The Good Friday Devotion conducted by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor
And so the church gathers on this most solemn of days to spend time in quiet and devotion before the Cross of Christ. It is on this day above all others that we hold before us in our minds eye, in our prayers and in our worship, as well as in physical form, the instrument of death by which the most notorious of Roman prisoners were put to death. Everything else having been cleared away from our worship space in the gathering darkness of Maundy Thursday evening, all the trappings and aids and enhancements to worship, we are left here today with nothing but the cross to gaze upon.
Today the church holds its breath as it tells again the story of the last hours of Jesus life. Today the church follows Christ into his trial, today the church gathers with the crowd watching this peculiar scene on the eve of Passover as the Roman ruler washes his hands of the death of this wild-eyed Galilean preacher but nonetheless bends to the demand of the crowds that he should be done away with and put to death.
Today we climb with the crowds, with the disciples, with the Roman soldiers, the hill of the skull, the hill ‘without a city wall’, atop which three crosses will stand starkly against the sky and three convicted criminals are hung upon them to die.
All this we do every year, and this might be for you your 20th or 30th or 60th or 70th Good Friday, gathering here in quiet between the hours of midday and three, the hours which by tradition Jesus hung upon his cross before death finally overtook him. Perhaps this is your first Good Friday, or your first for many years. Either way, we retell this ancient story and reflect upon the love of a man who would go to this length for his beloved people.
This is a familiar day and yet it is new every year. Every year our relationship with the cross, and with the man upon it, is different. Every year our love and our sin, our disobedience and our repentance, the things we carry into this place, the things for which want to give thanks and the things which we desperately wish we could put down are different. And I encourage you to ponder those things in the silences. I encourage you in heart and mind to offer them at the foot of this cross, the things of which you are most ashamed and things which are the indicator of the faith within you. Offer that bundle of faults and failings, joy and promise, hopes and dreams and faith and doubt, and ask God in these moments to do something with it, with them, with you.
Good Friday is always the same, and always different. One of the ways in which it is different this year is that this is the Feast of the Annunciation, nine months before Christmas day, the day on which the church traditionally remembers the angel visiting Mary with the news that she is going to have a son who will be called Jesus, and he will save his people from their sins.
This coincidence of feast and fast is rare. It has happened three times in the last century, and it won’t happen again for a hundred years. This is almost certainly the last time any of us here will gather in church on the feast of the Annunciation on Good Friday. What an opportunity to reflect upon beginnings and endings, upon hope and fear, and upon the nature of God’s love for us.
And so I’m going to structure my brief meditations this afternoon around the three mysteries of the rosary. Although a fourth has been added in recent years, the rosary, the devotional prayers traditionally said in the Roman Catholic and the Anglican tradition asking the prayers of Mary to aid us in our journey have had three sections: The joyful mysteries centre around Christmas and the story of the Angel’s news to Mary. The sorrowful mysteries centre around the crucifixion and Mary’s watching of the events of her son’s final hours. The glorious mysteries tell of the resurrection, and the passing first of Christ and then the whole of creation, of which Mary is a representative, into the joy of heaven.
In between the silences and hymns, we will think about those three aspects of our faith: Christ’s birth, his death, and his gathering up of the whole of creation into glory, and together we will draw some conclusions about the nature of his love for us.
Come, enter into the mystery. Come gaze into the eyes of the baby in the manger, the criminal on the cross, the mysterious stranger in the garden. Come stand with Mary, with the disciples, with the Romans, with the crowd, and ponder who this man could be. Hear yourself cry crucify. Hear yourself ponder if this man is truly “the son of God”. Listen in the silence to the cry of your heart.
On any other 25th of March our worship today would be full of Christmas themes. The readings would be about the visit of the angel to Mary, readings that we are most used to hearing at carol services. We might even sing some Christmas carols, which is something that the Precentor can get away with just every now and then outside the couple of weeks after Christmas! But actually when you sing or listen to some of the most familiar carols it doesn’t take long to notice that the themes of birth and death are fairly closely intertwined. Those themes are shot through the scriptures set for the Christmas period, and of course it’s part of the greater story of the childhood of Jesus that he himself his forced to flee as a refugee across the border into another country to avoid the hateful anger of King Herod who seeks to destroy him in his infancy, so convinced is he that this baby threatens his power and his station.
