Good Friday 2016
TAMELY, frail body, abstain to-day ; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur ; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away ;
She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who’s all ;
She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall ;
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead ;
She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity ;
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.
John Donne wrote those words in 1608, one of the rare years, such as now in 2016, when Good Friday falls on March 25, the date one which the church typically recognizes the Festival of the Annunication to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is indeed seemingly incongruous to fall on the same day–indeed, it will not happen again for another century. The promise of the birth of Christ linked together with Christ’s bloody, brutal death. Donne’s poem hints at this incongruity with lines such as “The cedar plants itself and falls” and that wonderful image “Gabriel gives Christ to her and he her to John”
And yet Donne also makes the observation that these two events, incongruous as they might seem are indeed two sides of the same coin. “As in plain maps the furthest west is east.” Indeed, there was a period in the early centuries of the church (when dates were always shifting around) when the annunciation and Good Friday coincided intentionally. While we could get side-tracked with many many implications from that, there is one that I particularly want to highlight. This is something of a theological soap-box for me, namely the place of the doctrine of the incarnation in our observance of the crucifixion.
In my Palm Sunday sermon, I mentioned that a central image at the heart of our Christian faith is the kenosis, the self-emptying, the outpouring of Christ. That self-giving begins in the the work of the incarnation, when God comes to dwell with us in human form, but it culminates in the work of the cross. The ultimate act of self-denial, self sacrifice. Utter humility.
Good Friday is a day when we look with honesty at the darkness of our world. Both the cosmic–terror attacks, on going racial injustice. And the utterly personal–short tempers, unreflective consumerism. This is a dark day. But it is also the day that God confronted that darkness head-on. In defiance of the powers and principalities of a world that so often tells us to look out for ourselves … God gives of himself. Utterly. Completely. Willingly. The ultimate act of love. The work of reconciliation that is first signaled in the Angel’s proclamation to Mary comes to its completion in God’s willing self-sacrifice. And so Christ can cry from the cross “It is finished.”
Many of us are uncomfortable with Good Friday. Which is fair enough because there are some terrible theories in the Christian tradition about what it is that happened today. We rightly push against the idea that of a vengeful God who demanded human blood to atone for our sinfulness. But I also want to push against the idea that I hear preached and affirmed in our more progressive Christian circles that Jesus wasn’t really “supposed” to die. He was a victim of human betrayal. Good Friday didn’t need to happen. The violence of this day says more about us than it does about God. It seems we either cast Jesus as the hapless victim of a tyrannical deity or an angry mob. But in doing so we often rob the Christian narrative of its drama. The drama of God’s totally self-giving love for us. The drama of power displayed through weakness. Of defeat that will give way to victory.
There is another poem that links this theme of incarnation and crucifixion together, this one by Madeline L’Engle:
O you who bear the pain of the whole earth,
I bore you.
O you whose tears give human tears their worth,
I laughed with you.
You, who, when your hem is touched, give power,
I nourished you.
Who turn the day to night in this dark hour,
light comes from you.
O you who hold the world in your embrace,
I carried you.
O you who laughed and ate and walked the shore,
I played with you.
And I, who with all others, died for,
now I hold you.
May I be faithful to this final test,
in this last time I hold my child, my son,
His body close enfolded to my breast,
the holder held: the bearer bare.
Mourning to joy: darkness to mourn.
Open, my arms: your work is done.
Amen. It is finished.