Isaiah 52:13-53:12: Yet ours were the sufferings he bore.
Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9: We must never let go of the faith we have professed.
John 18:1-19:42: Mine is not a kingdom of this world.
The King sleeps. At this point on Good Friday, peace descends. An overwhelming
tension ceases. From the sixth hour, darkness has covered the land like the lid on a pot
that is seething. The crowds have jeered, the elders mocked. At the foot of the cross,
while our Saviour hangs in awesome solitude, soldiers have cast lots, scurried back and
forth with vinegar and sponges, kept languid lookout for Elijah, as if playing a game. The
Eleven have watched, tormented, from a distance. A sword has pierced Christ’s Mother’s
heart. Then, sudden silence. When Christ yields up his Spirit, the action stops as in a
screenplay, at the director’s call. We kneel in reverence and confusion. We rise – and find
that all is different. Our hearts are heavy still, but no more rent. It is accomplished.
The Passion of John marks this contrast pointedly. Until Christ’s death, the story
moves forward by dialogue. Different voices are heard, interrupting, contradicting, and
disparaging each other. Then we’re lifted, as it were, on eagle’s wings, to see the whole
scene from above. ‘It was the day of preparation’, John tells us. He serenely goes on to
show how Sabbaths of old were all symbols of this moment, when the King takes his
repose. His six days’ work is done. With infinite care he is loosed from the excruciating
tree, bones still unbroken. His body is washed, anointed and perfumed, then wrapped in
cool linen. A tranquil garden tomb gives him a resting place. No one speaks. What could
be said? Signs suffice. Dusk falls. There is a breeze. Crickets sing.
At this point, our celebration also takes a different turn. The cross we shall shortly
adore is no longer just an instrument of torture. It is a symbol of redemption. On it, we
sing, ‘hung the salvation of the world’. An ancient chant for Good Friday is bolder still. It
proclaims that, ‘because of the wood of the tree, joy has entered the world’. On this day
of supreme dereliction, we sing of joy. That is what makes us Christians. We live in the
conviction that death, thanks to Christ’s work, has lost its sting. It is no longer compact
darkness. A rose-fingered dawn can be perceived in it, even today.
The king sleeps. Shall we, then, sleep? No! We must watch. We must be vigilant in
prayer. We must be ready and remember: what in Christ has been accomplished is still
worked out in us. For us the Sabbath is not yet. We have to labour. Romanos the
Melodist, the great sixth-century poet-theologian, sings, in a hymn on the Crucifixion:
My soul, my soul, why do you sleep? The end is drawing near, you’ll be
in tumult and confusion. Therefore recover now your senses so that Christ
our God may save you, he who everywhere is everything’s fulfillment.
These lines are echoed in a tremendous observation by Pascal: ‘Christ will be in agony
until the world ends. We shouldn’t sleep during that time.’ What he means is not that
Jesus is a captive of the cross. Golgotha, thank God, is locked in time. It can’t return.
Christ, once risen, will not die again. Death has no power over him. Yet it is true to say
that his agony persists. What Christ has done must be assumed by us, his members. We
have our cross to bear, our night to penetrate. Our eyes shall see, and not another’s.
Our crosses, for the most part, are discreet and unspectacular: the wages of sin,
paid out time and again; pain in illness; pain in relationships; failing faculties; the
thought of death.
We are daily reminded, though, that ours are hostile times. Our Church
is increasingly a martyrs’ Church. Each day, Christ’s call to ‘follow’ is enacted in the lives
of men and women who, like him, are ‘despised and rejected’. Let us remember one such.
Fr Frans van der Lugt was a Jesuit priest who for fifty years served in Syria. His base was
Homs, the Old City, which for three years has been under rebel siege. Some weeks ago an
armistice allowed some Christians to escape what had become a death trap. I wrote, then,
to a friend, another Jesuit, to ask if Fr Frans was safe? He replied: ‘Fr Frans has chosen
not to leave. Not only is he pastor of the Christians who have nowhere else to go; he has
become the shepherd, too, of many others. Even men we tend to fear have found in him a
father, one who breathes on them a spirit of charity and peace.
He is a great man. What he has done and continues to do will forever remain a luminous point in
the night of our anguish.’ 23 days later, Fr Frans was dragged out of his house and shot – not,
I stress, by another religion, but by an individual for whom this priest’s adherence to the cross
was a scandal. Golgotha is past, yet continues. Fr Frans shows us what discipleship can involve.
He died as he had lived: peaceful, loving and forgiving. His gift of himself will bear fruit,
we can be sure. When we bend low to kiss the cross, let us remember what we undertake.
We pledge to live and die with Christ, to forgive and to be reconciled. We leave bitterness
behind. We resolve to die to sin. If we’re sincere, the cross will vanquish now as it did
then. What today makes us weep will, three days hence, fill us with gladness.