The story of the events of the 40th day of Jesus’ life when he is taken to the temple in Jerusalem to be presented to the Lord with Thanksgiving, sort of the equivalent of baptism or christening in our own tradition, concludes with those harrowing words to Mary from the old priest: “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed, and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” How much did Mary take that in I wonder? How much did this young mum, proudly cradling her month-old baby have any conception of the truth and the depth of Simeon’s words? How much did Joseph? How much did Simeon himself? How much of the story of Good Friday is really there in the events of Christmas?
I remember going to a mystery play cycle in London, in Dulwich, where the end of the first play was a scene of the stable. There gathered were Mary, Joseph, shepherds, Gabriel and the other angels, donkey and ass and so on. As the scene drew to an end and the great Bach cantata ‘For unto Us Is Born a Boy’ rose to its crescendo, there on the top of the stable appeared the figure of the devil. Standing holding onto the great support of the roof of the stable was the personification of evil itself, watching over the birth of he who would triumph over evil. And at that point I realised that the framework of the stable was an enormous cross. Jesus, in this rendition at least, was being born in the shadow of the cross watched over by the Prince of darkness.
Whether or not Mary, Joseph, or the babe himself knows what is happening at that moment, the story is already unfolding. This baby is born to be a king. And as we know, and as we will see today, this king reigns most truly on the throne that is shaped like a cross.
We’re going to hear now Sabine Baring Gould’s extraordinary prayer poem Sing Lullaby which we very often set at the Christmas carol service at the point where the clergy reverence the crib and the Bishop blesses it. As you will hear, the vast majority of this supposed Christmas Carol is about the cross. The bit that isn’t about the cross is even more extraordinary, peculiar, and wonderful. It suggests, and I don’t know how to make this work theologically but I adore the idea devotionally, the what the little baby is doing, snuggled in his straw and swaddling clothes on Christmas night, is dreaming about Easter.
John Donne’s poem, “on the Annunciation and passion falling upon one day” was composed to reflect upon the coincidence of these two great moments of the church’s calendar colliding in 1608 and in a moment we’re going to hear the poem read aloud, and the words are on your order of service.
The poet notes, as I mentioned earlier, how rarely these two days coincide, and he seems rather pleased about that as he expresses in the lines:
How well the Church, God’s Court of Faculties
Deals, in sometimes, and seldom joining these!
He seems to be saying that it’s jolly good to think about the intersection of these two days every now and then, but not too often! Well we’re okay on that score, as is another century before it will happen again. The poem is filled with rich and gorgeous language and I’m particularly moved by the way in which, towards the beginning of the poem Donne refers to this coincidence of two holy days as a “doubtful day” when he says:
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away.
That idea of holding together the news of Christ’s birth and the witness of his death as being a doubtful day is I think quite helpful. It’s a ‘doubtful day’. It’s confusing, complex, full of strange and overlapping and perplexing happenings and bits of theology and attendant emotions. We gather here on this Good Friday afternoon, knowing that the church and indeed still quite a lot of the wider world refer to this as just that: ‘Good’ Friday, and yet what about it is good? It is a day on which we remember the execution of someone whom we maintain was innocent of crime. It is the day on which we remember the triumph of evil over good, the triumph of the darkness over the light, the triumph of suspicion and hate and jealousy and self-preservation at all costs in the face of a man calling for wider horizons than that, for broader margins, greater faith.
And here again is Mary, in Donne’s words “recluse and public, sad and rejoiced,” with a son “both promised and gone”. Birth and death have coincided. It therefore asks to see both sides of the coin the same time, to be, like Mary, joyful and sorrowful, to see our Lord and find him gone. To sit in sackcloth and ashes, whilst wearing festal garments. To celebrate Christmas at a funeral.
But this is Good Friday precisely because of that. Because here in John Donne’s words, ‘East meets West’, the beginning and the apparent end of the story coincide in a mother and her son, the sword finally piercing the soul of Mary, as her son, the sign that will be opposed, submits to his accusers, and is put to the most humiliating and degrading death available in the Roman Empire.
