A Good Friday Meditation
at Southminster Presbyterian Church (we combine our Holy Week services with First Presbyterian. They hosted Maundy Thursday)
John’s Crucifixion Narrative (John 19)
The story of Jesus’ crucifixion is not an easy story to hear. It is gruesome. Reveals the depravity of humanity, our cruelty and our tendency to be led by fear towards violence. It is a story that reminds us of how we still kill innocent men we perceive to be threats, and how we still have need today for parades in the streets, protesting about injustice and violence. The crucifixion story isn’t a place we want to linger and rest.
We know how the story continues in the gospels. Spoiler alert!
Sunday’s coming. Easter’s coming. Resurrection is coming.
It’s not here yet.
Today’s only Friday. We don’t know -yet- how the story will play out on our streets, or in our lives. We haven’t read the ending of our own books- yet.
We have hope, though. We hope, work, protest even, for a day when innocent people won’t die in unjust ways.
Good Friday is the day we remember to pause and spend time with the reality of death.
TS Eliot wrote:
I said to my soul, be still,
and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.
(“East Coker,” Four Quartets)
Death is all around us. And we know that, from our own lives. I had 2 friends die this week, so I’m feeling it in specific ways. Buddy, a friend and fellow pastor in the PCUSA, died in a car accident. Betsy, a high school classmate, from cancer.
For whom are you grieving in this season? What other situations of loss in your life feel like death and are in need of mourning by you?
(At this point in the service, people were invited to write down on a piece of paper, a name, or a situation, in their lives that were in need of remembrance, and mourning.)
We pause to remember death today. Our society, however, often tries to move us past death quickly, or tries to erase death from the story.
Plastic surgery is a booming industry, as we try to look like we’re not actually getting older. Someone was described by their doctor with “if he had a healthier diet over the last 20 years, he might live to be 200 years old.” People. No.
And when people die, we hesitate to use the word “death” or “died”, and say they have “passed on” or have “departed”, often to a “better place.” Think of the euphemisms we use. Bought the farm. Gone to one’s reward. Those descriptions aren’t necessarily wrong, but they don’t give us space to mourn the loss we feel at death.
A little later in the service, we’ll hear about Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who will take Jesus’ body and bury it. They will anoint his body with myrrh and aloe—100 pounds worth—a sign of extravagant love for their friend and teacher who has died. They will begin a time of mourning.
For loss of relationship.
Loss of dreams.
Loss of clear vision for what the future held.
They bury all of those possibilities as they bury his body in the tomb.
On Maundy Thursday, Andrew pointed out there is a similarity between burying something and planting something. Does a seed know the intention of the sower— does the seed trust it’s being planted, and not buried, when it is placed deep in the soil and covered up, hidden from the light, the air, the sounds of the world? Does it matter? It’s in the ground either way. Buried. Planted. Separated from what we see and know of life.
Jesus, after his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when told by his disciples that people from other countries are there to see him, replies with, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. If it dies, it bears much fruit.” (12:23-24)
It is from death, burial, planting, that new life is able to bear much fruit.
Which isn’t to say mourning and grief are to be cast off and forgotten as we race to new life. We cannot move headlong toward the next thing, the new life, the fruit that will be born. Time makes demands of us. We must wait.
On Maundy Thursday we planted seeds. We buried them.
Did anyone have a 4 foot tall sunflower spring up overnight?
Didn’t think so.
There is no discernible change in my pile of dirt in the past 24 hours. It will take time for new life to emerge. Which gives us time to bear each other’s burdens and prayer concerns as we wait and watch, as we water and tend the soil.
This morning, perhaps to distract myself from the two sermons I had to write, I decided that I NEEDED homemade bread. And so I made it.
But you know what I couldn’t do? I couldn’t make it in 20 minutes. The dough needed to rise. The yeast needed to do its magic. The bread then needed to bake. The process ended up being my companion throughout the day of sermon writing.
Death and time are companions. Good Friday is our reminder that death and time journey together at a pace that is not the one we would choose.
I am also reminded that when we experience new life, it has likely been a long time in the making. A “new artist” was being interviewed on the radio once, asked about how it felt to be a rising star with the release of their first single. They replied with an answer that suggested they had not forgotten all of the years of practice, music lessons, school band concerts, of touring, playing in dark pool halls and county grange dances, of rejection from record labels. Just because they were a new artist to the interviewer, didn’t mean they hadn’t been actively preparing and working for this new life.
Are we willing to wait for new life with active intention and preparation?
One of my friends wrote this poem for this weekend.
The Second Day
by Paul Hooker
Do not yet roll the stone away
nor hurry toward tomorrow’s dawn;
let us dwell in death today.
Other voices have their say
outside this sabbatic tomb.
Do not yet roll the stone away
nor come to gloat, embalm, or pray,
lament, or raise the victor’s song—
no, let us dwell in death today.
Build no castles made of clay,
draw up no plans for sacred rooms.
Do not yet roll the stone away
and prematurely birth the day
when knowledge preens and error looms.
Let us dwell in death today.
The Possible in its unknown way
will use the dark to make us strong.
Do not yet roll the stone away,
but let us dwell in death today.
Tonight, in a few moments, we will come forward with our slips of paper, naming the deaths we are mourning in our lives. That is our act of offering tonight, putting on the cross, giving to God, the grief and sadness we bear. (People were also invited to put a flower or sprig of herb on the cross.) Like Nicodemus and Joseph, we will enter into mourning, and loss. Whether you see it as being buried or planted, may you trust God is your companion through it, and will bring you to a new life you can’t quite see from here.
(The service included a wrapping of the cross. The cross was carried in. People added flowers and herbs to the cross. It was wrapped in cloths and carried out of the sanctuary. A previous version of the service, using Mark’s gospel, is here. )