Good Friday 15 Apr 22
We sometimes say of someone that they “had a good death.” By which we mean perhaps, they’d been able to prepare. They’d seen loved ones. It was peaceful. Sometimes people want to be at home. Hopefully our definition of a good death means the person had been able to receive Holy Communion before they’d died.
What our Lord experienced today is not a good death being executed as a criminal. The last execution in this country took place in August 1964 and over the next few years capital punishment was made illegal for murder. One significant argument against the death penalty, of course, is that sometimes they get the wrong person as was the case with Mahmoud Hussein Mattan, who was executed in prison in Wales in 1952 for a murder he was later discovered not to have done. His wife and children fought hard and in 1998 - over forty years later - the conviction was overturned, a significant payment made to the family and Mahmoud’s body exhumed so it could be buried in a Muslim cemetery, which had not previously been allowed because of the conviction.
He and his wife had experienced much racism in this country during their time here. They already knew what it was to be isolated. Who can know what such a sentence must have done to those who remained? Speaking of such a recent example can I hope help us to contemplate afresh what happened on this day, Good Friday. The centurion who stands at the foot of the Cross utters, “Surely this man was the Son of God,” (St Matthew 27:54). Surely He was innocent. Oh yes. As the penitent thief says to his fellow convict, “We indeed have been condemned justly … but this man has done nothing wrong,” (St Luke 23:40). And yes, Our Lord’s family is isolated too. Hence Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (St Matthew 27:46) and aware of the consequences for His Mother, Jesus commends her to be looked after by the youngest of the disciples, St John the Beloved (St John 19:25-27).
The brutality of the Cross was a deliberate attempt by the Roman Empire to warn off those who were tempted to overthrow the peace the Empire offered. This huge territory from Britain in the North West to Egypt in the South East, run from the not very conveniently located city of Rome, needed to frighten dissidents, especially those who had little investment in society. Crucifixion was not an option for those who were respectable: only the common folk would be crucified. Yes, huge nails were lodged in to the bones of the condemned who would die in part because they were not able to breathe properly because the legs were forced up. And this was combined with slowly bleeding to death thanks to the nails.
And all this was done publicly. Imagine you were having an operation and you knew it was going to happen on the High Road where everyone could see. Imagine being on the dentist’s chair while on Zoom where everyone can see every wriggle you make. Golgotha, the place of the skull, was on the edge of the city so that the bodies could be disposed of easily and so that it was visible. Everyone arriving and everyone leaving the city of Jerusalem knew the penalty for non-compliance. There was no hope of this being hushed up to protect the family who remained behind.
When God chose the year and location of His death - which He did before time began - He knew it was going to be like this. A different century would have led to a different death, but the emptying of Christ’s self, His power and His glory, even His life, is most brutally accomplished by this savage act. The prophecies therefore looked to this gruesome death as we heard in our first reading from Isaiah 52: “the crowds were appalled on seeing him - so disfigured did he look.” Even more specifically Deuteronomy 21:23 decrees, “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” St Paul quotes from this and says rather, those who try to know justification through the Law rather than through the Spirit are cursed (Galatians 3:13-14). And it was because of the shame attached to the Cross and those who hung there that St Paul has to resolutely declare to the Romans in the opening verses of his letter to them: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel,” (1:16). For there is inherent in the faith we have received from the apostles an element of disgrace. We worship and adore One who endures this embarrassing death. You wouldn’t want to admit to knowing this man.
We’re so familiar with the Cross that this sting is lost perhaps. We make the Sign of the Cross when we worship: touching our head, our stomach, our left shoulder and our right shoulder when we start the Mass in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Before we hear the Gospel proclaimed we make the sign of the Cross on our forehead, our lips and our chest, that we might understand, proclaim and love the Good News. We make the sign of the Cross perhaps before we receive Holy Communion. When the priest blesses us at the end of Mass we do the same. We perhaps wear a Cross. We see bishops wearing a pectoral Cross hanging on a cord round their necks. There are Crucifixes on our altars. These are normally beautiful things, made out of precious metal, and rightly so. We must prize and cherish the victory of this day. But we must never forget the shame too.
There should then be some trepidation when we make the sign of the Cross, aware of its meaning for us. Jesus warns His disciples that whatever He experiences such will also be their lot (St John 16:4). We will suffer for the love we have for others, when they let us down, or when they die. We will suffer when we stick our necks out for others, defending them at work, not going along with the bully at school, not laughing along with the crowds at someone on the bus. We will suffer because we have denied ourselves some food and drink this Lent and because there’ll be other times too when we won’t be able to do the same things that some of our friends or family do, because it is contrary to what God’s wants. We will suffer when our love for God and neighbour means we carry on even when it hurts. And it will hurt no less because we are doing it for the best of reasons: fidelity to the Lord’s command. “Enter through the narrow gate,” our Lord says (St Matthew 7:13).
The harshness of the Cross and how it should unnerve us is further realised when we consider the imagined scenario of our Lord returning today. Feodor Dostoevsky, a Russian novelist of the nineteenth century is known for writing long books, which I have to say I find quite difficult to read. One small section of his book “The Brothers Karamazov” is entitled “The Grand Inquisitor,” set in sixteenth century Spain where many sought to forcibly remove from the Church all that was incompatible with true teaching. The imagined scenario describes our Lord’s return, not the final judgement, but a return similar to His Incarnation. “He comes silently and unannounced; yet all - how strange - yea, all recognise Him at once! The population rushes towards Him,” and the healing begins. But the Grand Inquisitor orders the Lord’s arrest and explains to Him why. Jesus, who is never named in this piece of imaginary fiction, also remains silent, but at the end He rises in the cell and gives the only answer He is going to give: He kisses His jailer. “The Grand Inquisitor,” we’re told, “shudders. There is a convulsive twitch at the corner of his mouth.” He tells the Innocent One to go.
The Cross then is not just an historical event but a constant reminder that we let our Lord down in so many other situations when we could be following Him. There’s the hymn isn’t there, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Sometimes it causes me to tremble.” The trembling caused is in part a reflection on the historical event of Jesus’ death on the Cross. The trembling we experience today should also be a shudder when we marvel at how we fail to welcome the Lord in our day to day lives. For some reason horror communicates extremely powerfully. We might think of the terrible pictures we see of events in Ukraine. I recently saw online for the first time Marianne Grant’s watercolour paintings which are in the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow. They depict from a first hand witness the atrocities in a concentration camp during World War II: people literally reduced to a bundle of bones wrapped in flesh. The horror of the Cross sits uncomfortably with how little I, you, we give back to God.
The way that we assembled here today will experience death will be varied. It does us good to ponder our own deaths, not so as to despair, but to realise how we must offer it to the Lord. We can say in part that it will be a good death if we spend our time until that day standing at the foot of the Cross watching our Lord suffering and mindful how great is the debt we owe Him, how willingly He paid it and how reluctantly we realise it, even today.