What we see in the cross, in the words of two 20th-century hymns, is “love indestructible in frailty appearing.” as “hands that flung stars into space to cruel nails surrender”. What we see as we gaze in our minds eye upon our Lord upon the cross, and his mother, the patron of this Cathedral, standing staring up at him as he dies, is “the abridgement of his story”, the whole of salvation enterprise captured in the curious constellation of the Annunciation and the Passion, God’s love in the Word becoming flesh: flesh that may be loved and hated, cherished and betrayed, flesh that is destined through that loving and hating and self-emptying, to transform you and I and the world.
and self emptying
Fourth Address 4
When one prays the rosary, each of the sets of mysteries consist of five decades as they are known, each of which has a theme which leads the thoughts and prayers of the Christian as they meditate on Jesus’ life through the lens of his mother. The joyful mysteries, those concerning Christmas, are very largely biblical. They are the Annunciation, the visit of Mary during their pregnancy to her cousin Elizabeth, the birth of Christ at Bethlehem, the presentation of Christ in the Temple at Candlemas, and the finding of the 12-year-old Jesus in the temple after the family visit there. All of those stories explicitly feature Mary in the biblical texts.
Similarly the sorrowful mysteries, those centring upon the crucifixion, are mostly biblical and feature or could well feature Jesus’ mother as centrally involved in the action. The themes of these mysteries are Jesus praying in Gethsemane, his scourging, or beating, in the Roman praetorium, his crowning with thorns, his carrying of the cross through the streets of the city, and finally his crucifixion. Although we know that no one was with Jesus for much of his agony in the garden, we know that the disciples, and many of the women who had travelled with him, were not far away and we know too that he was followed through much of the last 24 hours of his life by those same people and that Mary ends up standing at the foot of the cross and watching her son’s life ebb away. The verses of the hymn “At her cross her station keeping”, traditionally known as the Stabat Mater, trace the journey of the virgin through this final most awful day in her, in any parents life, and we’re compelled to walk with her into the desolation.
The glorious mysteries of the Rosary are where devotional imagination has to take a slightly greater leap, and where too some of the themes begin to depart from that which can be explicitly found in the words of Scripture and where the rosary therefore becomes unpalatable for some Christians. The first three are okay: the Resurrection itself, the Ascension, the coming down of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but then the final two are the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, her being carried up into heaven without experiencing death, and the Coronation of the virgin as Queen of Heaven.
Good Friday is not the time to make the case for the rosary one way or the other, but I focus in this address on the glorious mysteries because I think that however we read those final sets of themes, and whether or not this is something we would ever want to use in our own devotional life, the vision towards the end of the rosary is that of the life of heaven. The Assumption and the Coronation of the virgin are supposed to be signposts, indicators to us of the sort of transformation which is the promise of Scripture, and the promise of Christ, to his people. Absolutely shot through the pages of the Bible is the promise that “we shall not all sleep but we shall be changed” in the words of St Paul which are most often of course quoted at funerals. The promises that even if Christ seems to depart from us, yet he “will not leave us comfortless”. As some of us heard in the darkness of the Gethsemane watch last night, “courage, the victory is mine. I have conquered the world.”
The promise and the hope is clear throughout this extraordinary story, a very great deal of which Jesus and his mother walk together, and even when they are apart they are watching each other, caring for each other. It is of course Mary’s needs that are of concern to Christ as he dies on the cross where he dedicates John and Mary one to the other as adopted son and mother.
The point is that, yes, it is the calling of the Christian to stand at the foot of the cross. Mary in some senses represents all of us here today, and not just today in a liturgical setting, but all of us as we find ourselves from time to time, and for some of us regularly, facing the very cruellest and most painful aspects of life. We stand at the foot of the cross with Mary, perhaps because we want to stand where Jesus is, or perhaps we find ourselves face-to-face with our own Calvaries and Golgothas which we never sought or hoped for and from which we shrink in dread, and yet we recognise that all of these are encompassed by the arms of the cross and so, yes, here also Jesus is; and where Jesus is, is, always where we are, because his suffering is for us. The cross is the place where we face our fears and go where we do not wish to go, and we find that there Christ has gone before us.
