Friday, 6 April 2012

‘We must wait for the resurrection to break the silence of the tomb’

Saint Mary’s Church, Maynooth, Co Kildare, with spire of the chapel of Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, in the background (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Friday 6 April 2012, Good Friday

Saint Mary’s Church, Maynooth, Co Kildare

8 p.m.: Evening Prayer

Isaiah 53; Luke 23: 26-46


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

The Dominican author and theologian, Timothy Radcliffe, points out that that in the Bible, seven is the number of perfection.

We know of the six days of creation and how God rested on the seventh. In Saint John’s Gospel, we have seven signs and seven “I AM” sayings disclosing for us who Jesus truly is. There are seven signs in Saint John’s Gospel. In the book of Revelation, we have the seven churches and the seven seals. And I could go on.

Our Gospel reading this evening includes three of what we know as the Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross.

In his book, Seven Last Words (London: Burns & Oates, 2004), Timothy Radcliffe interprets the seven last words of Christ on the Cross as God’s completion of the circle of creation. And of course, we should see in God’s word both the beginning and the completion of creation. As Saint John’s Gospel opens: “In the beginning was the word.”

I invite you this evening to reflect on those three of the seven last words Christ speaks from the Cross.

The first saying is “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23: 34). This is Christ’s own prayer for forgiveness for those who are crucifying him: the Roman soldiers, and all others who were involved in his crucifixion.

Many of the early Biblical manuscripts omit this verse. But then, I suppose, it is easy to omit forgiveness, to fail to extend it and to refuse to accept it, in our lives.

We know how trite, how hurtful, how deeply wounding, people can be when it comes to forgiveness.

In abusive relationships, how often does the abuser say to the spouse or the child who speaks out, who seeks redress, who demands justice: “Why can’t you simply forgive and forget?”

Forgetfulness is not the same as forgiveness. Nor should we link the two together.

Is forgiveness meaningless if wrong-doers have no intention of amending their ways, no intention of making redress?

And we all know how easy it is to refuse to extend forgiveness to someone who recognises the wrong they have done, the injury they have inflicted, and who seeks forgiveness.

How often, when someone says “Sorry” have I heard myself saying something along the lines of: “Sorry is easy ... Sorry is a very short word for a very long time of hurt ... If only you knew what you had done to me, you would not just be saying ‘Sorry’.”

How often do we feel leaving someone begging for forgiveness, even without forgiveness, gives us a sense of righteous fulfilment?

When someone asks for my forgiveness, and I refuse to forgive them, then the balance of power has shifted. When they were wronging me, they were in control. When I refuse to forgive, I assume control.

And how often we love to be in control, in power, to use that control and power?

On the cross, Christ is no longer in control. He has emptied himself of everything and gives up all control over how he is going to die, how his body is going to be disposed of.

But he does not say: “I’ll wait on others to ask for forgiveness before I say, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’.”

Yet sometimes, the most difficult person to forgive is myself, for the things I realise I have done to others, for the things I have said about others, for the things I have done to those I love, for the things I have done to myself. Or, in the words of The Book of Common Prayer, when I have left undone those things I ought to have done, and I have done those things I ought not to have done.

When Christ calls out on the Cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” I know not what I have done and what I have left undone that has placed him there.

When I cannot forgive, when I have no right to forgive, when I am powerless to forgive, when it is not my place to forgive, when I have no right to forgive, when I refuse to forgive, when I am too weak to forgive yet think I am being strong in refusing to forgive, when I delay, dally and ponder whether I should forgive, when I take control and leave others waiting to be forgiven, I realise I am not perfect.

But Christ’s response is perfect, and that can be good enough for me, at least for today.

The second saying this evening is: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Christ has been crucified between two thieves. One thief realises that Christ is innocent and calls on him to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.

Christ replies to the Good Thief: “Truly, I say to you...,” or “Amen, I say to you ...” (Αμήν λέγω σοί, amen legō soi), and then, on the only occasion recorded in the Gospels, he uses the word “Paradise” (Παράδεισος, Paradeisōs), from the Persian word pairidaeza, meaning a “walled garden,” and by extension, a “royal park” or enclosure.

