Sermon given in The Chapel Royal, St James's Palace, Good Friday 2011
22 April 2011 at 15:00 pmThe Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
At Westminster Abbey at the moment, you will not be surprised to know, we have love on our minds – or at least weddings. To be more specific, we have a wedding on our minds – and not just on our minds. There seems to be intense interest around the world, at least judging by the number of television crews and journalists that have been seeking access to the Abbey. We are told that there might be as many as 2 billion people watching and the BBC is broadcasting the service into 160 countries at the last count. But the last count was a week ago; there may be more now. The choirboys of the Chapel Royal I note have already had a significantly raised profile. All this is reassuring or alarming depending on your point of view. I am seeking to persuade myself that every one of the 2 billion people is an individual so it is really only like having one extra person at the service – albeit with a lot of lights and cameras. Enough!
In the Preface to the marriage service in the 1980 Alternative Service Book, there was a sentence which has stayed with me: ‘It is God's purpose that, as husband and wife give themselves to each other in love throughout their lives, they shall be united in that love as Christ is united with his Church.’ Marriage is an act of self-giving love. The Bride gives herself in love to the Bridegroom. The Bridegroom gives himself in love to the Bride. They give themselves away, holding nothing back. However, neither is diminished by the gift; rather in a beautiful and profoundly rich manner, giving themselves away, they receive not only the gift of the other but of themselves with it. They receive themselves afresh, re-made in the image of the one they love. This exchange of gifts is without ending: ‘for better, for worse; for richer for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish till death us do part.’ ‘Love never faileth.’ [I Corinthians 13: 8]
This exchange of gifts reflects therefore in a partial but true way the act of self-giving love by which our Lord Jesus Christ creates the Church, the community of the redeemed. Good Friday is a day of mourning, of course, a day of sorrow. It is right for us to think of the pain our Lord Jesus Christ suffered: of the enmity of the Jewish authorities, of the denial of Peter, of his false trial before Pilate, his mocking and scourging, his crown of thorns, his stripping and nailing to the Cross, his thirst, his final cry, his death and burial. Our sorrow is intensified as we think of the sins of the whole world, and our sins, that have caused his passion. But Good Friday is also a day of triumph.
The Lord’s final cry in St John’s Gospel is quite different in character from that in St Mark’s. ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me’ [Mark 14: 34] is a desperate cry of dereliction. Our Lord suffers not only from his physical and mental agony on the Cross, but from a sense of separation from God that he has never felt before in his life. He bears ‘our sins in his own body on the tree.’ [I Peter 2: 24] Our sins divide us from God. They break off our communication with God. Jesus bearing our sins suffers that loss of contact. But St John’s Gospel places the emphasis on another important aspect of the work of Jesus on the Cross. The final word we heard in the reading today was, ‘It is finished.’ [John 19: 30] I reflected on this earlier this week as I heard in the Abbey the choir singing St John Passion. The alto aria Es ist vollbracht that follows the recitative quoting the last words of Christ catches perfectly the double meaning of these words. The aria begins very sadly, with a dying fall. Es ist vollbracht; it is finished. Suddenly, it breaks into a mood of triumph: Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht und schliesst den Kampf. ‘The hero of Judah battles on with power, and ends the fight.’ We do not of course know precisely the words Jesus used; they would have been in Aramaic. St John’s Gospel in the original Greek bears the double meaning which Bach so brilliantly brings out in the text. The Greek single word we translate It is finished is Tetelestai. The word Tetelestai is only found twice in the New Testament, on each occasion in this chapter of St John’s Gospel. The first time it is translated ‘accomplished’: ‘Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished’ [John 19: 28] So, we should think of It is finished more as It is accomplished. The Greek noun at the heart of the verb Tetelestai is telos, meaning the end or purpose. Thus teleology is the study of the meaning and purpose of things. Tetelestai was an ordinary Greek word, not a theological term. It was most often used on business receipts meaning simply The bill has been paid. The account has been settled. There is no more to pay. The battle has been won. Good Friday is a day of sorrow for our sin, but also a day of triumph that opens the way to the great Easter hymn: ‘The strife is o'er, the battle done; now is the Victor's triumph won.’
It is a lesson ever to be remembered that the triumph is not that of power but of humility, not that of strength and dominance but of weakness and self-denial. Self-giving love is the interpretative key that unlocks the meaning of the Cross, but also of a true and successful marriage and indeed of all human interactions. Our Lord Jesus Christ offers the pattern and the model. Our task is to imitate and follow his example. We can only do that because of Christ’s own gift of love for us. In our own strength we can do nothing. In the power of God’s love, expressed and fulfilled in the sacrifice of the Son of God on the Cross, and through the indwelling of his Holy Spirit, we too can offer our own lives above all in love for God, and for our families and friends and all our fellow human beings for his sake.
I was struck recently when, on a visit to Stockholm, I went to the National Museum, which has a few interesting paintings. One attracted my attention above the others, called The Lamentation, attributed to Lucas Cranach the Elder in 16th century Germany but perhaps a copy of one he painted for a church in Halle in 1523.
You are familiar with the general style. A Lamentation depicts the body of Jesus after it has been taken down from the Cross. The Lord’s Mother and the Beloved Disciple are always there. Others are usually there too: Mary of Magdala, or Peter, perhaps the Roman soldiers, some by-standers, possibly Joseph of Arimathea, in whose tomb the body is to be laid. There might be angels. The atmosphere is usually one of deep grief. In a 15th century Lamentation by Botticelli, Mary Magdalene is weeping over Jesus’ feet; Mary the Mother of the Lord looks up to heaven lost in an agony of sorrow.
The Cranach Lamentation in Stockholm has nine people around the body, three men and six women. One of the men is the Beloved Disciple, near the head of Jesus, looking down at him. Beside him in black is the Lord’s Mother, her head bent, her hands piously folded. An older man stands higher up and to the left of the picture and points, not curiously to the body of Jesus, but towards his Mother. He is richly dressed, perhaps a representation of the donor or commissioner of the painting. A younger man holding the crown of thorns stares out into space. A younger woman kneels and looks at the body with a cloth in her hand; perhaps she is Veronica, who according to legend mopped the brow of Jesus on the Via Dolorosa and found the image of his face on her towel. Three other women kneeling by the body, one holding up the hand of the dead Jesus, look directly at the viewer. This is surprising. I suddenly see, more oddly, that they are smiling. Now I look closer I can even see that the Mother of Jesus is casting a shy look towards the viewer, not exactly with a smile, but her look does not match the depth of her mourning dress.
The smiles are directed at those of us who are looking in on this personal private moment. They reflect a profound truth. The sorrow, the mourning of Good Friday, is overlaid with the triumph of our Lord’s achievement. He dies that we might live. His death opens for us the way to life, and not just life in this world, but life eternal with him. He gives himself away, holding nothing back: he dies and all for love of us. We can smile too – in a glorious exchange of self-giving love, as we offer our lives to Jesus for love of him and receive ourselves afresh, re-made in the image of the one we love.