06 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.

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