Good Friday is the only day of the year in which the Church does not permit celebrations of the Eucharist. This prohibition serves to underline the unique sacrifice of Christ's body on the Cross and the blood that flowed from his wounds. All communion services take their meaning from this. They may replicate Christ’s sacrifice, but they can never replace it. It is quite a widespread practice, nowadays, for the Liturgy of Good Friday to end with people receiving communion from the elements consecrated on Maundy Thursday, before leaving the church in silence. But on this day the heart of the Liturgy is to be found elsewhere.
In line with a very ancient practice, the Maundy Thursday service ends with the ‘stripping of the altar’. Every item of furniture, and every hint of decoration --altar hangings, pulpit falls, candlesticks, reading stands, hassocks, flags, crosses and crucifixes -- are all removed, until the sanctuary is completely bare and the altar stands alone, in a sort of splendid isolation. This emptiness is how the church looks when the Good Friday liturgy begins. Then, as on a Sunday, a lesson from the Old Testament, a Psalm and an Epistle are read, followed by the story of the Passion, told this time in the version according to John. After priest and people join in a series of ‘solemn’ prayers and intercessions, a simple wooden cross is brought into church and placed where everyone can see it. There follows ‘The Veneration of the Cross’.
In some places, ‘The Veneration’ is conducted with great ceremony, in other places with much less, but at its centre lies this refrain: “By virtue of your cross, joy has come into the world”. This, when we think about it, contains a remarkable conjunction – on the one hand crucifixion, on the other hand joy. Surely it is Christmas when we sing ‘Joy to the World’. ‘Cross of Jesus, Cross of Sorrow’ seems much more in keeping with Good Friday. Yet it was indeed the cross, not the manger or the empty tomb, that became the universal symbol of the Good News that Christians felt compelled to preach.
It is worth observing straight away that this symbol is not a crucifix, on which the body of Christ still hangs, but an empty cross. Yet its emptiness does nothing to diminish its significance as one of the most cruel instruments of torture and death ever devised by human beings. Its meaning, then, is to be found at the intersection of sin and suffering. The Cross's emptiness, however, points beyond this, to Easter, and in this way conveys its further meaning as a source of joy. The empty cross is thus a threefold symbol. It expresses the reality of evil, it signals Christ’s victory over it, and it invites us to share in that victory.
Yet we can only do so if first, and repeatedly, we grasp just what was involved in Christ’s sacrifice. The Good Friday lesson from Isaiah speaks powerfully to this point, so powerfully that four verses were chosen for incorporation in Handel’s great choral work Messiah.
He was despised and rejected of men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief:
Surely he hath borne our griefs,
and carried our sorrows:
He was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities:
the chastisement of our peace was upon him;
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
The Veneration of the Cross, as the focal point of the Good Friday liturgy, encourages us to look on the Cross at its starkest, and at the same time to anticipate the joy that is about to break out from it at Easter.
Reunion: Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit
In the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel the angel of the Annunciation says to Mary “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; for that reason the holy child to be born will be called Son of God” (Luke 1: 35). Twenty-two chapters later, the story that began with an announcement of incarnation in advance of Jesus’ birth, is now brought full circle by the prayer he utters moments before his dies. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”, and with these words, Luke tells us, he died.
Jesus’s final Word from the Cross adds an additional dimension to his murmured declaration a short time before, ‘It is finished’. With his earthly mission complete, he returns to the source from which he came. Yet it is easy to misunderstand this moment that tradition labels ‘re-union’. The early Christians soon began to think that Jesus was not a messenger sent by God, as the prophets had been. His relationship to God was much more intimate than this. With hindsight they came to see that his life and death had a unique authority. His words and deeds were not simply a revelation FROM God, but more dramatically a revelation OF God. Subsequent attempts to grasp this truth, and express it more adequately, led them first to the perplexing doctrine of the Incarnation of God in Christ, and then to the even more perplexing doctrine of the Trinity – Jesus is not simply Son of God, but God the Son, the second person of the Trinity.
