Good Friday reflection

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Revd Linda Anchell
21 March 2008

Selections from the following readings, (with the prayers) were read slowly by Linda Anchell:

from Elie Wiesel: Night (Penguin 1968 p76)

One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us, machine guns trained; the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains — and one of them, the little servant, the sad eyed angel.

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.

This time the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.

The three victims mounted together on to the chairs.

The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses.
'Long live liberty!' cried the two adults.
But the child was silent.

'Where is God? Where is He?' someone behind me asked.

At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over. Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.

'Bare your heads!' yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. 'Cover your heads!'

Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive…

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking: 'Where is God now?'

And I heard a voice within me answer him: 'Where is He?' Here He is — He is hanging here on this gallows…'

That night the soup tasted of corpses.

Come Lord,
change our lives, shatter our complacency.
Take away the quietness of a clear conscience.
Press us uncomfortably,
for only thus
that other peace is made,
your peace.
— Helder Camara

When we receive the forgiveness of another,
the depths of our personalities are disturbed.
For it means that the worst In us has been accepted —
and that means a kind of death.

We have no need to fight our own worst selves any more.
And it is hard to receive this truth.
We turn against our forgiver in self-justification.
How dare you accept me as I am and not condemn me?
So folk turned against Christ for so accepting them.
But God's forgiveness is without condition.
It sweeps us off our feet.
We want to make conditions,
so that there can be a core still under our control.
To let go completely —
this is death —
but it is necessary if we are to find life.
To let go into God —
this is death.

So receiving forgiveness is to prepare ourselves for the final letting go,
for the decisive moment of truth,
by a little dying,
a little letting go.
— Jim Cotter

Bishop Rowan Williams writes about forgiveness.

"…the gospel proclaims all this in virtue of the cross of Jesus. Without that, we cannot begin to understand the forgiveness of sins. Jesus crucified is God crucified, so we believe."

Not "forgive and forget" but knowing that the past cannot be changed, accepting that it has happened, knowing or being known fully for what we are, with all of our faults.

But, he asks: "…what does this say about the unhealed human injuries, about the death and catastrophe that can find no human resolution? Who is to forgive the camp commandant at Auschwitz, the murderer of a child, the tyrant waging genocidal wars? Only the victim has the "right" to forgive: I can't forgive on someone else's behalf. I can't intrude into that dreadful intimate relation between the one who hurts and the one who is hurt. So it seems as if there can be no forgiveness if the victim doesn't forgive —and the dead, you might say, don't forgive. We might find a reason for pardoning the murderer, but that is not the same thing. Are there, then, wounds never to be healed, personally as well as globally? After all, our love is not very strong. It is hardly surprising if we come to a point where we say, "I can't take that. That is the end of love.," Is forgiveness to depend on this, on our hopeless, inept struggles to love?

The reply of the gospel is "no." Christian faith here pushes right against the limits of the credible once again in saying that God forgives and has the right to forgive. God is the ultimate victim of all human cruelty, says the gospel: God bleeds for every human wound. Inasmuch as we do good or ill to any human person, it is done to God. Forgiveness is not only a matter to be settled among ourselves — or left unsettled because of our inadequacies. It is God's affair too. And the good news of Christianity is that, since God suffers human pain, since God is the victim of human injury, then there is beyond all our sin a love that is inexhaustible. God's love for this creation never comes to a point where it can take no more. In the old Prayer Book epistle for today, we hear Paul reminding us that agape, God's love, never comes to an end. So God can always survive the hurt we do him; whenever we turn to him in sorrow and longing, after we have done some injury, this love is still there, waiting for us, a home whose door is always open. Whatever we do can never shut that door to his merciful acceptance. The only thing that can keep us out is the refusal to ask for and trust in that mercy.

