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Good Friday addresses from Bishop Frank White
READINGS IN EACH HALF HOUR
Today we are looking at one big story, told here by Matthew; it is a story which, like a Russian doll, contains other stories, one of which will occupy us in each half hour. The stories may be uncomfortable for us as we pay attention to their wider application, yet in each there is also a golden thread of hope, twisted together with the threads of human failure so evident in the people who meet at the Cross, the People of the Passion.
Matthew has been unflinching in documenting the decaying relations between the religious authorities and Jesus. The accusations they make against Him now are the last throw of the dice; their best chance to rid themselves of the disruptive influence He is having on their settled pattern. Minds closed to One lead to hardness of heart towards others. Consider their treatment of Judas for whom Matthew has some compassion. Those charged with helping the sinner to find relief and to restore the broken have no time for this lost soul. They drive him away despite his terrible admission “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood”. Their adamant self-righteousness is a warning to all of us who are called to interpreting and communicating the work of God.
Their actions in “conferring together against Jesus in order to bring about His death” indicate not only how cheaply they viewed human life but how cavalier they were with the truth. And surely this is the alarm bell we are to hear in this first of the Good Friday stories. Truth is the great casualty here.
And yet, buried deep within this sordid opportunism there is a sign that even they discern a glimpse of the future. They make provision for the outsider, the Gentile, the foreigner who has come to the Temple in search of the Truth. They buy the Potters’ Field; yes as a burial ground and outside the Temple Precincts. The One they accuse would also end up outside the City of Peace where in His death He would take all our shame and transform it into beauty.
Matthew has set the scene with his characteristic clarity and we all know what the consequences of the actions of the accusers will be; or do we?
In this, “the greatest story ever told” the ending is still beyond our imagining.
There are reckless people about in the world and Pilate is one of the most notorious examples. While he is clearly discomforted by Jesus he doesn’t seem to stop to think what this might signify nor what his actions might be leading to. He begins his interrogation with what he may have thought was a clever question “Are you the King of the Jews?” but Jesus saw immediately that this was a way of putting Him down and He makes no further reply to Pilate’s probing. But Pilate’s question betrays an attitude to authority and the wielding of power which his wife knew would lead him disastrously down a blind alley. She may have had a dream on this occasion but how many times before will she have seen her Pontius make the wrong call?
Pilate was the only person who could have saved Jesus, the One who his wife described as “that innocent man”. Incredibly, one might even say, predictably, he chooses to incite the crowd so that they are invited to become Jesus’ judge and executioner. His disdain for the people he governed threads its way through the whole of his story; his artful connecting of the first names of Barabbas and Jesus has him playing with the emotions of the crowd and his cynical hand-washing pushes the responsibility for his reckless actions on to the very people he is meant to govern and protect. Pilate may serve as a reminder that people in power have choices to make about the way they govern and above all they need our prayers that they may govern wisely. But in this desperately sad scenario there are some things to treasure. The important place of the family even in the lives of those in prestigious places may be one to ponder but for me the treasure here is Jesus’ silence. Not simply as a way – a well used technique -of exposing injustice. Silence as a way of self-composure in the face of overwhelming adversity. Commentators noted on Monday that the crowds who watched the horror unfolding in Paris were silent. In our days what a gift – a spiritual gift – is to be found in silence. And here it is, right in the heart of the Passion.
I want to start this reflection with the golden thread which runs through it; it may seem to be tarnished here but it is an utterly vital feature for the wellbeing of any society. Jesus’ story is largely played out in public, among the people, in the sight of those who are not the powerful or influential. It had been this way from the beginning on that in-vitero journey to the crowded Bethlehem and even in the stable, with the shepherds – the common people visiting and witnessing. It was the chosen context for Jesus’ ministry; He was a Man for the People. But …and there is a big but…Jesus knew how to treat a crowd but the people on this Good Friday were shamelessly and scandalously exploited.
Pilate (the Governor, we remember) saw that a riot was beginning; so Matthew observes. Into this unstable situation he releases a bloodthirsty villain. Hardly a way to reduce tension. The people have been wound up to such a frenzy by both civil and religious authorities that their terrible utterances can be seen as the over-reactions of people who are out of control. We don’t need to go back 2000 years to see this – the angry mob seeking death for Asia Bibi in Pakistan is a chilling recent example. The terrible words the people uttered, “His blood be on us and on our children” may be tragically prophetic but does the blame for them really rest on that pumped-up and manipulated crowd?
The fact that this great story was played out in public provides us with another assurance; no-one could then say that it didn’t happen. And for Matthew the story of the crucifixion and the resurrection would be meaningless without a welter of corroborating evidence.
