holy cross sermon for good friday, year a, april 18, 2014

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There are a number of poems that serve as theological touchstones for me, especially as regards particular feasts and liturgical seasons. Pentecost always evokes Philip Larkin’s “Whitsun Weddings.” Those who have come to our weeknight classes for any length of time will perhaps remember my love for “God’s Grandeur” and “Heaven Haven,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

There are some occasions when a strict narrative, such as you might find in a newspaper article, are grossly insufficient. Several months ago, I spoke about the great 15th century panel-painting by Rogier van der Weyden, of the deposition of our Lord from the cross, and how in that painting, on the figure of Christ, blood runs down his body from the wound in his side, under his loincloth, and down his thigh – thus drawing a thematic connection between the wound that Jesus received on the cross with that of his first wound: his Circumcision, eight days after his Nativity. Van der Weyden thus cunningly and subtly reminds the viewers of his painting that the infant Jesus was born FOR THIS, for the events of this day. And that, even on Christmas morning, the destiny of the Holy Child is the Cross.

Along these lines, Good Friday brings to mind a poem by W.H. Auden, a portion of his Christmas Oratorio, written during the dark hours of the Second World War. It is, as I say, a “Christmas Oratorio,” but Auden, like van der Weyden, evinces (consciously or not) the connection between the Lord’s incarnation and his crucifixion:

Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,
Dreading to find its Father lest it find
The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:
Alone, alone, about our dreadful wood.

Where is that Law for which we broke our own,
Where now that Justice for which Flesh resigned
Her hereditary right to passion, Mind
His will to absolute power? Gone. Gone.
Where is that Law for which we broke our own?

The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.

We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

Nothing that is possible can save our fearful, lost, doomed humanity. But the miraculous impossibility of the incarnation, of divine nature and human nature joined in the person of Jesus – we might plausibly hope in this. The very extravagance of the impossibility makes it credible.

The great Church Father, Tertullian, noticed this paradox around the turn of the second century. He wrote: “prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est,” “it is by all means to be believed, BECAUSE it is absurd.” And he noted, like van der Weyden, like Auden, that the credible paradox fittingly extends beyond the incarnation, all the way to Good Friday (and beyond):

Crucifixus est Dei Filius, non pudet, quia pudendum est;
et mortuus est Dei Filius, prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est;
et sepultus resurrexit, certum est, quia impossibile. (De Carne Christi V, 4)

“The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful.
And the Son of God died: it is wholly credible, because it is unsuitable.
And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.”

Pope Benedict, commenting on the great anonymous theologian of the 5th – 6th century, known to us as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, wrote that all of theology resolves itself eventually into music, into the great, silent hymn of all creation, in praise of the Creator. Why should this be? Its because language, and the cognitive faculties out of which it arises, eventually exhausts itself as it tries to run down the Source of all being. It is the mystical cognate of the principle set forth by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews: precisely BECAUSE “all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do,” (Heb. 4.13), he with whom we have to do remains beyond the grasp of all, who are themselves “open and laid bare” to him. He eludes us so thoroughly that, today, he is taken down from the cross, and the earth closes over him, and he descends into hell. “Nothing can save us that is possible.” Or to put it another way, it was inevitable that our salvation should burst the bonds of our reality, of our cognition, of our language, of our world.

The suitability of poetry to theology is to be found in this meta-symmetry of Good Friday. Where is God on this day? He is a lifeless corpse, nailed to a tree. And the whole scene, according to St. John, reaches a peak with the fulfillment of the prophecy: “They shall look on him whom they have pierced,” (John 19.37 and Zechariah 12.10). All the teaching of the Gospel, the whole prolix narrative, has led here, to this gazing in astounded silence. The pilgrim way has led to the abyss; the triumphant answer was indeed to be this.

But unlike the disciples on that first Good Friday, we have the benefit of hindsight. We gaze in silence from a future on the other side of the Lord’s Resurrection. And it is a perspective that has the power of riveting us to the spot. If we flee, if we leave him alone, we are without excuse. If we answer other than “Yes,” to his question, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” we are without excuse. The world is dead. Love is dead. God is dead. But we know that is not the end of the story. Another chapter will open in the darkness of this space tomorrow night. And, as Hans Urs von Balthasar said, we will reacquaint ourselves with the even more fundamental truth that in this OUR future, all shape will arise from this void, and all wholeness will draw its strength from these creating wounds.

Today it is our lot, our vocation, to sit on this hillside, to look on him whom WE (indeed) have pierced – with our obstinacy, our pride, our ravenous desire, our bloodlust, our SINS that made this horror necessary – and to know that, in the words of T.S. Eliot:

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood –
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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