Good Friday 2019
“The wounded surgeon” is a fantastic image used to describe our Saviour on this day by the twentieth century poet T S Eliot. “The wounded surgeon.” He goes on,
“Beneath the blessing hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art,
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.” (East Coker IV)
Yes, as Jesus hangs on the Cross, tortured and bleeding, He heals us. In stark contrast to day-to-day life where the last thing we would want is a doctor or dentist with bleeding hands anywhere near us. And like all surgeons, our Saviour uses equipment and tools and it is these, which have been termed the Instruments of the Passion, that I wanted to reflect on this afternoon.
The first is the cup, the chalice. Jesus prayed last night in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42). It’s a saying linked to doing something difficult, hence Jesus has already thrown down the gauntlet to His disciples, “Can you drink the cup that I shall drink?” (Matthew 20:22). Being forced to drink something is invasive, it involves someone being near a part of us few get close to. Sometimes if people are very, very sick when I take them Holy Communion I will have to then give them a drink of water so they can swallow the host, the Lord’s Body. I hold the bottle of water to their lips. It’s a delicate process. Linked with the chalice is the cup of God’s wrath, an image familiar in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 25:15). Jesus is drinking deeply of God’s displeasure at our lukewarm discipleship and the sins of the whole world. Jesus, our crucified Lord, we are sorry!
Second, the column, the pillar against which our Lord was scourged and whipped. It is also one of the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary. The column is perhaps envisaged as being part of the house of Pilate, who ordered the punishment, which was a standard prelude to Roman crucifixion. Maybe we think as well of Samson who sacrifices himself so as destroy the wicked Philistines. Remember, the enemies of God believed they had captured the weakened Samson (Judges 16), and were celebrating in a house with pillars. They called in Samson to mock him, and bully him and enjoy themselves, diminishing the humanity of another in a shameless way. Samson prayed to God for one final burst of strength and this he was given so that he might push aside the pillars of the house in which they find themselves. The house collapses and all die, including Samson. The author concludes: “Those he killed at his death were more than those he had killed during his life.” Our Saviour, Jesus Christ, takes this to a whole new level today as He dies so as to conquer death, which hereby loses its sting, that all might have life.
The pillar is also the place where the punitive element of our Lord’s Passion begins. It is the place where the blood of Jesus is first spilt as the flesh of our Lord is cut open with the cords of the whip. There is to be a place in our spiritual disciplines for mortification, as St Paul promises us: “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). It’s a recognition that we should subdue the impulses of the flesh and dignify the body and our identity with the graces of the Spirit. It might be that we deny ourselves some television if we find ourselves watching too much; we might need to spend some time in silence if we find ourselves using our mouth inappropriately through lying or blasphemies; we might want to not allow ourselves time to do things we enjoy if we don’t make time for Mass every Sunday. It’s a form of punishing ourselves so as not to let ourselves slip ever further into ungodliness. The pillar is the place where we know ourselves to need discipline because us of our waywardness.
Third, the crown of thorns of which we’ve just heard: “The soldiers twisted some thorns into a crown and put it on His head.” It is this crown of thorns recently saved from the flames enveloping the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris a few days ago. Thorns spring up in the book of Genesis as a consequence of our sin, of Adam and Eve thinking they know best and don’t really need to do what God told them to do. “Cursed is the ground,” God says, “in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” (Genesis 3:17-18). Finding food and work, be it employment or voluntary, becomes hard because sin disrupts the relationship we have with the earth around us. When we’re finding it tough at work it may be that there are external factors causing it - a wretched boss; unreasonable expectations; heart not really in it; people not pulling their weight - but we will find work easier the holier we are and the less that sin has a reign in our life. May we not allow the thorns to choke the Word of God within us.
Fourth, the lance with which Jesus’ body is pierced to test that He is dead. When someone dies, the fluids stop mingling and so piercing the side of Jesus on the Cross, blood and water begin to separate out. It has been an important part of the Christian account because it shows that contrary to what some say, Jesus was actually dead and not just pretending. This is the pierced side that St Thomas will be invited to touch a week on Sunday once Jesus is risen (John 20:27). We will see these same marks when the Lord comes to judge us, as the Advent hymn reminds us of the Saviour whose coming we still await: “Those dear tokens of His passion still His dazzling body bears.”
Christian tradition names the soldier who held this lance, piercing the Lord, as Longinus, with one account apparently describing the Blood of the Lord coming out of His pierced side and healing the soldier of his blindness in that eye. It’s a powerful reminder of the forgiveness and healing that Jesus brings even to those who do Him harm. And we fall into that category too, we who through our sin harm the Lord.
So often out insecurities cause us to sin: leading us to laziness, or being critical of others, or lying to protect ourselves from being hurt. Such insecurities were at work in King Saul. I Samuel tells us of Saul losing his grip on his rule, at first impressed and then intimidated and threatened by David. Saul’s insecurities find their expression in a spear, a lance, such as that which pierced the side of the Saviour. The extreme horror of the moment of Crucifixion is perhaps only realised once we recall the great turmoil David went through concerning killing the Lord’s anointed. Saul had been anointed King (I Samuel 10) and had tried to kill David, who had himself been anointed ready to be King (I Samuel 16). Saul, not knowing David had been anointed, tried to pierce David and kill him (I Samuel 19:10). When David then had the opportunity to have Saul killed, he would not because he would not strike the Lord’s anointed (I Samuel 24:10). The Psalmist records God’s protective words concerning His people: “Do not touch my anointed ones.” (Psalm 105:15)
Here then we see blasphemy heaped upon blasphemy on the Lord’s anointed, the Messiah, the Christ anointed. We are Christians because we are anointed by the Anointed One. God protects us but the Cross teaches us we will also have to be pierced along with the Saviour. Remember St Francis, remember Padre Pio, who through their closeness and constant desire to be united to the sufferings of Christ received the stigmata, the marks of the Crucifixion on their hands. Our taking of this violent healing to our hearts is to be no less real, no less evident and no less sacrificial.
On the Cross Jesus turns to us all and says again, ‘Will you drink the cup which I am drinking even now?’ He challenges us to live for Him and to die for Him. St Peter did this most clearly, as we would expect from the Prince of the Apostles. The tradition is that St Peter dies upside down on the Cross, which he requests to happen, maybe out of humility because he felt he could not die in the same way as the Lord, or one account gives says it was because Peter said the world was turned upside down by Jesus’ death on the Cross and that that truth would be most clear to him if he were to be crucified upside down. In humility and realising the world has been turned upside down by this divine act of love let us make the Cross our own, especially through contemplating on the instruments of the passion I’ve mentioned this afternoon: the lance, the cup, the pillar and the crown of thorns. T S Elliot, who dubbed Jesus our wounded surgeon talks of how awful it must have been to see all this happening and concludes this section of his poem with words I will finish with: “Again in spite of that, we call this Friday good.”