And the gospel proclaims all this in virtue of the cross of Jesus. Without that, we cannot begin to understand the forgiveness of sins. Jesus crucified is God crucified, so we believe. Jesus is the total and final embodiment in history of God's loving mercy; and so this cross is a unique, terrible, extreme act of violence — a summary of all sin. It represents the human rejection of love. And not even that can destroy God: with the wounds of the cross still disfiguring his body, he returns out of hell to his disciples and wishes them peace. Because Jesus as preacher and teacher had proclaimed and enacted God's identification with the world of human beings, Jesus the condemned criminal speaks of God's presence in the extremity of suffering, in abandonment and death — God as victim. And thus he proclaims God as the one who, above all others, has the right to forgive. …

All we can be sure of is that whatever the deficiency and the drying-up of human capacity to love, the killing of love by pain, there is still, at the heart of everything, a love that cannot be killed by pain. That is a warning against regarding or treating any human being as unforgivable; that is the positive side of this problem, this brick wall for the imagination. We don't know how some situations can issue in forgiveness, and we have to bear their dreadfulness without pious evasion, but it would be worse to deny the possibility of grace, however unthinkable. That possibility is our only hope, and it is the only clue to what "grace" can mean in our relations with each other — the refusal to set the limits to our love.

…we who profess belief in the forgiveness of sins must see forgiveness as something creative of the future, the future of our own love. It is never a possession, it is not something finished; it is a gift and a hope, and also a call.

The gift is itself a task. We can pray in gratitude to God for being forgiven, but we must pray too for help to live with forgiveness, and to live it in our own future.

O God of Forgiveness we contemplate you …
You pour out your lifeblood in love for us,
you pursue us and disturb us and accept us,
you meet our sin and pain with the gift of a
costly and infinite enduring, overcoming evil with good.
O God of Forgiveness, we contemplate you…
— from Prayer at Night: A Book for the Darkness Jim Cotter, Cairns publications, 1988 p.21

Part of 'The Bible Today: Reading & Hearing', the Archbishop of Canterbury's Larkin Stuart Lecture in Toronto, Canada on 16th April 2007 seems appropriate to add to this:

Two contentious examples. The first of them is, as we shall see, of more than accidental importance in understanding certain things about Scripture as a whole, but I choose it because of its frequent use in modern debates about relations between faith communities. Jesus says in the Farewell Discourses of John's Gospel that 'no-one comes to the Father except by me'. As an isolated text, this is regularly used to insist that salvation depends upon explicit confession of Christ, and so as a refutation of any attempt to create a more 'inclusive' theology of interfaith relations. But the words come at the end of a typically dense and compressed piece of exposition. Jesus has, at the end of ch.13, explained that the disciples cannot follow him now; he goes ahead to prepare a place. Thus, he creates the path to the Father that the disciples must follow; they know the path already in the sense that they know him. And this knowledge of him, expressed in the mutual love that he has made possible (13.34-5), will carry them through the devastation of absence and not-knowing which will follow the crucifixion. Seeing and knowing Jesus as he goes towards his death in the perfection of his 'love for his own' is already in some way a knowing of the Father as that goal towards which the self-giving of Jesus in life and death is directed. The Father is not to be known apart from this knowledge of Jesus.

Now this certainly does not suggest in any direct way a more inclusive approach to other faiths. But the point is that the actual question being asked is not about the fate of non-Christians; it is about how the disciples are to understand the death of Jesus as the necessary clearing of the way which they are to walk. If they are devastated and left desolate by his death, they have not grasped that it is itself the opening of a way which would otherwise remain closed to them. Thus it is part of the theology of the cross that is evolving throughout the later chapters of John, the mapping out of a revelation of glory through self-forgetting and self-offering. The text in question indeed states that there is no way to the Father except in virtue of what Jesus does and suffers; but precisely because that defines the way we must then follow, it is (to say the least) paradoxical if it is used as a simple self-affirmation for the exclusive claim of the Christian institution or the Christian system. There is, in other words, a way of affirming the necessity of Christ's crucified mediation that has the effect of undermining the very way it is supposed to operate. If we ask what the question is that the passage overall poses, or what the change is that needs to be taking place over the time of the passage's narration, it is about the move from desolation in the face of the cross (Jesus' cross and the implicit demand for the disciple to carry the cross also) to confidence that the process is the work of love coming from and leading to the Father.

St Philip's Anglican Church,
cnr Moorhouse and Macpherson Streets, O'Connor, ACT 2602.