06 April 2012

Crying the cry of the abandoned

The Crucifixion ... a window in Saint Peter’s Chapel in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Friday 6 April 2012, Good Friday

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

11.15 a.m.: Matins

Psalm, 22: 1-21; Isaiah 52: 13 to 53: 12; John 18: 1 to 19: 42.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sunday-after-Sunday, in churches and cathedrals throughout the Church of Ireland, we sing hymn-after-hymn so that they almost become embedded in us.

Those hymns sometimes become such a hallmark of our faith and our Church identity, that like the policeman and his bicycle in the stories of Myles na gCopaleen and “the Brother,” it is almost difficult to separate those hymns from our understanding of our parish or church life.

Watch how we behave on a Sunday morning. We never, ever come out of Church humming or whistling the words of a sermon, yet so often we find ourselves humming or still whistling the tune of a well-known and well-loved hymn.

How we give out if the hymns have been sung too slow or too fast!

The greatest public arguments in vestries can be over whether or not to buy new hymn books; the greatest private arguments are between the rector and the organist.

Yet, I wonder, do those hymns sink into our psyches? Do they percolate through us so that they nurture and develop our faith? Or, are they like the Eurovision winning songs of bygone years – we remember the tunes and some of the words, but really don’t care what they are all about?

The meaning of hymns fades fast in today’s culture, as does the meaning of our public holidays.

Look at the hoardings and the posters in the side-streets and back-streets around this cathedral. The shows and the entertainments, the promotions and the parties being advertised for this weekend, can tell me all about Rock ’n’ Roll, but nothing about the Resurrection, can tell me all about having a Good Time, but nothing about Good Friday.

The very meaning of “Good Friday” is lost to the many. For some, it is the start of a long bank holiday weekend. For others, it is just another run-of-the-mill, hum-drum day that has lost its meaning and its significance, another day to go to work, another day without work, another day when the pubs are closed ...

Is it any wonder that many today must wonder why this Friday is called “Good Friday”? So, I am reminded of TS Eliot’s words in ‘East Coker’ (1943):

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood –
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

And for the increasing many on the margins of society, there is no reason to call this day, or any day, good. They live in a Waste Land, and they would find resonances in the opening words of this morning’s Psalm:

My God, my God, look upon me; why hast thou forsaken me

Alone on the cross that Friday, Christ was left to die outside the city walls, on Golgotha, the Place of the Skull (John 19: 17) on a site used for the execution not only of common criminals, but of rebels, heretics, disobedient and runaway slaves, thieves penitent and impenitent, those who refused to pay their taxes and those who were deemed to be society’s deviants.

When the crucified Christ calls out on the cross those words from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, look upon me; why hast thou forsaken me,” he cries out not for himself but for all we place outside our city walls today, all we refuse to count in, all we force to the margins of our society.

It was easier for Herod and Pilate to crucify criminals, rebels, heretics, slaves, thieves penitent and impenitent, tax defaulters, those who are different, than to hear their cry, to listen to their needs, to take seriously their ‘No’ to the current trends in society that marginalise, ostracise and criminalise them.

But this cry from the Cross is not the cry of one who has lost or who doubts his faith. The cry of anguish is not to a distant, remote, abstract God, but to an immediate, intimately close God, who is known as a loving Father.

It is difficult to understand in what sense Christ felt he was “forsaken” by the Father, for Christ is innocent, he has done nothing to be denied God’s love and favour, he is holy, harmless and obedient. God still loves him. How could Christ feel, in any sense, that God has forsaken and abandoned him?

Christ uses the opening words of Psalm 22 to express the full meaning of the whole psalm. Think of how we do so to this day: we name the Canticles not as numbered psalms but by their opening words in Latin: Venite (Psalm 95), Jubilate (100), Deus Misereatur (67), De Profundis (130), and so on.

Those words from the Psalms, more so than popular hymns, for many of us, are embedded in the memory that shapes and structures our spirituality, our prayer life, and our personal piety.

So what could have best expressed Christ’s deepest needs and anxieties before God in his last dying moments?

In a real way, those words allude to the condition of the one who takes upon himself all our iniquity, as the Prophet Isaiah tells us this morning (Isaiah 53: 11).

On the Cross, it would have been natural, not just second nature, for Christ to draw on the psalmist’s question to God when he felt completely worn out in his suffering. The “Why” he addresses to God expresses a pained bewilderment at that suffering which can find no mere human explanation. It is a mystery that the Father alone can unlock.

Yet Christ, in finding full solidarity with suffering humanity, had to experience in himself a feeling of being abandoned by God. If we do not, at some stage, feel abandoned by God, do we need salvation, no matter what we mean by salvation? Can we truly understand the sufferings and feelings others have of being abandoned?

And if Christ does not share those feelings, those insights, those understandings, how could he possibly have become fully human, how could he possibly fully identify with my human condition?

Without this last feeling of abandonment and isolation, his humanity would still appear to be an illusion, that Christ identifies with my humanity, but does he take it on? In that feeling of being abandoned, in that cry, in that “Why” addressed to heaven, Christ expresses a new solidarity with us when we so often raise our eyes and words to heaven and express, complain, cry out in desperation and desolation.

In the “why” of Christ on the cross, we hear the cry of weakness, of solitude, of abandonment, an echo of our own cries of weakness, solitude and abandonment. Christ’s humanity is reduced to this Waste Land. He no longer feels the presence of God the Father. But he goes ahead with this tragic experience of complete desolation.

That silence of God weighs on the dying Jesus as the heaviest pain of all, that sense of the absence of God, of being abandoned by God is the most acute spiritual pain; and that pain renders all the other sufferings more intense. This lack of interior consolation becomes Christ’s greatest agony. If sin is separation from God, then it is at this moment he experiences our separation as his own.

But remember too that Psalm 22, which he perhaps continues to mutter in muffled prayers and to recite to himself in silent tones as his passion is prolonged, moves on to become a hymn of liberation and an announcement of God’s salvation of all:

The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live for ever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him
(Psalm 22: 26-27).

This experience of being abandoned is passing pain. It gives way to personal liberation and to the hope of salvation for all.

This is why we can sing in the opening words of our hymn that the Cross of Christ is the sinner’s hope, that it shows that “God is love,” that it offers “mercy from above,” that it “takes guilt away,” that it “cheers with hope the gloomy day,” that it “sweetens ev’ry bitter cup,” that it “makes the coward spirit brave,” that it “nerves the feeble arm for fight,” and takes away the terror of death and the grave.

The Apostle Paul says the first mark of the Church is that we proclaim Christ crucified (I Corinthians 1: 23). And it is for us, as the Church, to make the Cross meaningful in this way for those society finds it too easy to crucify – those outside the city walls, those on the margins, those dismissed because we categorise them as criminals, rebels, heretics, slaves, thieves penitent and impenitent, tax defaulters, those who are different.

We must hear their cry, for Christ cries their cry. We must listen to their needs, and present them to God the most high, for Christ on the cross listens to their needs and presents them, on the Cross, to God the most high, his loving Father.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, earlier this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at Matins on Good Friday, 6 April 2012, in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

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