There are two Old Testament texts which are key to understanding this Good Friday Service. The first is Psalm 22, whose opening words are spoken by Jesus before He dies, ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me’ (in Hebrew Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani). Secondly, the passage from Isaiah 52 and 53 which is today’s first reading. In Isaiah we see all of Christ’s suffering and death foretold, and interpreted:

‘he bore the sin of many’ ‘with his stripes we are healed’ ‘He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is lead to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.’ ‘he makes himself an offering for sin’. 

The meaning is clear. The wounds of human sin, which cry out for healing, are healed in Christ. Such is God’s love for us. What sin has destroyed, love restores.

Words cannot express the mystery of God’s love. Instead we come to gaze upon our Crucified Lord, and prepare to eat His Body, broken for us. Today mankind, who fell because of a tree, is raised to new life in Christ through His hanging on a tree. Christ is a willing victim, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is the Silent lamb led to his slaughter, and also the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep that have gone astray. At the time when the Passover lambs are slaughtered in the Temple, Christ, as both priest and victim, offers himself upon the Altar of the Cross as the true lamb to take away the sins of the whole world.

There is a stark beauty to today’s liturgy. We come face to face with the reality of God’s love amidst pain, suffering, and death. God dies for us, as a human being, nailed to a Cross, with arms outstretched to embrace the world in love. Two thousand years ago very few people understand what is going on. Pilate doesn’t want any trouble, let alone a riot or an insurrection. The Jewish authorities want to be rid of a charismatic Galilean rabbi, who has a knack for fulfilling Messianic prophecies. The soldiers are just doing their job. This what they do every day: execute criminals. Most of the disciples have fled. Naturally they are petrified by this turn of events, and worry that they will be killed next. Two people are present at Calvary as witnesses. Mary, Jesus’ mother, and John, the Beloved disciple. Thirty-three years before the Archangel Gabriel told Mary that she would bear the Son of God. Now she stands at the foot of the Cross to see her beloved Son suffer and die. Simeon had once told her that a sword would pierce her soul, and now that prophecy comes true. But before He dies, Jesus does something wonderful:

‘When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.’ (Jn 19:26-27)

Here we see a new family being formed, not based on ties of blood, but of love. This is what the Church is, and it starts here, at the foot of the Cross. With Christ, our great High Priest, offering Himself as both priest and victim. The Church begins with three people on a hill outside Jerusalem. One of these three is about to die, condemned as a heretic and trouble-maker. Despite this less-than auspicious beginning we are gathered here today, nearly twenty centuries later. Christ’s Church begins as a failure in worldly terms. However it is a divine institution: it isn’t supposed to make sense in human terms. The Church exists to draw us into the mystery of God’s love.

Today we have the opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ suffering and death, and to glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is our salvation, our life, and our resurrection, through whom we are saved and made free. Amen

James Tissot – It is finished (Brooklyn Museum)

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