There are only two other uses of the word Paradise in the New Testament, neither of which is spoken by Christ:

In his second letter to the Church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul gives a description of how “a certain person” – perhaps Paul himself – “was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (II Corinthians 12: 4).

And in his Letter to the Church in Ephesus during his Revelation in his exile on Patmos, Saint John the Divine has Christ saying: “To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2: 7).

In listening to the Word of God, Paul is caught up into a vision of Paradise. In listening to the Word of God in the cave in Patmos, Saint John has a vision of Paradise as a taste of God’s promises.

In speaking this “Word of Salvation” from the Cross, Christ is inviting the penitent thief to join him in the royal enclosure.

And he invites you and me, in Word and Sacrament, into the Royal Enclosure too. Not to look back to the Garden of Eden, but to look forward to the heavenly city, to join the heavenly host before the Lamb on the throne.

There are places I know with the name Paradise – in Cambridge, Crete and Turkey – but there are many more places I know that give me a glimpse of what Paradise is like, what I like to imagine Paradise may be like. They give me glimpses of God’s promises. If I enjoy them so much, I have been so appreciative of the gifts God gives me in his creation, if I have felt so welcome in God’s enclosure, if I have had a foretaste of the promises of Paradise, then I have had a taste of “things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”

‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ … candles light up the chapter and choir stalls in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

And then, thirdly, Saint Luke alone among the Gospel writers tells us that the dying Christ cried that second time: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23: 46).

This is an announcement, not a request, for Christ has accepted the will of God the Father in Heaven. It is followed by silence – the silence of the grave, the silence of Christ lying in the tomb, the silence of the disciples who have lost their sense of direction, their focus, their understanding, their control – and our silence before the resurrection.

So often I want to be in control. I want to control the agenda, I want to control conversations, I want to control discussions. And I particularly want to control the words I use, the words others are going to hear me say.

Yet at times the only response to suffering, to injustice, to the violence and oppression is silence, stunned silence. Not the silence of acquiescence or consent, but the silence that no words are strong enough to say: “This is not what the kingdom of God could ever be like.”

In our silence, we can only stand alongside with those who suffer, sigh before God with those who are marginalised and oppressed, bring our empty hearts before God on behalf of those who are discriminated against, who are victimised and who are brutalised.

In an interview with the Church Times last Friday [30 March 2012], the former Scottish Primus and Bishop of Edinburgh, the Right Revd Richard Holloway, was talking about his new book, Leaving Alexandria.

He has been misinterpreted and maligned for speaking up for the marginalised and the oppressed. And so Martin Wroe naturally asked him what there is to admire in the Church today.

“The day-to-day, under the radar caring that goes on in parishes all over the country,” he says. “That new soap opera Rev captures what a lot of people don’t understand – the way the beleaguered world washes through the doors of vicarages all over the country. I hope that that insane openness to the world is still present; that it isn’t fading or dying.”

Silence speaks where no words are adequate for the beleaguered of this world, and the Church must remain an open and safe place for them even when the voice of the Church is not heard.

As Timothy Radcliffe says: “We must wait for the resurrection to break the silence of the tomb.” We must speak up when it is necessary, and to have the courage to speak is “ultimately founded upon the courage to listen.” But at the grave, at times of desolation, at times when there is no answer, we may also be called to be silent.

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 Mary’s Church, Maynooth, seen through an arch in Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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 in Saint Mary’s Church, Maynooth, Co Kildare, on Good Friday, 6 April 2012.

‘God has given us a way to live without answers’

‘I am he that liveth, and was dead’ (Revelation 1: 18) ... a window in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Friday 6 April 2012, Good Friday

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

2 p.m.: Evensong

Psalm 130 (De Profundis); Luke 22: 54-62; John 19: 17-24.


