A Meditation for Good Friday

Frances writes on the Readings for Good Friday :- .As we read the 1st Reading (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) with its searingly beautiful poetry and appalling imagery, originally referring to the suffering of exiled Israel and now used by the Church to image the suffering of Jesus, we once more reflect on the meaning of his being handed-over: To abuse; to suffering; to be the sacrifice, the scapegoat for the sin of the world; we can with the crowds be appalled by what happened to him and we will be taken on his agonised journey which achieves our redemption.

It is a picture of suffering with which we are all now very familiar from our TV screens and is lived out daily in countries at war. The victim, here Christ will always be fragile, alone, and by the time the world has done its worst, without beauty, without majesty. So disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human.

But we are people who like to control our own destinies – the idea that someone else and especially God the Son should do this for us and on our behalf is difficult for us. We don’t think that we actually need to be redeemed – surely our sins aren’t that significant? But Isaiah, writing for Israel 26 centuries ago did understand that we do in fact require someone, the perfect sacrifice to be handed-over, to stand-in for the failings of us all, of our world. On him lies a punishment that brings us peace…..

Just when we rightly despair that the world will ever get any better, we see in the final lines of our poem what the truth really is; what we cannot achieve, this Suffering Servant of God has gained for us. For surrendering himself to death and letting himself be taken for a sinner, while he was bearing the faults of many and praying all the time for sinners.

This message is surely echoed in the 2nd Reading (Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9.)                Although he was Son, he learnt to obey through suffering.                                                   Then we come to the Reading of The Passion according to John. (John 18:1-19:42.)

Have you ever stopped to think what a contrast there is in this Gospel passion between Jesus and the vast majority of the others who play a role in this great drama? The handed-over one, the one remember who in John’s Gospel is the Word of God the Father, made flesh; the one responsible for the entire creation and the one who is himself One with the Father; utterly open to the mind of the Father, and whose heart and soul is totally transparent to God becomes the victim of human spite and aggression.

I am struck by the slow build up of petty abuse and cruelties: Judas’ betrayal; Peter’s futile attempt at defence; the fear of the soldiers rapidly followed by the slap in the face of one of the temple soldiers. We get the mean spirited denial of Peter. Then we meet the Jewish temple authorities with their refusal to enter the Praetorium – least they become defiled and ineligible to celebrate Passover. Well, we don’t want to be contaminated, do we! We get Pilate’s conviction that Jesus has no real case to answer and his three-fold declaration of his innocence only to be pushed aside when the Jewish authorities threaten to report him (well known as a corrupt official), to Caesar, at which point; to save his own miserable skin; this man, Rome’s representative and power in Palestine crumbles and allows Jesus to be crucified. Pilate, defeated but redolent with malice responds by getting the Jews to admit the power of Rome and renounce their ancient Davidic birthright, we have no king but Caesar, and he will rub in their ultimate dependency by refusing to alter the ironic inscription on the cross, The King of the Jews.

Cruelty is always like this, isn’t it? It begins with the minor slap that turns into full scale assault on a wife or child; the boys night out that ends with the drunken attack on an innocent bystander; war zones where the petty power of the soldier with the gun has the power to rape or kill at random; acts of violence undertaken in groups where no one takes responsibility and everyone is so easily led be it book burnings by the Nazis; the horrors of the Reformation or the Rwandan genocide. Those paradidomi, handed over into such hells have no voice, no one speaks for them.

In the end of course, the soldiers responsible for the crucifixion were ‘merely doing their duty’, faceless irresponsible, grey characters, their deed so awful, and here so briefly described by John, they crucified him, a phrase encompassing excruciating pain and hours of slow agonising death. We note that the only loyal onlookers are women – of no importance and John, merely a kid, they didn’t count.

Then the merciful and inevitable death; after which everyone can afford to be generous. Jews facing Preparation Day for Passover want things cleaned up; Pilate can grant the body to Joseph because it no longer matters; and our two, Joseph and Nicodemus; previously clandestine followers are given the dead body and can bury it in lavish style. Finally, buried with spices sufficient for the burial of a king, the King of the Universe gets his due. Finally he is handed over into the arms of his grieving mother and into the arms of God, the one who will recognise his perfect sacrifice.