Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Good Friday - Lucy Gardner

Make no mistake, what we are doing here today is extraordinary. Keeping the memorial of a death is not that unusual. Every day all over the world, people are marking anniversaries of deaths, be they loving family, loyal citizens, devoted fans or even sworn enemies.

Celebrating a death is, however, more unusual. True, people often gather to celebrate the lives of those who have died, but that is very different from celebrating their deaths. Celebrating a death usually only happens when a tyrant or a villain dies: when people can feel perhaps that at last they are rid of something evil.

But we celebrate here the death of someone we love of someone who loved us. More extraordinary still, we celebrate his death in the full knowledge that we are in so many senses its cause.

How can we bear even to remember this death? How can we dare to celebrate it?

The answers to these questions must lie in understanding something of what is so extraordinary about this death. Its cruelty, violence and horror are, sadly, not special, for on the face of it this is a tragically ordinary death, just another one of so very many crimes against humanity. But here are some of the aspects of what makes this death so extraordinary. They are to be discovered in reflecting on exactly what “is finished” on the cross.

“It is finished!” Here on the cross the Messiah finishes all that he came to do. The task of the Anointed One is completed. The Christ has fulfilled all that prophecy foretold he would.

His mission – his sending from God – is accomplished. All that he came to do has been done. “It is finished!” The Son’s work is over.

“It is finished!” Here on the cross the Messiah’s life comes to its end. Here, life is sealed, as always, by its death. Christ lived his life in and as obedience to the Father. He lived his life to show us God’s love and to show us that God is love. He lived his life to save us from sin and bring us back to God. It is this particular life that is finished, and it is finished with a death that is died in complete unison with it.

Just as he lived, so did he die. He died in and as obedience to the Father. He died to show us God’s love and to show us that God is love. He died to save us from sin and bring us back to God. His life and death are a complete unity. And now, “It is finished!” The Son’s life is over.

“It is finished!” Here on the cross the Messiah’s promise from last night is fulfilled. Here his body is given and broken for his disciples. And his blood is shed for us. Here his life is offered up for the salvation of the world and we see what it costs God to love us. Here we see what human beings are capable of doing to the world and to each other; we see what we are prepared to do to God and to God’s love; and we see what God is prepared to do in response. “It is finished!” The Son has been betrayed and handed over.

“It is finished!” Here on the cross the Incarnation is complete. The Second Person of the Trinity has become pure, lifeless flesh, nothing else. This dead body is all that there is. But this is part of how the Messiah saves us; this is part of how the Christ can become bread and wine and be made available for us; this is part of how we can become part of his body. “It is finished!” God has passed over into flesh and blood, and bread and wine.

“It is finished!” Here on the cross the eternal Word of God is silenced. God’s Word has become pure, silent symbol. He has nothing left to say; there is nothing he can now say; he can no longer say anything. “It is finished!” These are indeed “last words”.

We must learn to listen to this silence of the Word, this silence in which even God is waiting, straining, to hear God’s Word. For this, of course, is perhaps the greatest mystery of all: the eternal Word of God does not cease to be God’s eternal world; the Word is not silenced on the cross for the rest of time. The story is not over. This both is and isn’t the end of a life. It is an end but it ultimately does not finish off the Son’s life.

Rather this death sits at the centre of his life. It is a chapter in a much longer story. This silence does not finish off the eternal Word of God but rather rests eternally at its core. This “it is finished” comes at the heart of the story; it is the turning point, not the conclusion, to a most extraordinary tale, which is at once the story of the life of the Word of God and the story of the life of the world.

We can bear to remember this story precisely because this particular ending is not where it ends. This death is the source of all our life, not the end of it. We can bear to remember this story and our cruelty because of what happens next, because God forgives, and because mysteriously this death is part of the means of that forgiveness.

The Son’s work and life are over; he has surrendered everything to the Father. The early Church Fathers knew that in an important sense we can understand tonight and Holy Saturday as the Son’s rest in the quiet tomb.

Now the drama is taken up by the Father’s work, and the Father reclaims this Son from death, thus confirming all that the Son said and did, and in particular that God is love.

This is the light in which all sin can be dealt with and all memories can be healed. Because of the Son’s total union with, total conversion to, sorrow and flesh and death, the Son’s death can be shared; and because the Son’s death can be shared, so too can the everlasting life to which he is raised.

We do not have to end or rest with all that is shameful and terrible. We do not have to bear eternal pain or isolation. We do not have to be held ransom to our worst fears and memories. They can be healed, and we with them, by finding their true place in this divine drama.

Importantly, though, this healing does not mean forgetting; Christ still is the Crucified One. Our pain is not simply wiped out; our wounds are not simply removed; our memories are not simply erased. Rather, all is transformed, just as Christ’s pain and wounds and death are.

Forgiveness is about seeing things in their true light, about seeing things in the light of the truth of God’s inexhaustible love. Receiving forgiveness is about understanding and accepting this fact. The Passion shows us that salvation comes through death, not as some kind of avoidance of it. Above all this story shows that even sin and death can be taken by the God who has promised to provide and be themselves transformed into the very means of our salvation.

And so, as we gather together today at the foot of the cross, at the base of the tree of life, each of us broken in many ways, we do not simply hold a memorial of another death, and we do not simply venerate some lifeless wood.

As we gather here, we are part of the putting back together - the re-membering – of the broken world in the re-membering of the broken body of Christ and the re-membering of our own lives.

We remember that the sacrifice of the cross was made for the healing of the world; and we remember that God’s work on earth is not finished yet; it requires us to work for its completion.

These, then, are some of the reasons why our celebration today should be such a poignant, heady mix of joy, grief, relief and anticipation. It is part of the healing, the re-membering and the transforming, of our wounds, our memories and our lives.

We celebrate that we are saved by this cross; we grieve that it cost this cross to save us; we are relieved that the worst has now happened, in the unfolding story of these days; we are relieved that God has indeed saved the world; we nervously anticipate what God will require of us in the coming year, just as we eagerly anticipate the noise and joy that promises to burst forth when we gather again on Sunday morning to re-member the resurrection.