Take up your cross, the Savior said, if you would my disciple be.
Well, today we see what that really means. Today, we kneel to venerate the wood of the cross on which hung the Savior of the world. And we recognize that we are completely incapable of following his commandment and carrying the wooden weight of the burden he took on for our sake.
In many ways, realizing that has been our entire Lenten project.
The ash crosses we marked ourselves with 40 long days ago were our white flags of surrender. Our cries of “uncle.” Our declaration that we can’t. That we know, deep down, exactly what God expects of us: to act with justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God. To love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. To take up our cross and to lay down our lives for our friends.
But we can’t. For we are but dust, and to dust we shall return. And we know that if we were fully living into our baptismal commitments, we would be up there – tortured, bleeding, hanging from a tree. Because the world does not exactly reward those who act with justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.
And so we don’t. We do what’s comfortable. We do what’s safe. We do what’s nice. We love our comfortable, safe, nice lives, and do not want to lose them – even for Christ’s sake.
Recently, a group of teens were being introduced to the Book of Common Prayer in their Sunday-school class, and when they got to the section on Proper Liturgies for Special Days, one of them asked, “Why do we call it Good Friday?”
It is such a predictable question that it’s easy for us to try to answer it without thinking, without listening to what is really being asked. This particular teenager wasn’t just asking why we call it “Good Friday” when it is the day that Jesus died. He was asking why – if we call it Good Friday, if it is Good News that Jesus died for us on the cross – our worship, then, is so solemn, so somber, so filled with genuflections and prostrations. If, as we proclaim, it is a “Good Friday,” why do we not shout joyfully and sing as the Israelites did at the shore of the Red Sea? Why do we not praise God with the trumpet, and lyre, and harp? Why, today of all days, are all our songs of glory in a minor key?
The answer lies in this truth: Today is a day for gratitude, but it is also a day of sorrow.
While we glory in Christ’s cross, we also mourn the fact that our sin made his sacrifice necessary. And we sorely grieve that, as the prophet Isaiah says in our reading today:
“By a perversion of justice he was taken away. … For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”
Christ’s death is the means of our salvation. And it is right to give God our thanks and praise, for by virtue of his cross, joy has come to the whole world.
But we also mourn that an innocent man had to suffer and die because of our actions. And we mourn that the innocent continue to suffer, because we are unwilling and incapable of making the sacrifices to our comfortable, safe, nice lives to ease their suffering.
The great preacher Otis Moss, III, once said, “They could not distinguish between the gospel shout and the blues moan.” He was preaching on a passage from the Old Testament, from the third chapter of the Book of Ezra, about those returning from exile who laid the foundation for the new Temple:
“And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.”
The Rev. Moss uses this text to declare to us that we have a blues-note gospel – a gospel of great joy at the mighty power of our saving God, written in a minor key. A gospel in which our great joy at God’s power and mercy is often indistinguishable from our mourning at the need for that power and mercy; at our inability to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves – still less, as much as God loves them.
And so, on Good Friday, even as we kneel in awe before the King of the Universe, hanging on a cross for our sake, we also kneel in the sure and certain knowledge that we are not following in his footsteps on the Via Dolorosa. That we are not even denying him as we warm our hands by the fire. We are in the crowd, calling for his crucifixion.
And so our gospel shout that today is a “good” day – the best of all days – is indistinguishable from the blues moan that today is a day that is needed. A day that will still be needed, even as our praise at the empty tomb resolves the minor chords into major ones.
Good Friday reminds us that we have a blues-note gospel. That Christ’s death and resurrection may have saved us from sin and death, but we still sin and we still die. As we kneel at the foot of the cross, mourning our sin and the evil that we witness around us, we are forced to reckon with these facts – facts we would much rather forget.
As Easter dawn approaches and we ratchet up our gospel shouts and prepare to say that word we use during worship that has been buried for the last 40 days, we must not forget that our gospel shout contains those blues moans, those minor keys.
As the Rev. Moss reminds us, the blues moan is indistinguishable from the gospel shout.
Because while we mourn the necessity of Christ’s one oblation of himself once offered, we give thanks that it is a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. And that in him, God has delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before him.
And as our gospel shouts echo through the empty tomb, may we remember the profound and never-failing mercy of God, the mercy that holds fast even when we do not – that holds fast precisely because we will not – and be thankful.