I rarely preach on Good Friday (and in saying that I almost feel like I should have a meme of the Most Interesting Man here or something: “I don’t always preach on Good Friday, but when I do…”); I rarely preach because I believe that sometimes the narrative is sermon enough for the day, but there is also a place for putting words to our grief. And grief is something we should allow ourselves to experience on Good Friday.
I said on this past Sunday that I have difficulty staying present in the celebration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem because my mind and my heart so quickly jump to what’s coming next; but I think many of us would rather rush from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the celebration of the empty tomb on Easter without pausing to allow for lamentation. I’m not convinced that the contemporary church is very good at, or very comfortable with the concept of lamentation.
My Bachelor’s Degree is in Art History. I had dreams of going to grad school to study the late medieval and early renaissance period of Eastern European art and standing in lecture halls pontificating on various works of the masters. I ended up in seminary with a Masters of Divinity degree, but before my graduation I had an opportunity to travel in Rome, Milan and Florence, Italy for about three weeks as part of a class in transcultural experiences. I finally felt vindicated in having a degree in Art History as we walked through museums and chapels. Standing, awestruck, in the middle of the Sistine Chapel looking up at that masterpiece of a ceiling by Michelangelo, and the Last Judgment painted over the altar; and seeing the work of the fresco artist Giotto in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence was humbling.
For an early fresco artist Giotto was a master at capturing expression. In particular there are frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua that depict the crucifixion of Jesus and his being taken down from the cross. In each of these frescoes, Giotto adds angels soaring in the sky, weeping and tearing their robes, their faces twisted in aguish as God’s Beloved dies at the hands of fickle humanity.
On this day, we bear witness to the suffering servant of God. We see the Son of God betrayed; we see the Son of God denied; we see the Son of God abandoned by his closest friends. We see, in so many ways, the suffering of Jesus.
And if we do not create room for grief, room for lamentation, we then there is little room to bear witness to the suffering servant of God.
It was Holy Friday at St. Innocent Orthodox Church in Eureka. The Priest took the Icon of the Holy Cross, gently laid the Icon of Jesus upon it and hammered the nails that would hold the icon in place. There was a dissonance between the care with which the icon was laid upon the cross, and the banging of the hammer on the nails. That dissonance was made apparent in the priest’s tears dripping on the icon. The lesson on the importance of lamentation was made clear and we were able to bear witness to the suffering servant of God.
In John’s gospel the depth of Jesus’ suffering are summed up in the words, “I am thirsty.” Three small words, and yet they are so relatable. I remember days in the Philippines with Marines where I could not keep enough water in my camel back and my blouse was dripping with sweat. While the quantity of sweat may be unique to me, we all have known moments of physical thirst; we all understand the importance of water for survival. And yet there are still places in the world where humanity attempts to get water for their thirst by squeezing fists full of mud into buckets. And we know that Flint, Michigan is still without a solution to their water crisis that began in April 2014. “I am thirsty,” Jesus says as his life seeps away and death closes in.
“I am thirsty,” Jesus says in a moment when his closest friends are hiding in fear, as his mother looks on from a distance. Perhaps he names the deeper thirst we all experience from time to time: the thirst of abandonment. I remember, twenty some years ago, gathering my closest friends and asking for support as I struggled with addiction, and seeing those whom I had asked to bear that weight with me walk away because the reality was too much to handle. I remember the loneliness of not wanting to tell my family about the trouble I was in.
In the play and mini-series Angels in America Louis Ironson and Prior Walter have to come to terms with abandonment as Louis leaves Prior upon learning that Prior has AIDS. As Prior is lying in a hospital bed asleep, Louis sneaks away saying to the nurse, “Tell him I said goodbye.”
“I am thirsty,” says Jesus from the cross. And in those three words he identifies with the physical thirst of the poor in Central America and arid regions of South and Eastern Africa. And in those words Jesus identifies with the spiritual and emotional thirst of those who are lonely and abandoned and marginalized.
In identifying with the suffering of humanity, Jesus is at one with us and we are at one with God. In this act of giving all the suffering of humanity to God in the atonement of the crucifixion, Jesus calls us to a life of repentance.
Repentance is not just acknowledging that Jesus saves us from our sins in an “O Happy Day when Jesus washed my sins away” kind of way; it’s about calling us to repentance as we recognize that we are called away from suffering.
We are called away from the slavery of our own suffering, to journey in the wilderness like Israel learning what it means to be free.
We are called away from causing the suffering of others, and called to bind the wounds of those who suffer.
And as we bear witness to the suffering Servant of God, as we open ourselves to the lamentation befitting this day, we are also called away from turning a blind eye to the suffering of those around us. We are called to see, to bear witness, even to grieve, and then we are called to respond with compassion so that those around us who know thirst, also know, or at least begin to know, that they are not alone.