These are doctrines with which Christian thinkers and theologians have struggled ever since, and though the technicality of their debates makes them a closed book to many wayfaring Christians, the two doctrines nevertheless lie at the heart of the Creeds that Christians all over the world have affirmed repeatedly for almost two thousand years. Why? Why struggle in this way? Why can’t Jesus simply be a prophet and a teacher, like Moses or Muhammad?
The answer lies in the Resurrection. It was not the agonized body on the Cross that replaced Peter’s fear with faith, or that moved the first Christians to spread the Good News at the risk of persecution. The driving force, rather, was their belief that the Crucifixion had been a victory of Good over Evil, a triumph of Love’s redeeming work, even in the face of the very worst that human beings can do to each other. The proof of this belief, though it took some time to sink in, was to be found in the empty tomb, and the Risen Christ. So the final words with which Jesus died are an act of commitment that gives expression to the most profound trust. It is the union with God constituted by that trust from which, strangely, new life springs.
‘In God we Trust’ has been used quite widely as a motto, most famously by the United States, but by other countries and communities also. No doubt it has been proposed and adopted in all sincerity. Still, set alongside the last Word from the Cross, these affirmations can hardly fail to sound shallow. That is why there is a perpetual need to turn to Christ on the Cross, and seek to discover afresh what a spirit of trust in God truly means.
Triumph: John 19:30: It is finished
The word ‘finished’ is ambivalent. It can mean simply ‘has come to an end’, or more positively, it can mean ‘has brought to completion’. The difference is key to understanding Jesus’ sixth Word from the Cross. His cry -- ‘It is finished’ – does not merely signal the end of his suffering. The Greek word usually translated ‘finished’ is one that would have been used on legal documents to confirm the completion of a business deal, something like the exchange of ‘missives’ in Scots law. So when Jesus cries ‘It is finished’ this is not to be understood as an expression of relief that his agony is over, but as an affirmation that his divine mission has been completed.
The completion of his mission through his sacrifice on the Cross has been the focal point of intense theological debate. It underlay the 16th century Protestant reformers rejection of Catholic teaching on the Eucharist which held that Christ’s sacrifice was repeated every time the priest said mass. This implied, the reformers thought, that Christ’s work on the Cross was not complete. The authors of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer shared this view, and the words they wrote for its communion service, hammer home the point: “Jesus Christ . . . upon the cross . . . made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction . . .”, words that are still used in the 1970 Scottish liturgy.
This emphasis on the one, perfect sacrifice, however, leaves a question about what it is we are doing when we celebrate Holy Communion time and again. Some of the reformers were content to say that the communion service is simply a memorial, a way of remembering what Christ did, like the commemoration of a great military victory. Others, though, and with them many Anglican reformers, were reluctant to say that taking communion is just a way of remembering, and accomplishes nothing in itself. For a start, Christ speaks the words of institution at the Last Supper, the night before the Crucifixion, and invites his followers to eat the bread and drink the wine as the Body and Blood that will be broken and shed next day, on the Cross. How could they have been remembering something that had not yet happened?
The issue, of course, is far too large and complex to be settled in a few paragraphs. One thought is this, though. In Jesus’ cry “It is finished” we might hear an echo of the Book of Genesis – “On the seventh day God finished the work that he had done”. God’s completion of Creation did not bring things to an end. On the contrary, with Creation’s ‘completion’ the unfolding life of the cosmos began, an unfolding life that is cyclical. It is within the cycles of night and day, summer and winter, birth and death, seed time and harvest, that human beings fashion their lives. Viewed in this way, ‘completion’ is the beginning of existence not the end, and repetition is renewal not recollection. Life always traces a pattern, and follows a path. This does not mean, plainly, that all lives and times are the same. Rather, individuality is realized again and again within the patterns God has ordained, and within the families and communities that sustain those patterns.
