GSC – Good Friday 2019
We can sometimes mishear songs and this changes their meaning, occasionally rather comically. Part of Handel’s Messiah that might be sung at this time of year has a chorus where the choir sing, “We have turnèd everyone to his own way.” I remember someone telling me that she remembered hearing it - “We have turnèd everyone to his own way” - as a child being sung and wondering why they were all singing not turnèd but about having turnips! Similarly, I misunderstood the hymn as a child often sang at this time of year: “There is a green hill far away without a city wall where the dear Lord was crucified, who died to save us all.” I thought “without a city wall” meant it was nice and open, without a wall, but, of course, it means outside the city wall.
I want to think on this most holy evening about this location of the crucifixion, outside the city wall. If you go to the site of the Crucifixion in Jerusalem now - the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - it is inside the city walls so it can be easy to forget that originally this was not the case. We’ve just heard St John attest that it was out of the city that they went. Indeed, the author of the letter to the Hebrews clearly believed there was a significance to this, for he wrote: “The bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by His own blood. Let us then go to Him outside the camp and bear the abuse He endured.” (Hebrews 13:11-13).
Hebrews is referring to the practice as described for the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:27). On this day, which happened around September/October time, the priest made atonement for his own sins and then on the next day made sacrifice for the sins of the people. It was also the occasion on which the scape goat was chosen, being a goat on which was placed the transgressions of all the people. The gathered would then chase the goat out into desert. A scape goat. It will perhaps seem odd to us that such details are contained in Sacred Scripture: no such rites and ceremonies are part of our life as the Church and rightly so. Hebrews has earlier argued that the sacrifice of Jesus is effective in a way the old sacrifices could never be, after all, “unlike the other high priests, Jesus has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; this He did once for all when He offered Himself” (Hebrews 7:27). Yes, Christ on the Cross is both priest and sacrifice. He does the offering, as a Priest, but is also that which is offered, His Body and His Blood. One of the Easter hymns we sing uses these titles in addressing the Lord: “Paschal Lamb, thine offering finished … Great High Priest of our profession.”
And no wonder Jesus was crucified outside the city: this was a mucky place, even the name communicates it: the place of the skull. Some traditions have associated this place, not with any old skull, but with the skull of Adam, the first human being, the father of the human race. St Jerome, who knew the Holy Land well and is buried in Bethlehem, attests to this in one of his letters written three hundred years after the death of Jesus: “So it came to pass that the second Adam, that is the blood of Christ, as it dropped from the cross, washed away the sins of the buried first being, the first Adam” (Letter 46). It’s a holy thought, and a rather elegant symbol of what we commemorate on this holy day of the death of the Saviour giving us all a fresh start.
Outside Jerusalem was a grotty place generally. Outside was also the place called Gehenna, referred to by our Lord several times as a place where folk are cast out, thrown aside to perish (eg. Matthew 10:28). It has historically been labelled as the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, outside the City of David and where kings like Ahaz sacrificed their children (II Chronicles 28:3). It became a sort of dumping ground where a general smouldering of rubbish happened, a fire constantly going (Mark 9:43). It provided a very clear image of hell and some translations of the Bible even translate the valley to which Jesus refers - Gehenna - as ‘hell.’
So outside was bad. But inside the city was seen as holy, indeed this concept even predates there even being a city for the people of God to call holy, for we see it when the camp was kept holy, the mobile home that the people of God had with them as they journeyed homeless to the Promised Land. The reason for this is made clear in the laws given in Deuteronomy 23. It is “because the Lord your God travels along with your camp, to save you and to hand over your enemies to you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that He may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you” (Deuteronomy 23:14). God’s abiding presence with His people requires their behaviour to be different, to be holy.
This mindset can lead to hypocrisy, against which we are to be on our guard. The hypocrisy can come because we then think we need to be all beautifully behaved in church, when the priest is around, or when people can see us, but we can do whatever we want behind closed doors, or when it’s not a Sunday. Indeed, I heard a story once of a group of Protestants who when their minister was around at a party they wouldn’t have alcohol but as soon as he left, they all got the bottles of bacardi out. It’s sheer hypocrisy.
So, we’re not to embrace this hypocrisy, but we are to hear the call to conversion that Jesus, who hangs on the Cross, extends to us all. St Alphonsus Ligouri writes as a meditation on one of the Stations of the Cross: “My Jesus, loaded with contempt, nail my heart to your feet, that I may ever remain there, to love you, and never more to leave you.” ‘Nail my heart to your feet’ gets me as I consider the sins I have committed that lead to Jesus experiencing and enduring what He does today.
This sorrow for our sin also transforms us into desiring to be worthy to be inside the camp, inside the city, in communion with our pierced Saviour. Maybe the image of a fancy hotel is helpful: you know you go somewhere where everyone’s dressed smartly, talking quietly and delicately, minding their p’s and q’s. The place we’re invited to abide isn’t posh or fancy but it is a place where our lives are to come up to scratch. Jesus uses a different metaphor in one of His parables, indeed it’s a parable He told in Holy Week, once He’d arrived in Jerusalem ready to die. The Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1-4) has a great feast, a fancy affair, and those who were invited would not come so everyone in the street was invited, pointing us to our adoption as God’s people into the fellowship of the Church through Baptism. But one was not wearing a wedding robe and the King in the Parable asks him how he got in. The attendee is speechless and is chucked out, into the outer darkness and our Lord concludes: “Many are called but few are chosen.” Jesus is crucified outside the city wall to call us in but now we’re there our lives will need to reflect better that love and that commitment to Jesus, which our high calling demands. Amen.