This Holy Week the whole world finds itself engulfed in a crisis that has broken over us just as we thought that we were emerging from a pandemic. Our hope was that Covid might have taught us lessons on solidarity and the value of reaching out to ‘the other’. However, once again we are face-to-face with the pain and destruction of war.
Lent is traditionally the season of repentance, a word that in the New Testament is rooted in the idea of learning to see and live differently (they call it metanoia). On this Good Friday our need to see and live differently is as apparent as ever. Without threat or fear Jesus is drawing us to do the same so now let us welcome this moment and take this opportunity to draw closer to our teacher and friend, who is also our healer and saviour.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus spoke seven times from the cross. In the Middle Ages these last words spoken by Jesus became a source for prayer. This Good Friday evening these meditations are offered as an opportunity to spend time in the company of the one who has a word for each of us, a word that may speak powerfully and lovingly to our lives wherever we find ourselves. Jesus is the one who teaches what it is to be human, and the Gospels offer us the space to sit at his feet. We contemplate the word of Scripture because in this word, we recognise a sacrament of presence. The God who IS always and everywhere invites us to an encounter NOW, an encounter that transforms us and raises us up.
Let us enter into this time of prayer by becoming aware of this presence.
1. Luke 23:34:
When they came to the place that is called the Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right hand and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Throughout the Gospel of Luke Jesus is presented to us as a person of prayer. So, it seems right that now, at the moment of crucifixion, he should have a prayer on his lips.
What does not seem right, however, is that it should be a prayer of forgiveness. How can he, in the chaos of this execution, rooted as it is in injustice and brutality, how can he pray for those who perpetrate such horrors?
This question troubled those who copied the earliest manuscripts of Luke; indeed, some of them chose to leave this verse out.
Yet here they are, words that seek a hearing from us, that call us to stop and listen. These are words that need our attention. They are calling us to consider what kind of man this is and revealing him as one who dies the way he lived, firmly rooted in the compassion of God. These are words that push us towards those places where we hold and hide our anger and hurt. Those places, where in our woundedness at what has been done to us we cling to resentment and hate.
Yet Jesus, who, in his ministry of mercy was mocked, threatened and rejected, invites us to return with him to those who have hurt us, with a prayer of healing forgiveness.
That is a difficult place to go but, in these-virus ridden days, let us be open to the possibility
that forgiveness is a remedy for so many of the ills that plague us.
2. Luke 23:43:
“One of the criminals who were hanged there with him kept deriding him and saying ‘Are not you the Messiah’? Save yourself and us. But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we have been condemned justly for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’” Jesus replied “Truly, I tell you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.”
Still with the Gospel of Luke we come to the second “word” from the cross. Once again, we are confronted by the unexpected. Experience teaches us that a mob has no conscience; at this execution the mob, agitated and up for blood, joins in the mockery and abuse of the victim.
It would be great if we could comfort ourselves by saying it wouldn’t happen today but sadly, we can’t, because in our time we still have the mob and it may be even more widely dispersed thanks, for example, to the internet and social media. Day in and day out we have instances of the herd mentality, blind to injustice and human cruelty, and engaging in incitement and hate crime.
What is unexpected from this moment on Calvary is the self-awareness of this nameless thief who knows himself for who he is and who can still see something in the man crucified beside him that allows him to believe that he is defined neither by the madness around him nor the darkness within him. Even now, even here in this place of misery, hope rises. And this hope does not disappoint nor deceive for he is heard, and he comes to a moment that he dared not imagine, enfolded in the mercy of the crucified God.
Across borders and boundaries in the midst of fear and despair human beings are being called to compassion and they are responding with generosity and great courage. In this word from the cross we are reminded that, even in our worst moments, we have choices and that by the grace of God, which reaches everywhere we can and often do choose well.
3. John 19:26–27:
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus, were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Behold your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother.”
Christian art has depicted this scene for centuries. Indeed, most paintings portraying the death of Jesus include the mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross along with the person known as the beloved disciple. However, of the four evangelists only John suggests there was anyone there. The others imply that the disciples simply ran away or else stood at a distance.
So, what is John putting before us in this scene? Perhaps he wants us to contemplate the possibility that great good can come out of terrible evil.
Earlier in this Gospel Jesus calls out, “and I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself.” (12:32).
Could it be that the mother of Jesus and the disciple he loved represent the coming together of a new humanity, the gathering together of all God’s people around this sign of God’s unconditional love. Raised up on the cross, Jesus is pleading with us to understand that even though we live in a world often marked by separation, fear and hostility God would have us gather together.
The pandemic may have introduced us to terms like self-isolation, social distancing and lockdown. Paradoxically, it is also a call to unite in loving service of those most in need.
4. (Mark 15:33-34)
When it was noon darkness came over the whole land until three o’clock in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?” (“My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”)
Jesus was a Jew, and he grew up praying the prayer book of his people. They call it the Tehillim, meaning The Praises. We call it the Book of Psalms. These 150 prayers cover the whole range of human emotions from sheer joy and delight in all that is beautiful and good in the world to utter despair at the apparent absence of God who seems not to care about evil and suffering. So, Jesus knew well these opening lines of Ps 22.
Around him he saw the suffering of people brought on by oppressive and corrupt politics and meaningless religion and he felt called by his Father, the God of the Psalms, to lift burdens and to comfort, to heal and to forgive. No doubt he was driven by a desire that people would know that God never abandons them.
Yet now at the end of his life he as he struggles for his last breath, he is not afraid to voice this prayer for himself and for all who suffer. Rather than be distressed at these words perhaps we should take heart that Jesus on the cross is teaching us to pray what we feel.
