Saturday, April 15, 2017

Homily for Good Friday

Homily for Good Friday

April 14, 2017
Heb. 4: 14-16; 5: 7-9
Is 52: 13—53: 1-12                                          
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“In the days when Christ was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Heb 5: 7).

As familiar as we are with the story of the Lord’s passion, we know about his “prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears.”  We remember his pleading 3 times in the Garden of Olives with “the one who was able to save him from death”:  “Father, take this cup away from me” (Matt 26:39, etc.).  We remember his anguished cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34).
30 pieces of silver (source unknown)
Yet he was betrayed, arrested, tortured, tried unfairly, convicted falsely, and brutally executed among real criminals.

How, then, can we say, “He was heard because of his reverence”?  How can we say that God heard his prayers and supplications and saved him from death?

It sounds, rather, like the one who “bore our infirmities” and “endured our sufferings,” who was “pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins” (Is 53:4-5).  To use a cliché that’s apt, he was “hung out to dry,” literally hanged on the cross in the blistering Palestinian sun, enduring 3 to 6 hours of agony.  (St. Mark says Jesus was crucified about 9 a.m. (15:25), and Matthew and Luke tho not explicit are consistent with that; only John gives noon as the hour of his condemnation (19:14).  All agree it was about 3 p.m. when he died.)  Those hours of agony included pain shooting from his nailed wrists and feet, breath coming in desperate, painful gasps, throat parched, and onlookers throwing insults at him.
Christ Crowned with Thorns
Cathedral of St. Bavo, Ghent, Belgium (crypt church)
And yet—

The reading from the Letter to the Hebrews also says, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin” (4:15).

Aren’t millions of people mistreated as badly and unjustly as Jesus was?  Don’t millions of people suffer awful agonies and painful deaths they don’t deserve from sickness or disaster?  Don’t all these people cry to God and shed tears, begging to be saved?  Don’t we pray often for the persecuted, the exiled, the victims of war and disaster, and our sick loved ones?

“In the days when Christ was in the flesh,” he learned from his own awful experience “to sympathize with our weaknesses” and was “similarly tested in every way” as any human being has ever been tested.  Sympathize means “to suffer with.”  Jesus has identified himself with our human sufferings, weaknesses, and testing.  Our “great high priest who has passed thru the heavens” 1st passed thru 30-something years of life as a man, suffering and rejoicing, fearing and hoping, enjoying family and friendship, knowing rejection and betrayal, undergoing temptation but always resisting it, always practicing faithful obedience (the “reverence” that Hebrews speaks of)—unlike us, always “without sin.”

One magazine columnist writes about how suffering connects us with our fellow men and women:

It is through suffering that we are broken down and made to confront our own weakness and vulnerability.  This can be a transformative moment, in which we recognize at some deeper level that we are not the center of the universe.  It is a moment that either opens us up to a journey in which we move beyond ourselves to see a profound connection between our suffering and the suffering of others, or it marks the beginning of a desperate attempt to reclaim our centrality in the universe.[1]

So in order to sympathize with us, Jesus had to undergo what we undergo; had to establish “a profound connection between our suffering” and his own.  If he was tempted to make himself the center of the universe, he certainly passed that test, emptying himself completely, serving others completely, giving his own life completely (one layer of the meaning when Jesus utters, “It is finished” [John 19:30] and dies).  This complete offering that he made of himself to God and to all of humanity rendered him capable and deserving of being “made perfect,” Hebrews says (5:9).  Renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl holds that we all seek meaning in our lives, and “the more one forgets himself … the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself,”[2] i.e., becomes the person he (or she) was created to be.  As God Jesus was already perfect in his identity and every other sense, of course.  His moral perfection as a human being, lived in his complete self-giving, meant that he could be made a perfect and complete human being:  perfect in God’s image, like our 1st parents when they came from God’s hand. 
The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ
by Vasili Golinsky
Ironically, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, made perfect in resurrected flesh and seated at God’s right hand in the heavens, has indeed become the center of the universe, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all creation, the one who shall render justice to the living and the dead at the end of history.

So, no, his Father did not save Jesus from death in his human flesh.  He had to offer himself completely—no miraculous delivery from the cross.  Even had Jesus stepped down from the cross or been rescued by the angels (cf. Matt 26:53), wouldn’t he eventually have had to face death as a mortal man, just as Lazarus and the daughter of Jairus eventually had to die “for good,” with no one immediately to call them back?  Would a Jesus who “stayed a great unknown like his father carving wood” in Nazareth, as Judas proposes in Jesus Christ Superstar, and then died quietly in bed identify with us, sympathize with us, like Isaiah’s Suffering Servant—one of the Old Testament prophecies about the One who would save Israel,” take away the sins of many and win pardon for their offenses” (53:12) by offering himself like the Passover lamb (53:7) thru whom Israel was delivered from the angel of death; like the Atonement sacrifice upon which the guilt of us all was laid (53:6)

Because he was obedient to his Father in passing thru all this testing, in fact his Father did save him from death—not in the way Jesus himself may have been praying for in Gethsemane, and certainly not in the way we think someone would be saved from death.  Instead, God raised the mortal flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, the Virgin Mary’s son, to immortal life.  He was made a perfect human being; for God created men and women in his own image, intended for immortality.  “Being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb 5:9).  In the Collect at the beginning of this liturgy, we begged God the Father that we might be so sanctified by divine grace as to be ourselves transformed from “men of earth” into “images of the Man of heaven,” viz., the perfect, risen Jesus.
Jesus placed in the tomb (source unknown)
This risen Jesus, the God-man, has passed thru the heavens.  This is the language of the ancient world’s geography or cosmology (its primitive picture of the universe).  Jesus has gone from earth to the presence of God by passing thru the skies between us and God’s throne.  As a priest in heaven he intercedes for us, just as the Jewish high priest interceded at God’s throne in the Temple’s Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement every year.  But Jesus is our undying and everlasting intercessor, always interceding for us because always with the Father and always sympathetic and merciful to us, whose weaknesses he knows so well.  His priestly intercession for us, on Calvary and forever in heaven, makes him “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”  So we entrust ourselves completely to him, as he has already given himself completely to us.

           [1] Bill McGarvey, “Help Your Brothers,” America, Sept. 26, 2016, p. 32.
           [2] Cited by McGarvey, loc. cit.

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