What is true of God’s creation is true of all creativity. The artist completes a ‘finished’ work – a poem, a play, a novel, a song. This act of completion is the start, not the end, of a work of art and it brings into existence something that enriches our lives precisely because it can be said, or acted, or read, or sung, again and again. So too with Christ’s redemptive work on the Cross. The completion of his mission inaugurates a renewed Creation within which we are offered redeeming life. This life also has, and needs, its pattern, the pattern being Christ. To pattern our lives on Christ as the incarnation of God requires repeated acts of prayer and praise, returning again and again for the spiritual nourishment that is to be found in the sacrament of the altar.
Unbeknownst to Pilate, though perceived by the penitent thief, the Cross’s mocking notice ‘King of the Jews’ contains a great insight. Contrary to common sense, the Cross truly is a throne, and the thorns really are a crown, because God has chosen to make them so. Paradoxically, it is with the cry “It is finished” that the Reign of Christ begins.
Distress: John 19:28: I am thirsty.
Jesus’ fifth Word from the Cross is brief and simple, -- ‘I am thirsty’. Only John’s Gospel records these words, but all the gospel Passion narratives recount Christ’s being offered vinegar or sour wine to drink. John (like Matthew) picks up on the resonance between this brief episode and Psalm 69 - “They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst”., Luke makes the offer of sour wine part of the soldiers’ mockery. In Mark’s account it looks more like a fleeting, if ineffectual, act of kindness on ‘someone’s’ part. Which is it? There is no answer, and the fact that it is sour wine or vinegar that Jesus is offered doesn’t settle the matter. Probably, this was the only thing available and in any case soldiers, like the poor in general, would not have had anything better to drink themselves. Mockery or kindness? We can take the actions of the by-standers either way.
Is there a deeper meaning to be read into the words themselves? Any attempt to find one runs the risk of side-lining the reality of Jesus’ physical distress, and thus failing to appreciate the profound sense of his humanity that this desperate cry conveys. Taken simply as an expression of thirst, it is a further sign of God’s incarnation, which is to say, the full biological embodiment of the divine in the human on the Cross. Viewed as a statement of physical distress, this fifth Word provides an essential corrective to the heresy known as ‘Docetism’ – the tendency to think that since it makes no sense to suppose that an almighty and everlasting God can suffer, the sufferings of the earthly Jesus must have been apparent rather than real. Docetism appealed to some newly converted Christians very early on, as several of the Epistles suggest. But it strikes so radically at the doctrine of the Incarnation, it has long been condemned as heretical.
Behind Docetism lies the still greater heresy of Gnosticism, the belief that reality is made up of two separate worlds – the physical and the spiritual. For Gnostics, the physical is inferior to the spiritual, and so truly religious people must spurn the physical in order to embrace the spiritual. Against this, orthodox Christianity has always held that through God’s unique presence in the Man Jesus, the material world is sanctified, made holy. Nor is this sanctification confined to the biological person of Jesus. Through him, water becomes a means of spiritual cleansing in baptism, bread and wine become the means of communion with God by spiritually incorporating the faithful into the body of Christ. The fifth Word from the Cross should serve as a reminder of these truths. Jesus himself, at the crisis of his Crucifixion, has a compelling desire to drink. He shares our need for physical things like water and wine.
The issue at stake here is not a matter of arcane theology. Indeed, it has particular relevance this Holy Week and Easter when gathering together for holy communion through bread and wine, even on Maundy Thursday, has been forbidden. Almost every church is offering some form of worship online, and encouraging congregations to ‘tune in’, or simply ‘prayer along’ at home. The hope, of course, is that even in these difficult times of enforced isolation, intending to share -- without actually sharing – the bread, the wine, the peace, the responses, can sustain the spiritual community that is the Church. The danger, though, is that we fail to remember, even perhaps to see, that this is no minor adjustment in difficult circumstances. Christians can indeed be united at a distance in time and space through prayer, but the essence of the Eucharist lies in its being shared, as Jesus first shared it with his disciples. To think otherwise, to think that purely ‘spiritual’ or ‘intentional’ communion is an adequate substitute, is to drift into Gnosticism.
