Good Friday - a Meditation on Christ's Sufferings

A sermon preached at St George's on 18 April 2014 by Martin Carr

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.

Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.

Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

It is an interesting fact that the Cross has not always been the key symbol of the Christian faith. The earliest depictions of Christ in art are of the good shepherd, or the risen and exalted Lord, but not of his suffering on the cross. This is hardly surprising – crucifixion was a shameful and painful way to die. Only in the fourth century, when St Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, was reported to have discovered the relic of the true cross in Palestine, and pilgrimages to the holy sites in Jerusalem began in earnest, did the cross begin to gain a centrality in Christian thought. Even so, many more centuries would pass before devotion would turn more fully towards the emotional impact of Good Friday. Reading the Passion narrative of John, or indeed any of the other evangelists, gives us incredible detail and insight into the final days and hours of Jesus life, but they are restrained and cautious in their emotion. As in the birth narratives, many of the details chosen are specifically to link the death of Jesus to fulfilment of Hebrew texts – the casting of lots for the robe, the piercing with the spear, the sponge of vinegar.

When Mel Gibson released the film The Passion of the Christ in 2003, many were shocked and disturbed by the blood and violence. And yes, as I have indicated, pain and blood are not the stuff of John’s gospel. But there is, within the western tradition in particular, a devotional intensity to the sufferings of Jesus on the cross which stretches right back into the middle ages. I began by reading the first two verses of the 13th century hymn known by its Latin title ‘Stabat mater’. The hymn assists reflection on the sorrow of Jesus’ mother as she stands at the foot of the cross.

O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.

Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.

In Luke’s gospel the prophet Simeon had predicted that a sword would pierce Mary’s heart. Here, as he dies and she watches, his words are all too real. The sorrows of a mother weeping as her child dies are painful beyond words. The Stabat mater became a central text of mediaeval piety, and was frequently set to music during the following centuries notably by Pergolesi, Haydn and Rossini.

Western art has given us a further devotional image, that of the Pieta, in which we see the dead body of Jesus received into Mary’s arms as he is lowered from the cross. This image, like the Stabat mater hymn, is unscriptural. It is, however, all too true to our human condition.

Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ's dear Mother to behold?

Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother's pain untold?

The true flourishing of this inner devotional reflection on the emotional and spiritual intensity of the life of Christ came with the movement known as Devotio Moderna in the 14th century. Practitioners of the devotion immersed themselves in the gospel narrative, imaginatively entering the scenes and feeling with the characters the intensity and enormity of their meaning. As an aid to such practice, poems, hymns and paintings flourished depicting the agonies of the cross. The believer was to be caught up in Christ’s suffering, united in his pain, and through it brought to salvation. Mary’s anguish was the model for our own deep sorrow and grief at the Saviour’s death. The legacy of the devotion lives on in such practices as Stations of the Cross, the imaginative prayer exercises taught by St Ignatius, and the veneration of the Cross on Good Friday.

When we venerate the cross and enter emotionally and imaginatively into the passion of Jesus, we do not do so simply to connect to an event distant in history. Many people have suffered painful deaths – in that respect Jesus is not especially unusual. But as we enter the Passion of Jesus we acknowledge two profound truths. The first is that suffering is a part of life that we have all known. Each of us has a story of profound suffering or loss which can connect us to the story of Jesus or Mary. Our world is full of Passion stories lived out day by day, whether in the battlefields of Syria, or in communities living with disease and starvation in the world’s poorest countries, or in lives wrecked by sexual or physical abuse. The pain of Calvary is all too real – his sorrow is ours too.

But the second revelation of the Passion narratives is that where there is suffering, God is present. God entered the world as an act of love to share our pain. Many people say that because there is so much pain in the world there cannot be a God, but the point is not that God should eradicate suffering, but that in love he shares it, and through that sharing enables us to share the divine life in which, ultimately, suffering and pain will come to an end.

Let me share with thee His pain,
who for all my sins was slain,
who for me in torments died.

Let me mingle tears with thee,
mourning Him who mourned for me,
all the days that I may live:

By the Cross with thee to stay,
there with thee to weep and pray,
is all I ask of thee to give.

My final thought today is that sharing the sufferings of Christ on Good Friday is not the last step on our spiritual journey. The pain and suffering of our world require a response. In our own lives, that is the call to repentance and renewal of life, turning from sin and facing up to love. And as individuals and communities our sense of pain born of injustice must send us out to be ministers of compassion and agents of change. Each of us has the power to ease the sufferings of others – in caring for the sick, in supporting the vulnerable, in working for charities, in tackling the causes of poverty, homelessness, and violence. As we look to the cross, its pain and passion, let us say ‘never again’, and let us set our faces towards the victory of life beyond death.
Holland Park Benefice