of becoming power’s victims themselves.
It is all of us. We are all of those people, and the liturgy makes us confront that, makes us declare that we have no king but Caesar, that we are in thrall to the powerful, that we have denied the pain, been complicit in the suffering. That, in extremity, we will deny our friends and our beliefs to keep ourselves safe.
And in the brutal sun of the afternoon, the young man, battered and bleeding and still, somehow, more human than any of them, is nailed hand and foot to a piece of wood, and lifted up to die. To go down into that final dark place, because if that is where God has to go to find us, that is where God will go. If we have nothing left in us but the power of death, then God will go into death for us, and find us there. If we are determined to kill love, then love will be killed, will not resist or turn away, will let us do and be the worst that we can manage, and will be love still.
And finally, it ends. “I am thirsty,” says the man, a recognition of the body’s need, that last vulnerability. And then, “it is finished.” The mutilated body is taken down, given into the hands of the few who have waited all that day, through the screaming and the blood and the heat, for the worst to be over, for a kind of awful peace, the small comfort of holding the body, cleaning the wounds, doing those automatic things which remain to be done. They take the body to a garden, and perhaps this too is comfort of a sort, to place the dead beloved among the flowering grass. And then there is silence.
We will live in that silence today, tomorrow. This is the broken time, the time of loss. The silence of the death of God. In some way, we live in that silence always. We wait in unknowing, and the liturgy tells us what we can, what we must, now do.
We are to pray; at the end of this homily, we will pray the Solemn Intercession, holding in our minds and hearts all the pains and needs of the world. We will pray in order to insist, in the face of all the evidence, that things which were cast down are being raised up, will be raised up through us and our little work, that things which had grown old are being made new, can be made new, that we can begin again. We pray so that we may be made instruments of this mystery.
And we kneel. We bow down before the victim who holds in his body all the unnamed bodies, we touch or kiss his wounded feet. We kneel in awe and grief, and we honour the pain. We kneel in order to pledge ourselves to all those whom power has destroyed and is destroying, the broken body at the centre of the world.
And we are fed. Even in this time of absence, we are given bread and wine, the breakable, consumable, temporary token of the divine in this world. We cannot hold this presence. We can only take and eat, and in this action say that the presence is now, must be now, in us, our bodies, our weak inadequate bodies. That we must be, in the time of the death of God, the place where love may live.