Sermons That Work

Entering the Darkness, Good Friday – 2006

April 14, 2006

And now the sorrowful fellowship of Thursday evening turns into terror with the arrest of their beloved teacher; it is the longest night of their lives. But when Friday dawns, instead of light dispelling darkness, as is the nature of things, it is darkness that falls on them all. Everything that was good seems to end forever and forever. Life as they had known it has ended.

“My God, my God, why have
you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from
helping me, from the
words of my groaning?”

The desperate psalm is echoed by the two chapters we heard read from John’s gospel; they are all the more devastating because of their starkness and simplicity. There is a kind of macabre game being played out by Pilate, who represents the alien occupying force and by the Jewish religious authorities, who represent the government. And the Logos of God, the Son of Man, the Son of God, is the pawn in this deadly game. The mind can’t take it in. This is why the most fitting and moving depiction of this terrible day is not as effective in words as it is in music and paintings. The senses must absorb the tragedy when words fail us.

A mournful bell tolls in the mind. Those who were born in other countries, or who have visited the lands where theater is more important than sermons, remember the tolling of the bells throughout “Great Friday,” as “Good Friday” is called in the Eastern church. Slowly, mournfully the bells toll while people walk around and go about their business. When night comes, the Epitaphios will pass through the village streets to end in the village square. This is the bier of the dead Christ, festooned with flowers as a casket is, with priests and laity following behind. Everyone holds a candle. The senses are allowed to take in the experience and then turn it into meaning. It is necessary for the participants, because the awareness of sorrow and the reenactment of mourning will make the resurrection at midnight, on Saturday, all the more palpable.

Protestants and even Episcopalians who are more focused on the solemn quiet of reading the story, of listening to it and then meditating in silence and in celebrating the Holy Eucharist, find such theater incongruous at times, reminiscent of pagan rituals. It is, however, worth noting and understanding that the various branches within Christianity remember this day and this night in a way that touches the hearts of their people in the particular way that makes sense to them — some do it with words, others with images, smells, and sounds that bless or even assault the senses. What this reveals to us is that the drama needs to be remembered, not for the sake of the one who died on that Friday outside Jerusalem, but for our sake. Memory and ritual have value, they provide catharsis and offer healing.

In St. John’s story, despite the simplicity of the telling, the lack of adjectives, or any kind of embellishment, it is the details that capture our attention and make us hold our breath.

— A maid is tending a gate and two of Jesus’ friends need to enter the courtyard. One friend is known to the high priest, the other is not; so the one who is able pulls strings to get Peter inside the gate.
— A woman looks at Peter and asks a question that he answers with a lie.
— A fire is lit and cold men, who think they bear no guilt because they are simply following orders, are warming themselves. Again a question is asked and denied.
— A policeman strikes the Son of God.
— A disciple who loves him denies knowing him for the third time.
— Somewhere in the yard, a rooster crows.

These are details that on reading may be missed but that in knowing cut us through the heart.

These details are followed by one of the most ironic sentences in all history: “They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover.” Did even one of them wonder what it is that really defiles us — coming in contact with those we consider pagans, the obvious sinners, or the murderous desires of our hearts? Did any of them remember the words of Jesus on what it is that defiles us? The writer doesn’t tell us. But for them, the participants, it is enough that they could pretend their hands were clean so that they could eat their sacred meal.

Later they are going to argue about another detail — the inscription put on the cross, the one that read: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” No, no, they argue, write that “he said, ‘I am king of the Jews.’” But what is written, is written. It remains as it was written, throughout eternity.

The writer of the gospel continues with the details that give such authenticity to the story — the next one deals with something as ordinary as a tunic. To us who buy clothes so easily these days, off the rack, without a thought of how a garment was put together, this is remarkable. In those days every piece of cloth had to be woven by hand. Jesus’ tunic was seamless. It had been woven in one piece from the top with openings for the head and arms. Someone who loved him must have woven that necessary piece of clothing. And the soldiers noticed it and tossed the dice for it. A mundane detail, poignant only for the woman who wove that tunic for the one she loved.

But it is the last detail that breaks the heart of everyone born of a woman. Jesus did not forget his mother. Right before breath left his body he asked his dearest friend to look after the heart-broken woman who had given him birth.

And finally the great cry of “It is finished!” For those who heard it that day it was the end of hope, the end of everything that was good. As we all know when a loved one dies, anything reminding us of ordinary life after that death seems like an insult. This is the end. It is impossible that the sun will rise again. For those who had lived with him, who had heard his words, who had seen his signs, this was the end. For those of us who know the continuation of the story, the words have a different meaning. Tomorrow light will break forth once again. Yes, but for this hour, we honor the darkness.

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Christopher Sikkema


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