Friday, April 22, 2011

Perceiving the Pierced One: a Good Friday Homily

Christ Church Cambridge/ The Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard
Good Friday: Isaiah 52:13-53:12;
Psalm 22; John 18:1-19:42
Friday, April 22, 2011

See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.

…. he shall startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;

for that which had not been told them they shall see,
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate. (Isaiah 52: 13, 15)

On Wednesday of this week in New Orleans, one year after the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that set off an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, family members of the eleven people who were killed boarded a helicopter. Their destination was the graves of their loved ones. After several minutes, the pilot announced that they were flying over the site where the rig had sunk. Slowly, they circled so people on both sides of the aircraft could see site: a vast, unbroken ocean flowing beneath them. As the Associated Press reported, “the only indication that they were at the site was an announcement from the pilot." After they returned to shore, one family member, Arleen Weise, commented, “It was just a little emotional, seeing where they were,” she said. When “asked what went through her mind when she saw where the rig went down, Weise said, ‘Just rise up. I wanted them to come up, but it didn’t happen.’’’ This site of incalculable loss is like a lacuna, an open space that can only barely make visible the loss of their loved ones. They can only look upon its enormity, as if, as Paul reflects in the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians, they have been “swallowed up by life.” How can one take in such a scene?

And yet that is precisely what we are called upon to do—or to try to do—on this day. Vast as the ocean, our readings yet bring into startling, unsettling relief the loss that draws us into the central mystery of our faith, lifting before our eyes a spectacle from which we may well want to turn away. For the one on whom we are invited to gaze this day is our beloved Jesus Christ, the one who poured himself out into our midst, becoming subject to appalling injustice and oppression, even unto death. Emptied out like water, he lived as one us and died an excruciating death high upon a cross. To ancient Christians, this most difficult day was paradoxically and quite literally one of up-lift. Thus the words of the prophet Isaiah—“see, my servant shall prosper, shall be exalted and lifted up, and be very high”—could be read incongruously to refer to none other than the crucified One. Our eyes turn to the One whose crucifixion, alone in the Gospel of John, is expressed as a kind of ascension, of being “lifted up” as a strange spectacle and source of healing (John 3: 14, 12:32). Behold the sheer incongruity at the heart of a day that Christians have dared to call “good.”

But there is a reason for this pronouncement. For by crossing the border between Creator and Creation, eternity and time, walking in our midst even to the point of becoming ensnared by the evils of empire, pierced by a Roman soldier’s spear (as only the Passion according to John describes it), Christ broke open what Letter to the Hebrews calls a “new and living way,” a new passage into God’s own heart (Heb. 10:20). The crucified One stands in solidarity with us in struggle and strife, has the ability to, as Hebrews puts it, “sympathize with” — συμ-παθῆσαι, literally to feel together with—“our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15). Christ has engraved our deepest experiences of grief, rage, abandonment, horror upon the very heart of the divine. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) would wonder at this marvel, asking, “why should I not look through these fissures into the heart of the rock? The nails announce to me, the wounds proclaim to me that ‘God is indeed in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’”(61st Sermon on the Song of Songs). What Bernard saw in that heart above all was infinite compassion. Two centuries later Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) would also meditate upon these wounds, perceiving in the side-wound a safe refuge (Revelations of Divine Love, Long Text, ch. 24) and a passage from which human beings were born anew (Revelations, Long Text, ch. 60).

There is something almost unbearably peculiar – or peculiarly unbearable – about this day. It isn’t simply that we are invited to look up at the suffering and death of one whom we love, and who loves us so deeply. It is more even than that. What is beyond the pale is the matrix of meaning we are invited to contemplate, the multiple, layered lenses through which we are invited to view this story. Indeed, we are invited to read it, to perceive the pierced one, in intersection with our own lives and communities, our own pain, our own losses. We are invited to open our deepest struggles to the blinding transformation at the heart of the paschal mystery, knowing that all that we are, all that we have been, all that we will be, “is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge

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