It is not just in our own time that soldiers have been held to account for their actions but here it is no public inquiry or media exposure that has done it. As with any good story a thread has been woven in without the hearers being fully aware of its significance, and that is very much the case here. The facts of the story are plain; the soldiers treated Jesus badly. They used the tools of humiliation and mockery as well as the violence and coercion which are part and parcel of this story. Ask Simon of Cyrene about that…and yet here too there is a seam of hope wending its way through the passion. Last weekend I had the privilege of seeing a passion play acted out on the streets of two towns in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Withernsea and Hedon. The story was aptly told and the scene was profoundly moving. I noticed the narrator walking casually into the assembled crowd as the trial and sentence scenes drew to a close. He lighted upon a bystander – a large youth who had no part in the play – and asked him to carry the cross to the place of crucifixion. I spoke to the young man afterwards and he was clearly moved by the experience. All along the way in this story are quiet moments of redemption, other stories where connections are made and hope instilled.
The soldiers have mocked and derided Jesus, they have used Pilate’s sloppy pantomime description, “The King of the Jews” to taunt Jesus and to wind up the crowd. These “soldiers of the governor” – what we might call today the “Presidential Guard” are thoroughly compromised. But fast forward for a moment and feel the redemptive wind that unexpectedly blows across their hardened faces. They perhaps wonder at Jesus’ dignity in the face of their provocations but their defences are breached as Jesus dies on the cross and the order which they are commanded to keep is rocked violently. Their response is to utter the truth that no-one else in this story has acknowledged “truly this man was God’s Son”. Truth alights on them, and on us, unexpectedly and perhaps inconveniently but ultimately, gloriously.
This short passage of scripture offers us the observations of people who watch what is going on; there are the criminals who share the execution site with Jesus, there are passers by who are not identified but who clearly have opinions. Then the accusers who we encountered in the first reflection reappear and later the soldiers who watched will make their important contribution. In their different ways they are fitting what they observe into their own frames of reference; whether they are serious observers or casual commentators their role is crucial to Matthew’s telling of the big story.
They are watching and not seeing; a spectacle is being played out before them but its deeper meaning remains obscure. On Monday night I was struck how quickly the media reporters began to criticise the firefighters who were tackling the inferno at Notre Dame in Paris. Why aren’t they using helicopters to dump water on the flames; why are there so few big hoses being deployed and so on. The dawning of the day on Tuesday revealed the tactics of the Paris Fire Department – that if they had simply flooded the church much more would have been lost, even the possibility of the building itself. Their strategy as well as their undoubted heroism had been crucial as the drama unfolded.
The observers at the crucifixion help us to recognise how hard it is to see, so hard in fact that the real purpose in what is going on is hidden from nearly all those who were involved or who happened upon the scene; those whose stories we have reflected on this afternoon. The Accusers, Pilate, The People, The Soldiers.
Surprisingly there is reassurance for us in this; most of us, (perhaps all) find it difficult to see clearly and assess accurately what is happening on the cross and the story will only begin to reveal its deeper meaning when we come to our consideration of the key player Himself, Jesus the Crucified.
But a final reflection from the scene at Notre Dame. It came at first light on Tuesday and the opening of the west doors to reveal the blackened and burned interior. As the camera explored further into the gloom there appeared in shining golden glory a simple large cross standing sentinel over the chaos. In the light of what was there for me a stunning parable we can move on to the final, the great all encompassing story in a few moments time.
All the stories we have been considering in these Good Friday reflections find their meaning and their resolution in this final, great story. Here we see Jesus venturing unflinchingly and unerringly into the most difficult experience that can befall people of faith and perhaps too those with no faith. Abandonment. The feeling of unimaginable loneliness;
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” is the agonising cry uttered from the cross. Jesus had searched out and found our darkest place and had occupied it as His own. This was the place in which His loving Father could not look and turns His face away. In this ultimate story all the darkness and bitterness of the other stories is soaked up and given to Jesus to drink. The bible has a simple word for it, but one which we find hard to understand – Sin. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, their instinct after eating the forbidden fruit was to hide when God came looking for them because they could not bear to look at Him; little did they know that God could barely look at them either.
Jesus drank this poisonous cup to the dregs so that the darkness could never again separate us from the God who comes to us in love. Matthew hardly dwells on the agony of the cross because his instinct is that what really dealt the death blow to Jesus was the abandonment; He could not live without God’s seeing of Him.
“Then Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and breathed His last”. A great bellowing cry is followed by the quietist sound in the universe, Jesus’ final breath.
In that spine-tingling moment a new story begins; it is the story of our liberation and of our union with God as His new creation. Consider Matthew’s words – “Jesus breathed His last” – the literal translation is “Jesus released the spirit”. On Sunday morning we will celebrate that the darkness has been vanquished and the light and energy of life has been released into our humanity. “Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.”
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