But it is not in the depth of that darkness that we are called to stay. Up out of the darkness, into the light of resurrection Christ rises again. We know this, even on this darkest of days. As the Chancellor preached on Palm Sunday evening, we need to suspend our belief in the resurrection for some of this day, because it is only by imagining ourselves into the place where we do not know what will happen next that we can begin to inch towards grasping what Christ did for us, the risk and the expense of that love. But of course we do know the end of the story. In the end, the point of the story is that we are called to something else. We are called to live the glorious mysteries as well as the joyful and the sorrowful ones. Whether or not you believe that Mary was assumed into heaven without dying, and whether or not you believe that she is the queen of heaven, it couldn’t matter less to the truth of the gospel that the end of our Good Friday journey is not to die on a cross next to Christ like the two criminals, but to be offered the possibility, the promise and the hope of paradise as was the penitent thief.
Yes it’s true that, again in the words of St Paul, by the cross of Christ “I am crucified to the world and the world is crucified to me” but the grave and gate of death is only sealed with a stone, and we know what our saviour does with stones that seal graves.
What is God calling you to do? What is God calling me to do? What ought we to pray for this Good Friday afternoon?
We might pray for the grace to believe that God calls us to more. The baptism service begins with that wonderful line: “faith is the gift of God to his people”. Do you believe that God can give you such a gift? Good Friday is important because we come face-to-face with our darkness, and we must do that. Good Friday falling on the feast of the Annunciation reminds us that in the heart of the darkness there is a star twinkling over a stable, there is a gift, and that gift is faith, and whilst “It is most wonderful to know
his love for me so free and sure;
but 'tis more wonderful to see
my love for him so faint and poor.”
There are three religious images that I can see from the seat behind my desk in Hungerford Chantry where I wrote these meditations. One of them, immediately in front of me, is an icon of our Lady of Vladimir, which is one of the most famous and popular orthodox depictions of Mary. In it she cradles the infant Christ in her right arm her left arm pointing towards him inviting the viewer to move beyond her to the baby. The second image is also an icon and it is of the Transfiguration. In it Christ stands on the top of the mountain surrounded by the blue and gold which in iconography almost always indicate mystery and glory, and on either side of him Moses and Elijah stand, again their arms pointing towards him showing the viewer the glory at the heart of the icon.
The third image is a photograph which was given to me as present by one of my best mates. It’s a photograph of the East window of the church in which I became a Christian at the age of 15, and from the pulpit of which I preached my first sermon. The East window of the church of St Luke in Tutshill is of the crucifixion, and in not desperately interesting or important Victorian glass Christ is depicted on the cross with Mary and John either side of him. What’s interesting, and what I didn’t remember until very recently is that immediately opposite that window, in the West window of the same church, is a complimentary piece of stained glass of Christ the King, still upon the cross, but robed in the rich robes of priesthood and crowned not with thorns but with a dazzling crown of gold. The designer of the windows of that church, and they were designed as a whole, was doing something very deliberate. He wanted the worshipper, the audience for those windows, to recognise that Christ is King in all of those places. And it occurred to me that in all three of those images that I can see from my desk, as well as in the fourth image which I can only see in my mind’s eye, Christ is King. He is throned upon in the arm of his mother and her free hand draws us the subjects to worship our infant King. He is King on the top of the mountain in that brief flash of revelation to the disciples which of course they didn’t understand at the time, of the true nature of his humanity and divinity, and of course he is king upon the cross. And that is the point of the depiction of Christ in royal robes on the Cross. The same place, the same situation, but reinforcing the Cross as throne. The place where the Romans and the chief priests and scribes most desperately hoped that Christ and his disciples would recognise the collapse and the failure of all their endeavours, paradoxically here he reigns supreme. Here, in the words of the devotional prayer, “no strength is known but the power of love.” It is love which makes Christ victorious here. Here Christ is King. We don’t have to wait until Easter Day to sing the hymn that I have chosen to finish this devotion with in a few moments time. When I was a parish priest I used to set this final hymn every year at the end of the Good Friday liturgy as the altar was stripped again after the distribution of communion and the church returned to darkness to await the Easter vigil. I wanted to remind myself, and my people, as I invite you to remind yourself now in these last few moments that in the deepest darkness, in the place where you fear to tread, the places that make you quail with fear, the places of sorrow and darkness and shame and regret, when the earth shakes with pain and suffering and terrorism and bloodshed and hatred, here in these places, here in this place, in his mother’s arms, in the moments of Transfiguration but also in the bleak places, Christ is King.