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

In our reading from Saint John’s Gospel this afternoon, we have heard four of the seven phrases that are known as the “last words” of Christ from the Cross:

● ‘Woman, here is your son’ (John 19: 26)
● ‘Here is your mother’ (John 19: 27)
● ‘I am thirsty’ (John 19: 28)
● ‘It is finished’ (John 19: 30).

This is no passive, isolated Christ on the Cross this afternoon, for two of those cries are about relationships, and two are about action.

In the first two cries, ‘Woman, here is your son’ (John 19: 26) and ‘Here is your mother’ (John 19: 27), Christ’s priority is not for himself but for relationships. His dying concerns are that we should find new relationships. The Church is not about binding contracts but about lasting relationships; the Church is not about making contacts but about building community; the church is not about social networking but about creating family.

The third cry of Christ on the Cross ‘I am thirsty’ (John 19: 28), calls to mind his request earlier in this Gospel to the Samaritan woman at the Well of Sychar: “Give me a drink” (John 4: 7), and the promise that follows: “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty” (John 4: 14).

This Samaritan woman – as a Samaritan, as a woman, as a person with less that Orthodox religious views, as someone with a, shall I say, different sexual lifestyle – would not be acceptable in many churches today. Yet she becomes a role model for discipleship, outreach and mission. It is she, and not the disciples, who engages in creative conversation with Christ, it is she and not the disciples, who brings the people of Sychar to full faith in Christ, it is she who moves beyond networking to creating community.

So, even this statement from the cross, ‘I thirst,’ is about relationship. It can only be responded to by an action that creates relationship. And, at the end of his ministry, what better thirst, what better relationship is there, but Christ’s thirst for the poor, the outsider, the marginalised, the oppressed and the condemned, those he has given priority to in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 3-12), or at the beginning of his ministry in reading from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4: 18-19)?

They are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who demand justice, those who seek mercy, the pure-hearted, the peacemakers and the persecuted. Yes, they are the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed.

His end and his beginning share the same priorities, emphasise the same values. On the Cross, Christ thirsts for a new humanity to be formed and shaped through his incarnation, life, passion, death, resurrection and ascension, a new humanity that looks for his coming again.

This final cry, ‘It is finished’ (John 19: 30), is traditionally called “The Word of Triumph.” It announces the end of Christ’s earthly life, in anticipation of the Resurrection.

So often we move too quickly from this afternoon of Good Friday to the morning of Easter Day, without thinking of what has been accomplished. Indeed, there is no provision in The Book of Common Prayer for anything in our churches from this afternoon until the Easter Eve Eucharist, which is the beginning of Easter itself.

On Holy Saturday, we use our churches for children’s clubs, or to decorate our churches with eggs and little fluffy yellow chickens. But do we allow Christ’s Crucifixion to come to its proper end – in the tomb? Do we contemplate what has been finished, what has been accomplished?

On the Cross, now that his life is coming to a close, Christ knows that all has been completed. “It is finished!” he cries out before he dies. But what is finished? What has been completed?

After his conversation with Samaritan woman at the Well, Christ tells the Disciples: “My food is to do the will of him who has sent me and to complete his work” (John 4: 34). Later, after the Last Supper, he lifts his eyes up to heaven and prays to his Father: “… this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do” (John 17: 4).

What was this work which the Father gave his Son to do?

When it comes to his own self-description, Christ constantly talks about himself in terms of relationship – his relationship with us. There are seven “I AM” sayings in Saint John’s Gospel, seven ways in which he talks about who he is, in which he gives himself a self-description, but always in terms of relationship:

He says he is

● 1, Bread: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry” (John 6: 35).
● 2, The Light: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8: 12).
● 3, The Gate: “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10: 9).
● 4, The Good Shepherd: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10: 11).
● 5, The Resurrection and the Life: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11: 25).
● 6, The Way, the Truth, and the Life: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14: 6).
● 7, The True Vine: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower” (John 15: 1).

It is no wonder that at his death, Jesus cried out “It is finished!” His death makes those relationships complete, brings his work to completion.