All over the world in this time of crisis people are crying out, overwhelmed by the scale of suffering, at the loss of life, at the inability to cope. Yet strangely the prayer itself is an indication of a deep faith, a knowing that somehow God has not abandoned us but is with us, leading us through.
This is what the person who wrote the Psalm came to and this is what Jesus would have us know for this psalm says a few verses later: “For God did not despise the affliction of the afflicted nor did he hide his face from me but he heard me when I cried to him.” (Ps 22:24)
5. (John 19:28)
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, said (in order to fulfil the Scripture) “I am thirsty”.
There’s a lot about water in the Bible, and the lack of it. That’s not surprising when you think of it. Given where they live, the writers know all about thirst and drought. It quickly becomes a symbol for their relationship with God. In the desert they cry out for water and God gives them springs; in their psalms they describe their longing for God as being like thirst: “My body thirsts for you like a dry, weary land where there is no water.”
God is the one who guides them to restful waters to restore their soul.
Now, on the cross Jesus utters words that we might expect; a tortured man crying out for a drink. However, we are told that his words are spoken to fulfil the Scripture. So, they invite us to consider something else entirely.
As we have seen, water is usually the symbol of our thirst for God, but what if now, in this moment of self-giving love, the thirst of Jesus is a pointer to God’s unquenchable thirst for us!
Wandering, lost humanity journeying in deserts that are so often of our own making
awakens in God a thirst for us, God’s longing that we might come to know our true worth. Jesus’ whole life has been a sign of God’s desire for this friendship and now in his death he opens a well where God’s thirst and ours can be satisfied.
Pandemics war and climate change have all awakened in us an awareness of our limitations and our need – let it also awaken in us a thirst for the God who longs to heal us.
6. (Jn 19:30)
When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is accomplished”. Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
The portrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of John is different. He is presented above all as the one sent by the Father.
John does not use the word miracle to describe Jesus’ works – he deliberately avoids the term and chooses rather to speak of the signs that he performs. These deeds of Jesus are not to be understood as proof of his power but as symbols that reveal who he is as the one sent by God. He turns water to wine, he heals the sick, he feeds the hungry, gives sight to the blind and raises the dead.
In being presented each of these signs, the reader of the gospel is being asked to embark on a journey of faith because for John, faith is the key. We sometimes associate faith with believing certain things to be true but in the Bible, faith is more often associated with trust, with coming to know in our hearts that God is trustworthy.
This is particularly so in the Fourth Gospel; the evangelist explains at the end that he has written the Gospel, “so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name.”
Faith leads to life, and life in this Gospel means having an intimate friendship with God. So, when Jesus utters the words “It is accomplished” as he dies on the cross, he is referring to the completion of his mission. He has revealed God not as the offended ruler of all, the distant law maker, the harsh judge.
No! Jesus has revealed him as the loving Father whose sole desire is that we might have life in its fullness.
In our time what might life in its fullness look like?
Surely, we would recognise it where there is love, service and a willingness to trust that God is greater than the darkness that threatens us and that he wills us to triumph over these difficult times.
7. (Luke 23:44-46)
“Now it was about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed, and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus crying with a loud voice said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
The last words of Jesus according to the Gospel of Luke are taken from Psalm 31. Jesus is once again portrayed as praying the prayers of his people.
This Psalm is a prayer of trust in which the just man prays to God with great confidence that he might be saved from his enemies. At a time of crisis such as the current one some people will turn to prayer and others will scoff at the idea.
Behind both responses lies a mistaken notion of prayer. Turning suddenly to God in time of need might suggest that prayer is about somehow persuading God to give us something that he is not really inclined to give. Likewise, dismissing the idea of prayer suggests that praying is simply some kind of opting out of our responsibility to live with our limitations – nothing more than superstitious wishful thinking.
Yet for Jesus prayer is neither of these things. Prayer is about becoming who we are – human beings made in the image and likeness of God. At our deepest core we are made for a relationship with God.
Jesus lived out of this utter conviction and it drove him to live as he lived. So, when he got up early and went off to spend time in prayer, there’s no hint of superstition or wishful thinking. He’s not trying to find ways to change his Father’s mind. Quite the opposite, he is seeking to respond to what the Father is asking of him.
Being a person of prayer does not mean having an escape route; it is more about having a listening heart that can pay attention to what is truest and best in us.
Jesus’ disciples knew him to be a person of prayer and they asked him to teach them how they might be the same. He simply said: Know that God is your Father, try to want what he wants, trust him each day, forgive those who hurt you and ask Him for the strength not to give up when you are tempted to.
Jesus did not just teach us the Our Father, he lived it to the end. In this time of anxiety, fear and doubt, he is teaching it to us again.
The Seven Last Words of Jesus from the Cross are a powerful invitation to pray but, if we stopped here, we would be making a serious error. We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song. We must always remember that our crucified saviour speaks to us again, not from the cross but from the empty tomb. He offers us a word that draws together all words of faith, hope and love that we have prayed here. He says to each one of us:
Peace be with you (Jn 20: 21; Luke 24:36)
This is the gift of Easter, a peace that comes from knowing that God in Christ conquers our fears, takes away our guilt, and triumphs over evil and suffering. The risen Christ offers us God’s Yes! to the world and invites us to live from a different space, a place of Peace. We are not to live here in splendid isolation but from this place of peace he gives us a mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. We are tasked with being witnesses of the power of the resurrection. The crucified and risen Christ lives now and is the source of our hope and joy many things threaten our world, and we must face those threats with courage but this Easter we are called above all to be people of hope and love who share the gift of Christ’s peace.
Let us end our time of Prayer this Good Friday being at Peace in his Presence.
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