It’s often said that every preacher really has only one sermon in her; she just finds different ways of giving that one sermon over and over. I think that’s probably true of me. (In fact, I’ll even admit to a little actual recycling in this one.) My one sermon is about the sacrament – the thing that has been made holy— which we enact in the Eucharist, and about the pain and death at the center of that sacrament, and about how we recognize the Body of Christ there.
The Eucharist is the center of my week, like the narrow neck of an hourglass. In the best times, my daily life leads up to and flows out of the Eucharist. I think this is probably true for many people at Saint John’s, and indeed for many Christians engaged in sacramental forms of worship. If the Eucharist is the center of our worship and our week, then the cross lies at the center of the Eucharist. Everything we do in our worship flows into and out of the cross. Tonight I invite you to consider the idea that it could be the same with everything we do as Christians in the world.
We often speak of the cross on which Jesus was executed as “holy.” In Spanish, it’s called “Santa Cruz,” like Santa Cruz, the name of our neighboring city about 60 miles south of here. Episcopalians even observe a Feast of the Holy Cross. The very name of this feast day raises a question: How can we call the cross — the instrument on which Jesus was tortured and murdered — holy? It’s like calling a CIA interrogation site holy; like calling the torture cells at Guantánamo Bay holy; like calling a gallows, a guillotine, a gas chamber holy. How can we do that? To answer this question is to enter into a place that is beyond words, to enter into a mystery. Words can only lead us to the threshold; we each have to choose to step across it. So tonight, this Good Friday, I will try to use my poor words to invite you into a wordless mystery.
What kind of mystery is this? To begin with, it is the mystery of a living God who is willing always and eternally to know what it is “to live and die as one of us.” It is the mystery of a Creator who knows what it is to be a creature – to wake on a soft spring morning and smell the new plants pushing through the earth; to feel the pleasure of clean clothes on a clean body, to take that first sip of coffee, that first bite of toast, and feel the sweet and salty mix of jam and butter run down your chin, to look across the table and see other creatures whom you love, perhaps to remember last night’s sweaty crush of desire and satisfaction in the arms of some other creature. It is the mystery of a God who knows what it is to stand at night in stunned awe beneath an endless expanse of stars, galaxy upon galaxy, universe upon universe. It is the mystery of a God who falls in love with ordinary life – and who, like any living creature ¬– wants desperately to hold onto it. The God who cries out, “Abba, Father, let this cup pass from me…”
But there is more to creaturehood than pleasure and ecstatic joy. Tonight we have chanted the whole of that great psalm, number 22, whose first line we are told in the gospel of Mathew Jesus himself cried out from the cross, “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani? – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The mystery of the holy cross is also the mystery of the God who knows what suffering is, who knows what it is to be abandoned, to be left alone with the torturer, the God who has cried out with the psalmist: “I am poured out like water; all my bones are out of joint; my heart within my breast is melting wax.”
Good Friday is one part of the mystery of incarnation. Each year during Holy Week, we celebrate two parts of that mystery, Christ’s crucifixion and Christ’s resurrection, Good Friday and Easter. I’ll come to Easter in a moment. For now though, let us stay in Good Friday.
In the practice of many poor Christian communities around the world, Good Friday, not Easter, is the most important day of Holy Week. Folks in these communities recognize the Body of Christ in the One who accompanies them in their struggles. In San Antonio, Texas, for example, the Latino community re-enacts Jesus’ passion, with far more truth than any Mel Gibson movie.
Who are these Good Friday people? They are the immigrant men who gather on street corners hoping for work. They are the nannies who must leave their own children to take care of the children of other people. They are the women, men, and children who came together yesterday at St. John’s to demand an end to deportations. They are the mothers in this and other countries from whom the Great Recession has taken their jobs, who must face their children who will not stop crying from hunger. We are all Good Friday people, those of us who lie awake in that awful time between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m., when physical pain or gnawing fear are often at their worst, and sleep just won’t come. When will it stop hurting? Will it ever stop? Will I lose my job? My home? My lover? My children? My mother? My life?
To enter into the mystery of the cross is to know somehow that God asks these questions with us, that God also knows what it is to be tortured, what it is to find oneself in that place where all of time and space shrink down to the an eternal now of speechless pain and separation. Many of you know that I have spent some years now working on the problem of literal torture, particularly institutionalized state torture. One thing I have learned is that torture has almost nothing to do with gathering what its proponents like to call “actionable intelligence.” Torture is about destroying social bodies by attacking the minds and bodies of the people who make up those bodies. This is what the Roman state and its upper class collaborators tried to do to Jesus and the people with him. This is what our own state continues to do to this day, in secret places around the world, and in our own prisons. When we celebrate Good Friday, we remember the God who is there in every prison cell.
Good Friday commemorates that time – 2000 years ago and yet always now — when the God who loved life as much as we do experienced – and continues to experience – what it is for a creature to suffer and die. Good Friday is that eternal time when we recognize the God who shares our pain. Recognizing the Christ in our own pain does not take the pain away. The mystery is that sometimes this recognition transforms our experience of that pain, so that somehow we are not alone with it.
In a few minutes, we will have the opportunity to venerate – to honor – a model of Jesus’s cross, to testify to its holy nature. I want to be very clear here: what is holy about the cross is not fear, pain, and torture. There is nothing good or holy about human beings tormenting one another, or about a state that makes such torment an institution, an organized practice. What is holy is the body of Christ that suffers. What is holy is our ability to recognize that body in our own suffering and the suffering of others. When you touch that wood, I invite you to recognize the body of Christ – which is us.
In a sense, every Sunday liturgy has a little “Good Friday” inside it, and a little Easter. Our Anglican liturgical form helps us to experience the central reality of the cross with our minds, hearts and bodies, as each Sunday we retell our story. “On the night before he was handed over to suffering and death…” runs the prayer of consecration. There at the center of the story stands the holy cross, the sign of the One who died in pain and loneliness – tortured to death for choosing the side of the poor and the unwanted, the crazy ones, the drunks and the drug addicts. It is God’s choosing God’s self-offering, that takes the cross, an instrument of torture, and makes it something holy – makes it the symbol with which we Christians are marked, as we were marked almost 40 days ago, on Ash Wednesday.
Then, in the midst of the prayer of consecration, we “confess the mystery of faith: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.”
Which brings us finally to Easter. Tonight, through the Eucharist we participate in death, but we also participate in resurrection and in the promise of the reign of God, which is both with us now and still to come. When we recognize ourselves as the Body of Christ we create solidarity with each other, with all humanity, with all creation, which is the only context in which death and suffering can have any meaning, can be redeemed. We participate in a physical way—eating and drinking with our own bodies—in the Body of Christ, both crucified and resurrected. But we truly become the resurrected body only when we make the Eucharist real beyond the altar table, in the world. That is why one of our Eucharistic prayers says, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” A truly great preacher, St. Augustine, said it this way: “You are the Body of Christ: that is to say, in you and through you the method and work of the incarnation must go forward. You are to be taken, you are to be consecrated, broken and distributed, that you may become the means of grace and vehicles of eternal love.”
And that is why on most days our liturgy ends with a dismissal. It is the shortest part of the service, but in some ways the most important. For here we ask God “send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”
Tonight, we are not dismissed; until Easter, we remain caught between death and resurrection. But we leave tonight secure in the knowledge that Easter does come; that, in the words of another psalm, “weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” So tonight, as you leave this place, remember that you leave it as a faithful witness to the mystery in which we ourselves become the body of Christ, “consecrated, broken, and distributed,” that we ourselves are called to become “the means of grace and vehicles of eternal love.”