Tomorrow is Good Friday, the day we remember the trial and execution of Jesus, called The Passion. Some Christians observe this day with vigils and fasts, some by walking the Stations of the Cross, some by joining in worship, some with private devotions. Any worship tends to be subdued. In the Episcopal Church, there is no celebration of the Eucharist on Good Friday; in order to partake of Communion, the elements must be consecrated and reserved on an earlier day. On the night of Maundy Thursday, the altar was stripped, and now the church is bare and sparse, with no beautiful linens or hangings, no gleaming paten and chalice, just bare wood or stone.
In our readings for Good Friday worship, we hear again the story of the betrayal, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. On Sunday, just five days ago, we read the dramatic Passion Gospel from Mark, and the entire congregation joined in the shouts of the crowd: Crucify him! Crucify him! On Good Friday, we are not so directly confronted with our own role in the crucifixion, but in awful betrayal and abandonment and desolation of Jesus. First, we hear prophecy about the Messiah, in the poetry from Isaiah. We are told that the Messiah to come would be despised and rejected by others, oppressed and afflicted, but that in the end, the Messiah will prosper, will be lifted up, will be exalted. The closing verse of this reading — he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors — confirms the final prayer of forgiveness that Jesus made from the cross (Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing) that appears only in the gospel of Luke, and not even in all of the most ancient manuscripts.
This passage of prophecy from Isaiah uses many words to describe the ways the Messiah would be treated in this world:
- despised and rejected
- acquainted with infirmity
- of no account
- struck down by God
- crushed for our iniquities
- oppressed and afflicted
- a perversion of justice
- cut off from the land of the living
- crush him with pain
- he poured out himself to death.
That’s a whole lot of ugly words, isn’t it? I’m sure you identify with some of them, maybe even with many of them. I know I do. When these ugly things are directed at us, it doesn’t feel good. We feel alone in our suffering; we may even say, nobody understands how much this hurts… and it may even be true. But there is one person who will always understand how much we hurt. There is one person who had every right to feel loved and treasured and cherished, but who instead was betrayed and abandoned and executed.
The gospel story tells us about this. While Jesus and his friends were praying together in a garden, one of his very closest friends betrayed Jesus to the soldiers of the chief priests. Judas was paid in silver for handing over Jesus for trial. Jesus goes with the soldiers to be tried by the Sanhedrin and again by the Roman authority. Meanwhile, his friends and disciples have scattered in fear, knowing the Roman penchant for rounding up the followers of a prophet and crucifying them all. Even Simon Peter, renamed the Rock by Jesus, denies three times that he knows Jesus. Jesus is alone. There is nobody to help him. He has been betrayed by one of his closest disciples, denied by another of his best friends, and now is court being tried on trumped-up charges. Pilate has Jesus flogged, hoping that this will answer the calls for death from the chief priests, but they rouse the watching crowd into a bloodthirsty mob. Crucify him! Crucify him! And so, alone and abandoned and afraid, Jesus is sentenced to death by crucifixion.
As methods of execution go, crucifixion is not one that most people would choose. This is the root word of excruciating, as in this pain is so bad it feels like I’ve been crucified. After being scourged by the metal-tipped whips of the Romans, after carrying the 50+ pound crossbeam to the execution site, after being stripped naked and nailed and hung up, it still took hours — if not days — to die. If you didn’t die from blood loss from your scourging, you might survive in increasing pain until you died of wound sepsis or dehydration. It was considered a mercy for the soldiers to break your legs, thus hastening your death. This is a dirty, gritty, bloody, messy way to die. It is humiliating and agonizingly painful. This sounds a lot like those words from Isaiah, doesn’t it?
So here we are today. We stand under the cross, looking up at our crushed and broken and despised Messiah. Today, we are left alone and abandoned by Emmanuel, God With Us who is now dead and buried. Today, we are terrified and desolate with the disciples. Today, we echo the words of Jesus on the cross, from Psalm 22, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Where will we go, if not to Jesus?
Of course, even as we take the time to dwell in the loss and desolation of Good Friday, we know what’s in store for us on Sunday morning. But until then, the tomb is closed, and the stone seals the entrance. Today there is no angel or mysterious gardener. Today, we recognize the death of Jesus, his perfect sacrifice to win forgiveness for all of us. And we pray the Collect of the Day:
we pray you graciously to behold this your family,
for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed,
and given into the hands of sinners,
and to suffer death upon the cross;
who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.