Even when it comes to prayer, the communal seems essential. Every soul can reach out to God, of course, but Jesus’ own words reveal the spiritual limitations of social isolation. His explicit promise has an essentially communal dimension: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst” (Matthew 18:20).
Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
The fourth Word from the Cross is the only one recorded in two Gospels. Like the first and the last, it is addressed to God, and dramatically so. ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ This intense cry of abandonment has often been found troubling. Does it mean that, in the depth of his suffering Jesus thought he had been abandoned? If so, doesn't this imply that at the climax of his mission, he himself lost faith in God? Many persecuted Christians have felt this sense of abandonment, but could Christ himself have done so? And if he did, what are we to make of it? Does it show that, ultimately, even the most profound trust in God is mistaken?
It is helpful to remember that in this agonized cry, Jesus is using the opening words of Psalm 22. Perhaps because of his failing strength, the most he can do is repeat the first verse. Yet we can nevertheless have confidence that he was thoroughly familiar with the whole psalm. It is a psalm that the Prayer Book uses on several occasions because it resonates so closely and powerfully with the Passion narrative: “My strength drains away like water and all my bones are racked . . . my mouth is as dry as a potsherd and my tongue sticks to my gums . . . a band of ruffians rings me round and they have bound me hand and foot . . . they share out my clothes among them and cast lots for my garments”. Small wonder then that Jesus turns to this psalm in his agony as a way of drawing strength from the Jewish scriptures in which he was immersed. Verses 3 and 4 expressly affirm the attitude of faithful Jews: “In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted, and you rescued them. To you they cried and were delivered; in you they trusted and were not discomfited”.
Of course, as the opening verse that Jesus repeats makes plain, the psalmist himself despairs that the help God has given to others in times past will come to him. “My God, by day I cry to you, but there is no answer; in the night I cry with no respite”. As we read through it, though, the tone changes until the psalmist arrives at the point where he is able to say “You that fear the Lord, praise him, hold him in honour . . . revere him . . . for he has not scorned him who is downtrodden, nor shrunk in loathing from his plight, nor hidden his face from him”. A tormented cry of despair is the Psalmist’s first word, but not his last. It is in his agony that he comes to see more clearly that God “has listened to his cry for help”.
The closing verses of Psalm 22 then strike out in a new and remarkable direction.
How can those who sleep in the earth do him homage,
how can those who go down to the grave do obeisance?
. . .
The coming generation will be told of the Lord;
They will make known his righteous deeds, declaring to a people yet unborn:
The Lord has acted.
These, then, are the words that conclude the Psalm that provides the dying Jesus with his fourth Word from the Cross. Given the context of the Crucifixion, they are especially salient. In a short time Jesus will breathe his last, he will be taken down from the Cross, and laid in a tomb. He will, in the words of the Psalm, “go down to the grave” and “sleep in the earth”. How then will “the coming generation”, and even more “a people yet unborn”, be told that “the Lord has acted”? The answer is that the one who went down to the grave will rise from it. It is not on the cross, but in Christ’s glorious Resurrection that the Lord will be seen to have acted. And this action, by declaring a decisive victory over both sin and mortality, will reverberate on and on for countless generations ‘yet unborn’.
The word 'Maundy' is a corruption of the Latin mandatum novum, the 'new commandment' to 'love one another' that Jesus gives his disciples in the Gospel passage assigned for this day. The tradition of foot washing that usually takes place in the course of the liturgy is a symbolic expression of obedience to that command, as well as a commemoration of what happened in the Upper Room. To call this a 'third' commandment, as Jesus does, is immediately to rank it alongside, and equal to, the two 'great' commandments that elsewhere he identifies as central to faith -- love of God and love of neighbour. With this third commandment, Christians are invited (instructed, actually) to regard their fellow Christians in a special light, and to exhibit towards them a Christ-like love.
