Good Friday 2011
“It is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us. Let us be confident, then, in approaching the throne of grace, that we shall have mercy from him and find grace when we are in need of help.” These words from the Letter to the Hebrews sum up beautifully the message of the Gospel and the truth of the Christian faith. They help us to put the often sad reality of life on earth in the context of God’s will for our eternal happiness and salvation. When we consider the suffering around and within us, it is really very difficult to believe in a loving God, a God who wants life and not death. Even if our faith is strong, we struggle to believe. It is not easy to accept as God’s will the immense world of suffering we are all too well aware of and at times close our eyes to.
The story of Christ’s Passion, a story of pain and rejection, of physical and of spiritual anguish, does not explain or take away that suffering and its causes, whether human or natural, but it does say something very important to us, something fundamental on God’s part, that in the Mystery of the Incarnation God enters fully into the world in order to share to the ultimate consequences of the tragedy of all human and created life.
Julian of Norwich tells us of a conversation she once had with the Lord Jesus. It sheds light on the interplay between our suffering and sin and the Passion of Christ. “Our good Lord Jesus Christ said, ‘Are you well satisfied with my suffering for you?’ ‘Yes, thank you, good Lord,’ I replied. ‘Yes, good Lord, bless you.’ And the kind Lord Jesus said, ‘If you are satisfied, I am satisfied too. It gives me greater happiness and joy and, indeed, eternal delight ever to have suffered for you. If I could possibly have suffered more, I would have done so.’ And here I saw that the love which made him suffer is as much greater than his pain as heaven is greater than earth. It was because of this love he said, ‘If I could possibly have suffered more, I would have done so.’” We see that it is for love that Christ suffered and died, for love of the Father and for love of creation. Indeed, St Catherine of Siena says, “Nails were not enough to hold God-and-man nailed and fastened to the cross, had not love held him there.”
I wonder if you have read that lovely book about Peter Abelard by Helen Waddell. In it there is a scene of excruciating tenderness and pain when Abelard hears a thin cry of intolerable anguish, like the cry of a child, and discovers a rabbit caught in a trap. He tries to save it but it dies in his arms. Heartbroken Albelard asks his friend Thibault, “Do you think there is a God at all? Whatever has come to me for my sins, I earned it. But what did this one do?” Thibault replies, “I know. Only, I think God is in it too.” Albelard looks up sharply, “In it? Do you mean that it makes him suffer, the way it does us?” They go on to discuss the suffering of God, the God who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. But when Thibault says that God suffers all the time and more than we do, Abelard, perplexed, asks if he is referring to Calvary. Thibault shakes his head. “That was only a piece of it – the piece we saw – in time.” Then he points to a fallen tree, sawn through the middle and says, “That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree. But you only see it where it is cut across. That is what Christ’s life was; the bit of God we saw. And we think that God is like that, because Christ was like that, kind, and healing sins, and forgiving people. We think God is like that for ever, because it happened once, with Christ.” “Then, Thibault,” Abelard said slowly, “you think that all this,” he looked down at the little quiet body in his arms, “all the pain of the world, was Christ’s cross?” “God’s cross,” said Thibault, “and it goes on.”
No one is alone in their suffering, whatever form that suffering might take. God is with them, and in Christ, God suffers with them. To go back to the Letter to the Hebrews, “It is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our sufferings.” And the text goes on, “During his life on earth, he offered prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him out of death, and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard.” Even so, it is in suffering that, although he was Son, he learnt to obey.” It is only in suffering that we truly come to know and see the living God. He is in our wounds, the open wounds of our suffering and sin, the wounds of the Risen Christ. The prophet Isaiah puts it this way, “Ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried. He was pierced through for our faults, crushed for our sins. On him lies a punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds we are healed.”
On Easter night, in the Upper Room, as Jesus greets his disciples, “Peace be with you,” he shows them his hands and his side, the hands that had been nailed to the cross and the side the soldier’s lance had pierced and from which there came out blood and water. The wounds of Christ will remain open until the Last Day when he, the victor over sin and death, will hand over to the Father the whole of creation redeemed and renewed. We as members of the Body of Christ, as participants in his suffering, play our part in the work of redemption. Suffering is not futile. All suffering is redemptive, all suffering leads to salvation, all suffering has meaning and purpose and is a channel of grace and forgiveness if we see Christ, if we see God in the suffering, in the horror and in the pain.
Last night we sang, “We must glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; he is our salvation, our life and resurrection” and today we sing, “This is the wood of the cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world. Come let us worship.” As we commemorate the Lord’s Passion this afternoon, may God in his mercy help us grow in faith and holiness and so live to the full the mystery of our life in Christ. Amen.