His death shows not just that these were poetic or literary devices on the part of Christ. He totally identifies with us, in life, in death, and in the grave. Death shows us how complete his identification with us is.

It is finished. Not that it is over, but it is complete. His relationship with us has not come to end. It has come to its God-planned fulfilment.

A prayer ascribed to Sir Walter Raleigh says: “O Lord God, when you give your servants to endeavour any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same to the end, until it be thoroughly finished, which yields the true glory; through him who for the finishing of your work, laid down his life, our redeemer, Jesus Christ.”

The incarnation makes no sense without the crucifixion. In Christ, God fully identifies with the plight of suffering humanity. Birth is not enough, there must be death too. Or, as the ageing magi asks in TS Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’:

… were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter for us, like Death, our death …
I should be glad of another death.


“It is finished” is not a death gurgle.

“It is finished” is not “I am done for.”

“It is finished” is the last words of Christ on the cross.

“It is finished” is a cry of victory.

“It is finished” is the triumphant cry that what Christ has come to do has been done.

All is accomplished, completed, fulfilled.

Archbishop Rowan Williams reminds us of Pascal’s stark remark that “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world.”

Of course, we live in the time between the times – the kingdom is begun in Christ but will not be seen in its perfection until the end of the world.

The Archbishop of Canterbury observes that Pascal’s comment on Christ’s continuing agony is an exhortation to us not to become nostalgic for a supposedly less compromised past or to take refuge in some imagined purified future, but to dwell in the tension-filled time between times, to remain awake to our inability “to stay in the almost unbearable present moment where Jesus is.”

Saint John’s Gospel makes explicit what all the Gospels assume – the Cross is not a defeat but the victory of God.

The Crucifixion is kingdom come. This is the great long-awaited apocalyptic moment. Here the powers of this world are forever subverted. Time is now redeemed through the raising up of Christ on his cross. A new age has begun. The kingdom is here a-born, a new regime is inaugurated, creating a new way of life for those who worship and follow Christ.

God’s work, the work of the Trinity, is consummated in Christ’s great declaration from the cross: “It is finished.”

His life, his death, his resurrection, as Saint Irenaeus insists, recapitulates creation, recapitulates God’s covenant with his people, unites creation and redemption in the Incarnation. The new creation is complete.

As Richard Neuhaus says in his Death on a Friday Afternoon: “‘It is finished.’ But it is not over.” God remains at work making us, his creatures, divine.

Now it is possible for us to live at peace, to be God’s agents of reconciliation, in a violent world. We are able so to live not because we have answers to all the world’s troubles, but because God has given us a way to live without answers.

Our sins have been consumed, making possible lives that glow with the beauty of God's Spirit. What wonderful news: “‘It is finished.’ But it is not over.” It is not over because God made us, the Church, the “not over.”

We are made witnesses so the world – a world that has no time for a crucified God – may know we have all the time of God’s kingdom to live in peace with one another.

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 ... the seal of the cathedral chapter at the south porch (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 Evensong on Good Friday, 6 April 2012, in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

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.

Fear and hope on Good Friday

The Irish Times carries the following editorial on page 15 today [6 April 2012]:

Fear and hope
on Good Friday


In his anguish and in his pain, the dying Christ cries out on the Cross on Good Friday: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a pitiable cry that echoes the opening words of Psalm 22.

But it is a pitiable cry that has resonances this Good Friday for many who feel forsaken and abandoned today: families facing homelessness because their loans and mortgages are being foreclosed; parents mourning as they see their children being forced to emigrate; older citizens fretting at mounting charges for public and local services, despite having paid their ways through all their lives; owners of small businesses facing closure because the banks refuse credit or overdraft facilities; immigrants now thinking of returning home, their savings spent as they tried in vain to seek new opportunities; young families living in hopeless ghost estates. In their anguish, they must wonder why this day, of all days, is called Good Friday.