Unhappily, the history of the Church is littered with episodes and occasions when precisely the opposite appears to have been the case. The Roman theologian and Church Father Tertullian famously imagined pagans saying -- with awe and admiration -- 'See how these Christians love one another'. In later centuries, the critics of Christianity used that very same phrase ironically, as they witnessed the ferocity of the battles between Catholics and Protestants.
Nowadays Christians are far more often the victims than the perpetrators of religious violence, and very rarely persecute or penalize other followers of Christ. Even so, despite many ecumenical initiatives, divisions remain, and uncharitable attitudes to other Christians persist. So Maundy Thursday presents an opportunity both to acknowledge the gross errors of the past, lament the continuing failure to manifest true unity, and affirm again that Jesus gave us THREE great commandments.
Important though this is, the main focus on Maundy Thursday is the gift of the Eucharist. That is why Maundy Thursday has a celebratory character that the other days of Holy Week lack, reflected in the fact that the liturgical colour is neither violet as in Lent, nor red as in Passiontide, but white as at Christmas and Easter. Yet, the Gospel passage set for today omits the twelve verses that expressly refer to the Passover meal Jesus and his disciples shared. This may be because the omitted verses are focussed on Judas's betrayal and tell us nothing about the institution of the Eucharist. This gap is filled by the other two readings, however. The Old Testament lesson is from Exodus, and recounts the instructions Moses received for the preparation of the original Passover meal, to be eaten in haste as the Israelites prepared to flee slavery in Egypt. The Epistle is Paul's instruction (or reminder) to recent converts at Corinth of Christ's institution of Holy Communion at the Last Supper. Sheer familiarity often leads us to overlook a truly remarkable fact. These few words have been repeated by faithful Christians for over twenty centuries, millions upon millions of times. This in itself indicates the depth of meaning that has been found within them, and the juxtaposition of these two passages reveals what that meaning is. As John's Gospel elsewhere emphasizes, Jesus is the paschal lamb now made manifest in a wholly new way, and the bringer of freedom from slavery to sin and self-centredness.
Of course, for the reality of Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God to be fulfilled, we must wait for Good Friday.
Seven Last Words, Relationship:
John 19:26–27: ‘Woman, behold your son’.
(To a disciple) ‘Behold your mother’.
“Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”
This scene at the Cross has long caught the special attention of Christians, and is famously commemorated in the 13th century hymn Stabat Mater, set to music again and again over many centuries, often by celebrated composers. Why does it have this deep and enduring appeal? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the intensity of Mary’s pain is so easily imagined. We readily understand just how much she has been compelled to repress her maternal instincts of care and protection in order to honour the divine, but dangerous, mission of her eldest son. Luke tells us in his account of the Nativity that after the shepherds visited the stable and the angels sang, Mary ‘pondered these things in her heart’. No pondering, it seems plausible to think, could have prepared her, three decades on, for the grotesque culmination of her baby condemned and dying.
Yet, there she is, ever faithful, at the foot of the Cross, the sole person to be a presence in the life of Jesus from the cradle to the grave. Small wonder, then, that Mary has drawn a degree of veneration second only Jesus himself. Her special place is underlined by the fact that the third Word Jesus speaks before he dies is addressed to her. Mary's importance for us flows from this Word, since it reveals her importance for him. Even in the throes of death, she remains at the centre of his concern.
What is to happen to her now? Like a dutiful son, Jesus is making provision for his mother, entrusting her to the disciple with whom he is especially close (traditionally identified as John). Reciprocally, Jesus is bestowing on that disciple the maternal love and care that he himself has known. This, then, is more than a last Word from the Cross; it is an action. As the traditional attribution emphasizes, Jesus by this active Word, signals the supreme value of human ‘Relationship’, and even his dying breaths seek to affirm it.
