Good Friday   Leave a comment

The following is a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on 30 March 2018.
Scripture:
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
John 18:1-19:42


One of my favorite experiences in the years I was a resident congregant at Grace Cathedral was being part of a trio—with The Rev. Deacon Anthony Turney, of blessed memory, and The Rev. Deacon Nina Pickerell—who held the large wooden cross for veneration on Good Friday. I had a front row seat as a couple hundred people filed through the line to kneel and place their hands or lips on the wood. Though I was not scrutinizing the faces of those who passed, it was impossible not to notice that a great many of those people wept copiously.

(I’ve seen this here at St. Thomas as well, of course, but not quite on the same scale nor quite from the same vantage point).

Some were strangers to me—people I’d never seen in the Cathedral; I can’t say whether this was their first time in a church in many years or they were devout Episcopalians who just happened to be somewhere unusual for them on Good Friday.

Many, of course, were dear friends, and among those there were several from whom the weeping came as no surprise—I knew their passionate faith.

But there were some dear friends who were not generally expressive about their faith, and their tears surprised me.

All these shared an apparent sentiment for this ritual; they shared grief at the remembrance of the death of Jesus Christ. All these mourners passed by this cross to kneel before it in prayer, and to touch it or kiss it. They wept as if they were mourning the recent death of a beloved friend or family member.

Like all the best things in the Church, this was both individual and communal; it was both personal piety and public liturgy.

We knew that Christ would rise—was already risen. We knew that Easter was imminent, and still we wept at the loss of life.

Today The Church commemorates the death of Our Lord, the fact that the Incarnation of God experienced mortality—and violent mortality at that.

If you’re a Star Wars fan, you are familiar with the sentence that begins the opening crawl of The Empire Strikes Back: “It is a dark time for the Rebellion.” Certainly the same could be said for Good Friday.

Imagine how the disciples must have felt on this day. Imagine that the leader you’ve been following for years—the one you thought was the Messiah, and the Son of God—has just been tortured and executed by the State, with the full support of your own religious authorities. You and your friends are in hiding, fearing for your lives. This nascent Jesus Movement may be over just as it was taking off.

This was a person who changed your life, who taught you a new way of living the faith of your ancestors. A person who could literally raise the dead. And yet you can’t imagine that he could raise himself.

And more, you’ve lost a dear and trusted friend.

When my father was dying—not executed by the state but being slowly overcome by stage 4 colon cancer—I was struck by the fact that he was dying alone. I don’t mean that he wasn’t surrounded by family and close friends throughout his illness: he was, right up to the moment he breathed his last.

But it was his life that was ending, not ours. The end he was experiencing was only an abstract to the rest of us. We were losing him, but he was losing life itself, with all its joys, sorrows, and experiences. No one living could quite empathize with what he was experiencing.

No one living, that is, but Jesus. One of the points of the Incarnation is that God—who had always sympathized with human suffering—can now empathize with our experiences. Immortal, almighty God has now experienced human vulnerability and mortality.

This is part of what we mean when we talk about God’s sacrificial, redeeming love for all humankind: God became vulnerable and experienced a violent death, and now knows what it is to live and die as one of us. “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.”

He knows our grief as well: Jesus first experiences death from the side of mourning. Our funeral liturgy reminds us that he “wept at the grave of Lazarus, [his] friend” even before raising Lazarus, and it seems safe to assume that he wept at other graves, likely including that of his earthly father, Joseph.

God’s empathy is not limited to the agonizing, humiliating death by crucifixion, but encompasses any kid of death, including: death by the mail bomb of a white supremacist terrorist; death by toxic masculinity with easy access to weapons that no one should have; death by 20 bullets for the crime of holding a cell phone while black; and slow death by cancer.

God knows our fears of death and our pain in death, because Jesus has given his life in an offering of love to all of us. As we will sing together in a few minutes in the last verse of the hymn “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded”:

My days are few; o fail not with thine immortal power
To hold me that I quail not in death’s most fearful hour
That I may fight befriended and see in my last strife
To me thine arms extended upon the cross of life

In turn, when we contemplate the death of Our Savior—the death of our incarnate God—that contemplation may bring us closer to peace with our own mortality.

Death is a central theme and motif in the Harry Potter books, and the final book in the series makes that abundantly clear with the Tale of the Deathly Hallows, a story within the story that is presented as an ancient myth of the Wizarding world. A story of three brothers who engage in a lifelong battle of wits with Death itself. Two brothers—seeking their own power—fare poorly, but the third Brother finally “greets Death as an old friend”—a phrase that I’ve always found moving and challenging.

In Lent—particularly in Holy Week, and particularly on Good Friday—we have the opportunity to sit with death, to  contemplate the fact that our God truly knows death, and to begin a friendship with our own death.

Death is always attended by God’s empathetic love. We also know, from Jesus’ experience and example, that there is hope, even in death. That death is not the end. That death has been overcome and undone. This is why our funeral liturgy is always an Easter liturgy. This is why that liturgy reminds us that “Even at the grave we make our song…”

Posted 31 March 2018 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Uncategorized

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