…he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. †
As Episcopalians we are people of the incarnation. On Christmas Eve we celebrate God-with-us with processions and candles and joyous music and evergreens. And we should because incarnation is at the heart of Anglican theology.
As Christians we are people of the Resurrection. We celebrate God’s victory over death with processions and candles and joyous music and a feast on Easter Sunday—and every Sunday. And we should because every Sunday is Easter.
But as disciples we are people of the cross. We don’t exactly celebrate Good Friday. Honestly, we don’t even get why we call it good. The procession is somber. The candles have been extinguished and removed. If there is music on Good Friday it is somber.
It is a great mystery, the cross. We hate suffering and death and we do not understand why the one we are called to love more than anyone else—more than our mothers and fathers, more than our sons and daughters, more than our wives and husbands—why Jesus, whose birth we so joyously celebrated, had to suffer and die such a horrible death.
There is a collect in the Book of Common Prayer that petitions God to grant that all stewards of God’s mysteries may impart to God’s faithful people, by word and example, the knowledge of God’s grace. After the sermon tonight we will pray that God would “look favorably on God’s whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery.”
We are the stewards of the mystery of the cross.
The night before I graduated from seminary, a group of us gathered for farewell party. We all knew what parishes we were going to be assigned after graduation. At that party, one of my classmates challenged the rest of us to deal with a certain passage from Paul in our first sermons after graduation. “When I came to you it was not with lofty words and wisdom but preaching Christ and him crucified.”
I knew immediately that was what I had to do but it was the last thing I wanted to do. I had just spent three years studying theology after graduating from college—all so that I could learn lofty words. As for wisdom, I was still young enough to believe I had the answers. But the cross—Jesus crucified—there are not enough lofty words in the dictionary or enough collective wisdom in all the universities in the world to explain away that mystery. Why did the creative Word of God that spoke into being all that is and called it good—that Word that became flesh and dwelt among us—have to die such a hideous, torturous death?
I was present at the death of a man in her early thirties, about the same age as Jesus when Jesus died. This young died in a darkened hospital room on Good Friday. He had been in the prime of his life—the picture of health. Then because of something I cannot understand or begin to explain, he suffered a rapidly debilitating disease and died on that Good Friday. Outside, the east Texas noonday sun was shining brightly on spring flowers but someone had closed the blinds in his hospital room. He, like Jesus, died in the darkness even though it was the middle of the day.
I stood in a corner of the room trying to be present without being in the way. This tall, dark haired, bearded young man looked very much like our familiar Caucasian images of Jesus. When he died, his mother, whose name was Virginia, whose namesake was the Virgin mother of God, looked up at his father and, through her grief, said to him, “I did not raise him for this.”
“I did not raise him for this.”
Immediately I was struck by her words and the incredible set of coincidences. Virginia, like the Blessed Virgin Mary—the blessed Virgin—watched as her son died in the darken noonday of Good Friday. I wondered if St. Mary had looked up to the One her son called Father and, through her grief, declared to heaven, “I did not raise him for this!”
But she did.
God was as silent that day as the poor father was in that Texas hospital room.
The incarnation is beautiful theology—that’s why we love Christmas so much—and the Resurrection is our defining theology—without the resurrection there simply is nothing to proclaim—but the cross is the only theology that can save us.
Jesus had to die because of our sin. The second Person of the Trinity, present at creation, the Word that separated light from dark and called it good; separated dry land from ocean and called it good; spoke into being the trees and flowers and vegetables and called them good; spoke into being the birds and fish and mammals and called them good; and, finally, from the dust of the earth, formed us in God’s own image and called us good—this creative Good Word came to us—Emanuel—God with us.
The thing is we are sinners. God sees the good in us but we keep fighting. One of the sons of Adam and Eve killed his brother and humanity has been a bloody mess ever since. So the cross had to be. Whenever we encounter something good, we try to control it, contain it, and master it. If we write something good, we copyright it. It we invent something good, we patent it. When we heard the Good News—Jesus’ description of life in the Kingdom of God—we moved immediately to institutionalize it, to codify it, to canonize it, to nail it down. We crucified it.
The cross had to be because of our sin. So what is good about Good Friday?
It is good that we are free to a life of the cross—discipleship—because of the incarnation and the resurrection. We are all Christmas and Easter Christians. We are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus but, unlike him, the life we are called to lose is a life not worth living. It is a life of poverty no matter what our net worth may be. It is a life of slavery no matter how many people serve us. It is a life of captivity no matter how free we are to travel far from home.
What is good about Good Friday?
When Jesus said, “It is finished,” and bowed his head and died, that is exactly what he meant. It is finished. All that we need for salvation is done. We are free to be people of the incarnation. We are free to be people of the resurrection. We are free because he has taken on our sinfulness and died and lived to tell it.