There is a yet deeper theological dimension to be found in this, however. One way of uncovering it is to rephrase the third Word in same language as the final Word, addressed to God. To the disciple, this rephrased Word would be: ‘Into your hands I commend my mother’, and to Mary it would be, ‘Into your hands I commend a son’. This rephrasing reveals that while for Mary and John, there remains the possibility of a new, restorative and sustaining human relationship, this is no longer possible for Jesus. That is why he must, and can only, commend himself to God. Here, his belonging to humanity – a key Christian affirmation – has reached its limit. Human love can comfort Mary. Human love can strengthen John. Jesus is now beyond the resources of human love. That is why he relinquishes his mother to his friend, and his friend to his mother. It is to God alone that he can turn.
The doctrine of the Incarnation – that God was born into our humanity – is held up for celebration at Christmas. On Good Friday, the focus, usually, is the the divine self-sacrifice expressed in the doctrine of Atonement. Now we see the point at which the humanity and the divinity of Christ meet in the extremity of the Cross.
The Second Word from the Cross, Salvation:
Luke 23:43: (To the ‘penitent’ thief) Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
Jesus’ second Word from the Cross is addressed not to God, but to another, very lowly, human being. What Jesus says has often been found puzzling and troubling. All four Gospels tell us that ‘two others’ were crucified alongside him, calling them variously ‘robbers’, ‘bandits’ and ‘criminals’. Matthew says they joined in the hectoring to which the crowd subjected Jesus. Only Luke records a verbal exchange, first between the two criminals, and then between one of them and Jesus. Tradition knows him as the ‘penitent’ thief, though even in Luke’s more detailed account, he expresses no repentance, only an acknowledgement that he is guilty where Jesus is innocent.
What should we conclude from Jesus telling this criminal “Today you will be with me in paradise”? It seems natural to read this as giving him a fast track to heaven, but this raises a question as to why he should be so favoured. If Jesus can fast track people to heaven, why does he not extend this privilege to his disciples, or his mother at the foot of the Cross? Why this man, an acknowledged wrong-doer who has not, as far as the Gospels tell us, expressed any sorrow or remorse for whatever it is he has done?
However natural this way of thinking, and the puzzling questions to which it leads, closer attention to what Jesus actually says points us in a different direction. To begin with, Jesus says ‘Today you will be with me’. This cannot directly refer to Good Friday, or to straightforward presence, because Jesus himself will still be on the Cross, and then in the tomb, until after the Sabbath. ‘Today’ means ‘at this moment’, but it cannot be a moment in human time. Rather it is ‘today’ in the eternity that is God’s time.
Similarly, while ‘paradise’ is easily taken to mean ‘heaven’ this cannot be quite right either. According to the Gospels, Jesus remains ‘earthbound’ for a significant period between the Crucifixion and the Ascension. The Creeds declare that, as an aspect of his Incarnation, when taken down from the Cross, Jesus was “dead and buried”, just like any other human being who has died. Indeed, older versions of the Apostles’ Creed go even further and expressly declare that from the Cross he ‘descended into Hell’, meaning the place where all the dead are to be found. Nor is his Easter Resurrection a translation from earth to heaven. It is, rather, a transformation of his still earthly presence, enabling him to meet and greet and eat with his disciples as before. It is not until the Ascension, forty days after Easter, that Jesus is ‘taken up’ into heaven.
