Traditionally, Good Friday has been has been a day of solemnity in the Church. A day of fasting. A day of once again placing ourselves in the story of the Passion as it is read. This is the day when we kneel before the cross and ponder the Mystery of the Death of God. This is the day when the prayers are a wide-ranging set of intercessions — meant to alert us to the reality that this Death of Deaths brings to life the WHOLE WORLD, not simply to each of us individually. This is a day when we confess into thin air without hearing the familiar assurance of absolution. This is a day when we depart the church building in silence without the benefit of a blessing or the closure of a dismissal. We simply leave — disoriented by the experience of being here and not quite sure about what to do next.
In the Prayer Book, the assumption is that this day will be a Eucharistic fast as well. No celebration of the Holy Eucharist is permitted. No holy food and drink. The clear intent is that we are to leave here today hungry for the comfort of the Eucharist, but with that hunger unfulfilled. In a culture overstuffed with food and everything else, and which feels entitled to getting what it wants when it wants it, to leave a liturgy absent the spiritual comfort of the Holy Meal can be disorienting.
The custom at Trinity for many years has been to offer Communion from the Reserve Sacrament — that is, Bread and Wine previously consecrated at another celebration of the Eucharist. This distribution is in pastoral consideration for those, who, for whatever reason, were unable to make it to the Maundy Thursday liturgy. But notice there will be no words spoken today when you receive it. Communion will be distributed quickly and in silence from standing stations at the food of the Chancel steps. Eat if you desire, but give some thought to getting in line, coming forward and passing by the Bread and Cup. Think about what it might mean to leave here “unfed”, to hunger for Jesus until Easter morning. Consider what it might mean to deprive yourself of that which brings you such spiritual comfort.
But why all the bother? Why all the fuss? Is the liturgy for Good Friday simply meant to activate some sort of personal guilt complex so we can all feel BAD about Jesus’ death again? Are we merely engaging in the time-honored practice of ladling yet another heaping helping of guilt upon ourselves? Will working ourselves up into an overwrought sadness and carrying more guilt out of here than we brought with us in the first place make us more “holy”…or better followers of Jesus?
The Christmas narrative makes the bold proclamation that, in Jesus, we experience “Emmanuel” — God with us. God doesn’t simply manage human history from the safety of eternity. God enters our history, and with it, the limitations of time and space.
God comes to us. In the flesh. With a BODY. God walks among us. God lives with us and gives us glimpses, through words and actions, of what it might be like if we were to take up the Eternal Life of God’s Kingdom, and leave behind the siren song of the Kingdom of Sin, which can only lead to Death.
We’re used to hearing, in our Scriptures, in our liturgies and in particular, on Good Friday, that Jesus died “for” us. My friend and Christian author, Diana Butler Bass, in the spirit of Julian of Norwich, and carrying forward the Good News of Christmas calls us to remember that in the Crucifixion, God doesn’t just die for us. God dies with us.* On Good Friday, we witness God’s complete identification with the human condition — because to enter human life fully means to live until there is no life. To be fully human, God must to only live our life, but die our death as well.
One of the most gut-wrenching pieces of art in Western Christianity is a 16th century painting commonly known as the Isenheim Altarpiece. It is an extraordinary, complicated piece of art, originally hung in the hospital chapel of a monastery. The cover of the altarpiece depicts the Crucifixion of Jesus, not as an event, but as a meditation on suffering. The Body of Jesus is emaciated, elongated and distended. The fingers are splayed like that of an arthritic. The shoulders and elbows appear dislocated. The feet are gnarled, filthy and hideous.
Hung in a hospital at a time when death couldn’t be as easily hidden from view as it is now, this painting undoubtedly served as a reminder for patients that Jesus not only suffered for them on the first Good Friday, he continued to suffer with them in their disease and distress. There Jesus was — God in the flesh — there on the cross, arms stretched wide to receive the suffering of all people for all time. Even the peasant folk in Isenheim. Even the burb folk in Wauwatosa.
We spend so much time attempting to avoid death in general, that to face into the brutal death of Jesus, even after all these centuries is still sickening for most of us. We want to think happy thoughts, but Good Friday won’t allow us to wiggle out of spending time with the horror of Jesus’ death. Good Friday is also a stark reminder that death awaits us all — all of us go down to the grave. Remember we are dust and to dust we shall return.
We avoid and deny sufferings and deaths of all sorts, don’t we? The suffering of guilt, shame or anger. The death of a relationship that could not be repaired. The suffering of disappointment. The death of a dream. The suffering of old age. The death of youth. The suffering of disease. The death of health. The suffering of poverty. The death of economic security. The suffering of war. The death of peace. There are hundreds of deaths — monumental and minimal — complete with their associated sufferings, which will greet us throughout our lives. And then, one day, we we will face the Death from which there will be no waking without the promise of resurrection.
Standing before the Cross today, we are reminded that we don’t walk through any of our deaths alone. Whatever death may come our way, Good Friday testifies to us that this Jesus, this Emanuel, the God-with-us, breathes his last and offers up his spirit into the Divine Life of the Trinity. In a final act of unrelenting love and extravagant faith, the Son of Mary and Son of God wraps himself in death. Jesus holds nothing back for himself or from us. The surrender is complete. It is finished.
*You can read Diana Butler Bass’s Good Friday Sermon at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/dianabutlerbass/2012/04/good-friday-being-with-jesus-at-the-cross/