Good Friday Noon Service, Year B, 4-6-12
©Holly Lyman Antolini
Lections: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Ps. 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1-19:42
"He trusted in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, if he delights in him." AMEN.
Good Friday is the only day of all the days of the liturgical year in which the sanctuary is stripped of color, and any reminder of resurrection is extinguished with the sanctuary candle, and our liturgy is stripped of communion. We are meant to let ourselves sink into the desolation of the Crucifixion as the disciples experienced it. We are meant to take the risk to experience “life without God,” life forsaken by God, life where Death reigns supreme.
As many of you know, I spent the week before Holy Week with my 87-year-old mother and 88-year-old father in California. I have been living in the weird mixture of grief and love we feel when both parents are dying at the same time, as they grieve the loss of each other at the same time that we children and grand-children are grieving the loss of them both.
My parents grieve and die very differently. My mother, as you might imagine since we all anticipated her death last summer and lo, she is still very much with us now in April of the following year, is a fighter for life. Anyone with her breathing and spinal stenosis issues would have settled long since simply to remain in bed and give up. Instead she insists on rising daily to bathe, to dress, to go to the bathroom, even though she returns immediately to bed again, exhausted but unbending in her commitment to be as alive as possible.
My father is far less challenged by any one health issue. Yet he, of the two, is the one who is moving steadily, almost concertedly, toward death, spending most of his day snoozing, whether upright or lying down. His steady renunciation of life drives my mother crazy, and from her bed, she does her utmost to chivvy him into wakefulness and activity, and restrain him from his inclination to overindulge in substances not good for him.
The effect is one of near-dictatorship: she issues imperatives and he either obeys or passively resists, mostly by sleeping. Gradually over the course of my visit, I began to realize that her forcefulness, though angry, actually bubbles up from the deep springs of her grief and her inability to understand his embrace of the process of dying – his compliance, if you will, with the increasing running-down of the engine of his body. The impact, as I finally was able, with his participation and permission, to articulate to her on the last day of my visit, is the opposite of her intent: the harder my mom tries to force my dad to stay alive and to stay connected, especially to her, the more whole-heartedly he wishes to leave his life – or her well-intentioned harassment – behind.
“He’s just LETTING GO of EVERYTHING!” she wailed. “He IS letting go,” I pointed out to her, “and you are not.” And I asked her, “Can you let him go?” She began to weep, and so did I, holding her hands. I said, “It is so hard to let him go,” and as she nodded, I added, “It is SO HARD TO LET GO.”
We had only a few moments of direct grief before my mom was ready to cap it and return to the plan of action, which was to have her evening coffee ice cream. She had had enough of a change of heart, though, to allow my dad his diabetic chocolate ice cream even though he had already eaten a slice of apple pie, which was the disagreement that had precipitated my honesty in the first place. But I was left knowing that, for one moment at least, we had all three of us allowed Death to be present in the room – Death and all of its attendant terrifying powerlessness, its loss, its sense of helplessness. Counter to all our family culture – our CULTURE culture! – that insists that death is somehow a lapse of moral fortitude, a caving-in to a lack of agency which is perhaps considered the greatest personal evil, we had allowed Death its insistent natural presence, its inevitability. We had given our impending loss its full and devastating scope, even if just for a moment.
And here’s the wonder of it: that moment, immensely sad as it was, laden – BURDENED – with grief, a moment we had all been concertedly avoiding, was, of all the affection-laden moments of my visit, THE moment of the most intense FLOWERING & FRUITING of the LOVE between us.
Good Friday is, in our life with God, a moment like this, the moment when we give the power of Death its due, and our own powerlessness in the face of death. For the most part, for the whole rest of our lives, religious and otherwise, we are running away from that dread acknowledgment. Day by day, minute by minute, we “choose life,” as my mother, with outsize fortitude and courage, chooses to rise each day from bed. But on Good Friday, in a sanctuary devoid of color and beauty, with no relief for the eye from the somber plainness of wood, we give Death its due.
Truly it is a terrifying fact that when we do NOT acknowledge Death, and when we do NOT acknowledge our own powerlessness, our weakness in the face of evil, our timidity and passivity, our just plain wrong-headedness, we tend to become violent. We move toward dictatorship, insistent on asserting a power not truly our own. We move toward the worst idolatry, the idolatry in which we, ourselves, attempt to take the place of God, and run the world in God’s place.
It is a terrifying but a foundational truth of our faith in a Crucified God that in our acknowledgment of Death lies our acknowledgment – our embrace and acceptance – of the limitations of our own humanity, our “humus,” our ashy dusty creatureliness. And then and only then, in that terrifying self-emptying – taking on “the mind of Christ,” as Paul told the Philippians, [Philippians 2:5] and not counting our Godliness as something to be grasped and exploited for control’s sake, but emptying ourselves, taking on our lowliness fully – in that self-emptying comes the miracle. There, at that very point of deadly acknowledgment, springs forth love, real, deep, accepting, forgiving, compassionate, embracing love. Love for our fallible selves and love for our fellow frail, erring, often helpless human beings. Love, indeed, for God, who alone has the power of Life that can triumph over Death.
Then and only then, “dying into Christ,” as our baptismal scriptures say, quoting Paul’s Letter to the Romans [Romans 6:3-11], trusting not ourselves but God, and trusting God in and THROUGH DEATH, can the great springs of New Life, Life lived in God’s grace, well up in us, transforming the deserts of our self-assertion into a place of pools and olive trees and fruitful vines, transforming us from servers of self to ministers in Christ, ambassadors of reconciliation, restorers of unity with God and each other.
For my mother and father, that transformation was a humble thing, a matter of tears and diabetic chocolate ice cream. But it was a noble and life-giving, LOVE-giving thing: THE thing that makes life worth living in the first place.
I don’t know what terrible death might be staring you in the face. I don’t know what terrible death you may have been avoiding for all you’re worth, like my mother hollering from her bed in the other room for my dad to wake up! But this Good Friday, I invite you to turn, to face the terrible corpus of the dying Christ upon the Cross – he “who did not count equality with God as something to be exploited,” [Philippians 2:6] who did not raise an army, who did not fight back, but emptied himself, simply letting himself be the fragile, helpless human that he was in the face of overwhelming evil, the evil of fear and hatred than which there is no worse, and letting the forces of fear and hatred “win.” I invite you to turn and face this Cross, this terrible emblem of power enacted for power’s sake, enacted to DEFY Death as all fascism is enacted to defy Death and then, instead, BECOMES DEATH WRIT LARGE.
Stop running away, dodging and weaving and fighting back, O ye of little faith! Turn and face whatever death is trying to claim you. Embrace it, allow it, grieve it if you must. Allow it to be exactly as horrifying as it is, as we see it in Jesus’ poor broken, defeated, asphyxiated body on the Cross.
Because in Christ we know that Life, new Life, new LOVE, lies precisely there, at the point of death, the curtain of the temple torn in two, the earth thrown open, the rocks split, and graves disgorging their dead. [Matt. 27:50-53]
“’Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”
“‘Death has been swallowed up in victory,’“ declares Paul to the Corinthians. [1 Cor. 15:54b, 55] It is Life, divine Life, loving Life, that tramples down Death BY DEATH. This Friday – the Friday we call “Good” – I invite you to entrust yourself to death. And there find Life. AMEN.