So what then of the paradise that he seems to promise the thief? The term is of Persian origin and it means a garden. It ought to remind us of the Garden of Eden, a place unspoiled by sin. By his exchange with Jesus, the thief, though a sinner, is restored to innocence. Why? Because of his sudden, profound insight into who Jesus is. ‘Remember me when you come into your kingdom’. Familiarity with this biblical sentence often leads us to forget how truly astonishing it is that he makes this request. It requires him, in the midst of his own agony, to see past the appearances by which everyone else has been persuaded. When Pilate orders the sign ‘King of the Jews’ to be pinned to the Cross, his action is part taunt and part mockery. Matthew says this prompted the chief priests, scribes and elders to join in the mockery. Luke tells us the soldiers did likewise, and even another victim of their brutal treatment found some solace in hurling abuse as well. Only the penitent thief sees that the attribution of kingship is not mockery, or irony, at all, but the ultimate truth. The Cross, with all its blood and pain, is indeed a throne, the thorns are indeed a crown, and the Victim, somehow, is the Victor.
Christians affirm this truth and sing many fine hymns that proclaim it. Yet we know, if we are honest, how easy it is to slide into lip service. Comfort, security, prosperity are not our helpers here; often they are the obstacles. We hardly ever really see the truth as the thief in his wretchedness saw it. Jesus’ second Word reveals that the thief’s agonized request can give us a glimpse of what it means to enter paradise.
The First Word from the Cross, Forgiveness:
Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
It is not surprising that Jesus’ first Word on the Cross is a prayer addressed to God. More striking is the fact that it is a prayer on behalf of those who have put him there. In a truly remarkable way this simple sentence, uttered in this context, perfectly integrates the two ‘great’ commandments – love God and love your neighbour. In the midst of intense humiliation, extreme pain and the prospect of death, Jesus turns to God in love for his ‘neighbours’. The ‘neighbours’ for whom he prays on this occasion are those who have humiliated and tortured him, so his words recall the question that prompts the story of the Good Samaritan -- Who is my neighbour? -- and thereby signals the rejection of those limits that the category of ‘neighbour’ so easily implies. In the light of the Cross, we come to see that the command to love my neighbour, and the seemingly far more demanding command to love my enemies, in the end amount to the same thing. Thus the first word from the Cross exemplifies the attitude Jesus has all this time been urging on his followers.
This simple sentence, however, leaves us with two questions. Who exactly is ‘them’ for whom forgiveness is sought, and in what sense do ‘they’ not know what they are doing? The answer to the first question directs our attention beyond the relatively small number of people who arrested, condemned, tortured Jesus, and nailed him to the Cross. It includes the people in the crowd, both those who shouted “Crucify him” and those who stood in silence near the Cross. Perhaps it even includes the people whom one of the Gospels describes as ‘also present, watching from a distance’. Since few of us are prone to violence and physical cruelty, it is these people, on the periphery of the event, with whom we can more easily identify. And indeed, truth be told, probably most of the things about which we feel guilty, embarrassed or ashamed are not actions and events that we have instigated, but occasions on which we have merely been silent or complicit. The uncharitable thought that sides with the strong against the weak, the truth that goes unsaid for fear of rejection or rebuke, the helping hand that it is too inconvenient to offer, these all put us in the category of the Levite rather than the robbers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The traditional form of confession in the Prayer Book reflects this when it places confessing ‘what we have left undone’ ahead of ‘what we have done’.
This still leaves us with the second question. In what sense did the instigators, agents, supporters and passive witnesses of the Crucifixion not know what they were doing? Did they not feel the hatred, contempt or fear that motivated them? Didn’t they see blood flowing from the lashes and the thorns? Didn’t they hear the nails smashing through bone? Of course they did! So what is it they didn’t know? The answer is, they didn’t know the true significance of what they were doing and seeing. They saw these as necessary steps in preventing a destructive rebellion, or in defending Judaism, or as merely going along with what everybody thought. But unbeknownst to them, this Crucifixion was not simply one more instance, among many, of extreme brutality in a brutal world. It was an attack upon the sacred, upon the holy of holies. It was the epicentre of an age-old struggle between good and evil.
Could they have known this? Not Pilate, not the Roman soldiers certainly, not the crowd. Perhaps the better educated Jews could have been expected to see and hear the resonances between Jesus and Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’, and so have some dim awareness of who Jesus really was. Yet even the disciples, who had been with him throughout his ministry, didn’t see this, and fled in fear. It was only with hindsight, after the event, in the wake of the Resurrection that those involved could know what they had done. At that point, of course, they had done it. All there could be then, was forgiveness.
