Sermon given my Margaret Houston on Good Friday, 25th March 2016 at St Georges Church at 10am, Children's Stations of the Cross

Sermon given my Margaret Houston on Good Friday, 25th March 2016 at St Georges Church at 10am, Children's Stations of the Cross

In the name of the one who took on human flesh, and in human flesh he died. Amen.

Today is the 25th of March. Today is the feast of the Annunciation. And this year, today is also Good Friday. This rare convergence takes place only about every hundred years or so – one such occasion was in 1608, and the parallels did not go unnoticed by John Donne, who wrote:

TAMELY, frail body, abstain to-day ; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur ; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away ;
She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who's all ;
She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall ;
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead ;
She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
Sad and rejoiced she's seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
Not fully a mother, she's in orbity ;
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th' abridgement of Christ's story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th' angels Ave, and Consummatum est.

            When they took him down, I reached for him.  It was an instinct, as unbidden and primal as the first time.  Give me my son into my arms.  I stared down at every detail of his face, already changing. You could see he wasn’t there, and yet that was the only place he still was, his body the only sign that he was ever real.  I was trying to store every line of his face, but already I could see the skin at his temples slackening, could see him frowning in death, not because of the emotion at the moment of his passing, but because there was no life left in those muscles.

            The grief, for a moment, was lessened when I held him. The weight of him – I might forget his face, with time and with the desperation of trying not to – but I will never forget the weight of him in my arms.  For a moment, he was restored – the arms that ached with emptiness were filled again.  And because it was so good to hold him, it was awful as well. And I passed him to the others, to do the business of wrapping, lifting, carrying, sweating the stone into place.  As they covered the tomb, I had to hold John’s hand to keep myself from running after him, pulling him back – no, you cannot send my son into the ground, no, no, please.  He doesn’t belong there.

            When he was born, I held him spread across my lap. I rocked him and sang to him. I wrapped him in bands of cloth.  I laid him in the rectangular feed box for the animals.

            And today, the day he died, I held him spread across my lap. I rocked him and sang to him. We wrapped him in bands of cloth. We laid him in the rectangular casket. And then, like when he was a child gone off to sleep, we closed the door, and we left.

            And all this would be nothing more than another human tragedy – after all, two zealots were crucified with him, and that terrorist Barabbas was only freed because the crowd, desperate to stick two fingers up at Rome, demanded it.  Men die every day to maintain the blessed Pax Romana – and those are the ones fortunate enough to survive birth, infancy, childhood … I have sat shiva with mothers time and again, torn my garments in grief, looked into the hollowed bereft faces and sought to find some kind of hope.  And every time, I have known … somehow … that one day, not too far gone, it would be me.  Because all this would be nothing more than another human tragedy … except …
            Except for who he was.  Conceived not through sweat and seed but through the burning will of the Divine, the Creator creating himself through me, the inescapable, overwhelming power that called into being the very universe itself, appearing to me as I was doing nothing more holy than mending a shawl, and saying … “will you … ?”

            And I said yes.

            I suppose I could have said no. There was certainly a question there, not a commandment.  And I had questions of my own, answered courteously. One of the first times I was taken seriously, this day, thirty-four years ago today.  One of the first times I wasn’t shoved to the side, told I was only a girl, I would marry so-and-so, do such-and-such, close your mouth and bring us our dinner and stop asking questions – the men are trying to study the Torah, that’s not your place.

            God had different ideas.  God answered my questions, and God asked my permission.
            And I said yes.

            And so this death is the death not only of my Son, but of what we thought he was. The death of God. The death of our hopes for salvation. This death cuts my heart, and my soul.

            There were signs, early on, that it would end this way. One of those strange foreigners who seemed confused to find us in our hovel, bringing myrrh – a strange gift for a birth. Myrrh is for the dead – after the Sabbath, I will bring it to the garden to anoint him.  And that strange prophesy from the old man in the Temple, as he looked at me and seemed to see straight into my soul, saying, “this child is destined for the rising and falling of many in Israel – and a sword will pierce your heart also.”

            And his own teachings.  He preached not the way of triumph but the way of suffering, redemption not through victory in battle, or through the sacrifice of animals, but through death.

            Some of the others wavered.  Could this man, riding into Jerusalem on a soft, mild donkey instead of a warhorse, be God’s chosen Messiah?  Could he be, as Peter seemed to think, God himself?  John and I would often stay up late and discuss it – him rushing to try and get the words out, to express the passionate thoughts of his heart through clumsy language, and I would sit and listen to the dear boy, gently offering suggestions, references to passages of prophesy and story.  But now … now I find even myself doubting.

            He has died, certainly. But what has changed?  What great liberation was his death supposed to achieve?  How will his sacrifice, noble as it was, ransom Israel, who still lies in chains, under the Roman heel, scattered and unobservant, her priests corrupt, her Temple a shop, her people quarrelsome and violent?

            Perhaps the purpose is that God has now suffered with us. We are no longer alone, even while holding our child’s dead body in our arms – God has done that too. God has seen his son die on the cross too.  But while that solidarity is comforting, what does it transform?  What has changed?  He promised that the Messiah would bring freedom, not just a hand to hold.  How is God working in this?

            I remember Bethlehem.  The town crowded and tempers short. We were crammed in with the animals, and I remember thinking, ‘only let me get home, Lord, to my clean bed and the competent midwife, and I will glorify you forever through your Son now moving within me’.  But that night, stretched and fruitful, I was woken with a rush of water and blood.

            And the wrapping cloths, and the box I placed him in.

            This afternoon, on the cross… when they pierced his side … a rush of water and blood.  Again, the end meets the beginning.  And the wrapping cloths, and the box I placed him in.  God has taken the signs of birth, and turned them into death.

            He mixed the water and wine at the meal on Thursday, John tells me.  He said it was his blood.  He knew.  Now, for the Sabbath meal, tonight, Mary and Martha are setting out water and wine, and we are going to remember him, as he said.  In the ritual cup, I will see nothing but the intimate, primal, obscene memories of his birth – I will drink the water and blood I birthed him in, the water and blood that poured from his sides.

            And yet still – I believe he was who we thought he was. I believe he came to me from God, that he was God, and so … I am confused.

            I want another angel. I want to ask more questions.  I want to ask – why did you make those promises, only to turn them around to death?  What are you telling us?  How could the story end this way?  Is there any way that God can take the signs of this ending, and turn them into another beginning?  Is there a way that the water, the blood, the wrapping cloths, the box he is placed into … can mean anything other than death again?

            The sun is setting.  They are calling me to the Sabbath meal. By the door, we have placed the wise man’s myrrh, the rosemary, the oils. Tomorrow, we will rest, and the next day, we will go to the garden.

Margaret Pritchard Houston

Holland Park Benefice