For others, Good Friday has nothing to do with the loss of hope and the recovery of hope, and the very meaning of “Good Friday” is lost to them. Instead, it is the start of a long bank holiday weekend. Or it may be just another run-of-the-mill, humdrum day, robbed of meaning and significance, another day to go to work, another day without work, or a day when the pubs are closed.

Is it any wonder that many today must question why this Friday is called “Good Friday”? Yet, looking at the anguish of the world, TS Eliot can still say in “East Coker”:

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.


But the anguished cry of the dying Christ on the Cross on Good Friday takes on new meaning when it is understood in the light of Christ’s own priorities. These he set out at the beginning of his ministry in Saint Luke’s Gospel, when he took the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth and declared his priorities were “to bring good news to the poor ... to proclaim release to the captives ... recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free...”

Similar priorities are echoed in the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, when Christ proclaims his priority is for those who are poor, who mourn, who are meek or without property, who hunger for justice, who show mercy and who work for peace. These people are marginalised in every society, and are often isolated as they campaign and protest.

The anguished cry of the dying Christ on the Cross becomes their cry of rage against injustice in the world today. The dying Christ has not lost his faith. The God he cries out to is no abstract, philosophical concept, but remains a personal God who hears the cry of the poor, “My God, my God.” And the Resurrection faith of Easter offers hope to those who fear their cries are never heard.

Poems for Lent (42): ‘Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward,’ by John Donne

The Crucifixion ... a modern icon

Patrick Comerford

We have reached the climax of Lent with Good Friday. Yet, for many, it is increasingly the case that Good Friday is just another holiday, a chance to begin a long weekend holiday at this time of the year. For others, it is just another hum-drum day that has lost meaning and significance, so much so that they may wonder why this Friday is called “Good.”

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.


This day has influenced so many poets over the centuries, including George Herbert and his ‘Good Friday’:

Oh my chief good,
How shall I measure out thy blood?
How shall I count what thee befell,
And each grief tell?

Shall I thy woes
Number according to thy foes?
Or, since one star show’d thy first breath,
Shall all thy death?

Or shall each leaf,
Which falls in Autumn, score a grief?
Or cannot leaves, but fruit, be sign,
Of the true vine?

Then let each hour
Of my whole life one grief devour;
That thy distress through all may run,
And be my sun.

Or rather let
My several sins their sorrows get;
That, as each beast his cure doth know,
Each sin may so.

Since blood is fittest, Lord, to write
Thy sorrows in, and bloody fight;
My heart hath store; write there, where in
One box doth lie both ink and sin:

That when Sin spies so many foes,
Thy whips, thy nails, thy wounds, thy woes,
All come to lodge there, Sin may say,
No room for me, and fly away.

Sin being gone, O fill the place,
And keep possession with thy grace;
Lest sin take courage and return,
And all the writings blot or burn.


The Crucifixion ... an icon from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai

Good Friday is a busy day for me this year, preaching at two services in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, in the morning and in the afternoon, and at a third service in Saint Mary’s Church, Maynooth, this evening.

With that much moving around today, my mind turned to ‘Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward,’ by John Donne (1572-1631), which is my choice of a Poem for Lent on this Good Friday morning.

This 42-line poem, written almost 400 years ago, is regarded as one of the finest devotional poems of the English renaissance period. WH Auden provides testimony to how hard a time his students had in interpreting poems like ‘Good Friday, 1613,’ when he writes:

And nerves that steeled themselves to slaughter
Are shot to pieces by the shorter
Poems of Donne


This poem was written two years before John Donne’s ordination in 1615, and following Good Friday, 2 April 1613, when he made a journey on horseback from London westwards to Exeter. Donne’s brief title for the poem serves alone to reveal his shame and guilt at being on the road, instead of in church, on that particular Good Friday. The poem contains profound religious insights and a sincere expression of personal penance. The poem has a slightly jogging rhythm – a slightly irregular tetrameter, punctuated by largely end-stopped rhyming couplets. This intentional rhythm intentionally mimics the pace of the horse that Donne rode that day.