So it remains, and often is for us. Take the present crisis. Political leaders, government officials, and the general public alike do not really know what they are doing. Necessarily, they have to rely on surmise, prediction, instinct, cooperation. Measures put in place to contain the spread of disease will undoubtedly result in considerable damage to lives and livelihoods. Possibly this is for the best, possibly not. If ever we know, it can only be with hindsight. It may be that, despite the best intentions, we all prove to have been agents of, and complicit in, immense but ultimately unnecessary suffering and loss, with repercussions that resonate for decades, and greatly exceed any risk they may have served to reduce. Jesus’ first Word from the Cross, then, invites us to acknowledge this. For all the differences between the world of the New Testament and ours, we are not so far from the biblical characters it is easy to condemn.
Given we know, as they did not, the significance of the Crucifixion, there ought to be this difference, though. They did not think they needed the forgiveness Jesus asked for them. If we are honest, we know that, however ‘right’ our course of action may feel, forgiveness may be just what we will come to need when it is too late to undo what we have done. Yet we also know that at that point, Jesus will plead for us too.
Reflections on the Seven Last Words from the Cross
In the Bible, the number seven almost always suggests or signals some special religious significance. From the Book of Genesis to the Revelation of St John the Divine, it is used in this way no less than 514 times. Perhaps it is partly in acknowledgement of this that the Gospels record seven occasions when Jesus spoke while hanging on the Cross. Though these “Seven Last Words” do not all appear in any one place, it has long been thought that Christians ought to reflect on them together, especially as part of our devotions for Holy Week.
As is only to be expected from someone in the most acute agony, Jesus’ utterances are short, in some cases just a few words. The usual order is roughly chronological.
1.Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
2.Luke 23:43: (To the ‘penitent’ thief) Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
3.John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. (To disciples) Behold your mother.
4.Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
5.John 19:28: I am thirsty.
6.John 19:30: It is finished.
7.Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.
It is traditional to associate each ‘Word’ with a specific theme. Following the same order these themes are Forgiveness, Salvation, Relationship, Abandonment, Distress, Triumph and Reunion. They provide a helpful focus for reflection, but their generality, as well as their somewhat loose connection with the biblical text, leaves considerable scope for reflection
In the Epistle for Palm Sunday, St Paul says ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’. Meditation on the Seven Last Words is a key way of entering more fully into the mind of Jesus as he undergoes the humiliation, suffering and death that is to be the final step in the salvation of the world. Since corporate worship, even in the most holy season of the Church’s year, is impossible at this time, these short reflections on the Seven Last Words will be published day by day through the first part of Holy Week and on Good Friday. They are offered in the hope that together with the accompanying pictures, poems and prayers, they will enable you to apprehend, and embrace, the holy mystery that is the mind of Christ on the Cross.
CMM blogs for Holy Week
Monday in Holy Week: Seven Last Words, Forgiveness
Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Tuesday in Holy Week: Seven Last Words, Salvation
Luke 23:43: (To the ‘penitent’ thief) Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
Wednesday in Holy Week: Seven Last Words, Relationship
: John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. (To disciples) Behold your mother.
Reflection on the Lectionary Readings
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 • Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19 • 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 • John 13:1-17, 31b-35
GOOD FRIDAY at NOON Seven Last Words
Abandonment: Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Distress: John 19:28: I am thirsty.
Triumph: John 19:30: It is finished
Reunion: Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit
GOOD FRIDAY LITURGY
Reflection on the Lectionary Readings
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 • Psalm 22 • Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 • John 18:1-19:42
Reflection on the Lectionary Readings
Job 14:1-14 or Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24 • Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16 • 1 Peter 4:1-8 • Matthew 27:57-66 or John 19:38-42
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