This poem is significant for what it tells us about the theology of a major English poet and for what it tells us about the spiritual psychology of that time. In 21 couplets, Donne writes an apologia for the faithless act on Good Friday that this poem recalls.

The poet gives five arguments, firstly blaming fallen Nature generally (lines 1-14). His riding, he says, follows the influence of the stars, which (from any observer’s perspective) move uniformly across the sky every night from east to west, from where Christ the Son of God took on humanity, from where he died on the cross at Golgotha. Secondly, citing the Bible, Donne explains that looking on God, face-to-face, is death to any creature (line 15-28). He averts his eyes because he dares not look. Thirdly, out of pity, Donne says he cannot bear to witness the sufferings of Christ’s mother, the Virgin Mary sufferings (lines 29-32). Fourthly, he affirms that he observes the sufferings of Christ and Mary in his mind’s eye, in “memory” (33-35), as he should. Finally, he explains that, by turning his back on Christ, he also submits himself to deserved “Corrections” (lines 35-40), to a scourging. The poem’s final couplet then moves all responsibility to a God who, if he punished Donne as he should, would discover that he, unashamed, willingly turning his face to his creator.

Donne begins with a metaphor “Let man’s soul be a sphere” (line 1). He likens the soul to a “heavenly” sphere – a moon or a planet – and the “intelligence” that moves this planet (line 2) is the soul’s devotion to God.

The poet compares the devotion of the human soul to the force of gravity on a planet moving around the sun. The gravity of the larger body keeps the planets in orbit; therefore the devotion of humans to God keeps them on the right path. But, like planets in orbit, we can be distracted by things other than their devotion, and those distractions will lead them away from God:

And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motions, lose their own.
(lines 3-4).

On this Good Friday, while the poet is travelling to the west, his thoughts are in the east, towards Jerusalem, where Christ died. He is travelling when he ought to be praying, and so the west-east dichotomy is both literal and metaphorical.

Donne, who was fond of paradoxes, contrasts how he is looking towards where the sun sets, but Christ, by rising from the dead, made life eternal (lines 12-13).

He finishes this metaphor by averring that sin would have “benighted” all humanity had not Christ died for our redemption (line 14). After this, however, Donne is more concerned in the remainder of the poem more with the idea of looking toward.

In lines 15-24, he says he is glad that he did not have to look on Christ’s death on a cross because he could not have borne it. Donne shows how hard it must have been for anyone to have witnessed the Crucifixion, for Christ is God, and as he recalls in line 17, in the Exodus story God warns Moses that no-one could see God’s face and live (Exodus 33: 20). But the poet knows that in Christ God was clothed in “flesh” and therefore could have been seen safely by people in his own lifetime (line 27).

The poet is deeply impressed with spiritual anguish at imagining the Saviour on the cross.

In line 21, he alludes to the prophecy of Zechariah: “And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn” (Zechariah 12: 10).

In the Fourth Gospel, Christ’s crucifixion is seen as fulfilling this prophecy: “Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out ... These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled ... And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’.” (John19: 34-37).

Near the end of the poem, he is thankful that he could not have seen the horrors of the crucifixion: “Though these things, as I ride be from mine eye.” He reflects that these things are in his memory, and through that he can look towards God, and God can look towards him (line 33).

This final idea of “looking” is very important to Donne, for he ends the poem by saying that

I turn my back to thee, but to receive
Corrections
.

He turns his back to God to be whipped and “corrected” of his faults (lines 37-38). He implores God to “Burn off my rusts, and my deformity” so that he can be made more in the likeness of Christ (line 40). Only when he is cleansed and corrected in this way may he then “turn his face” to God (line 42).

The Crucixion ... an icon from Balamand Monastery, near Tripoli in Lebanon

Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward, by John Donne

Let man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th’ intelligence that moves, devotion is;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl’d by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul’s form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees God’s face, that is self-life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul’s, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg’d and torn?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God’s partner here, and furnish’d thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom’d us?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They’re present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and Thou look’st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang’st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I’ll turn my face.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.