On this Good Friday we hear again the magnificent passage from Isaiah which has come to be known as the Fourth Servant Song and the superbly told story of the arrest, crucifixion and death of Jesus according to John, chapters 18 and 19. There may not be any other passages in literature to equal these two for solemnity, for horror expressed in exquisite simplicity of language, and for cosmic meaning. We stand on holy ground. Let us bow our heads, let us empty our minds of all that is distracting and let us focus on these two awesome passages of Scripture.
The prophet Isaiah prepares us for what is to come. For Christians it is very easy, even inevitable, to read the words of the prophet as a foretelling of the story of Jesus' suffering. The evangelists encourage us in this interpretation as they relate again and again that a certain act during the arrest and crucifixion occurred as a fulfillment of "what is written," "that the Scripture might be fulfilled."
So when we read in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah that
He was despised and rejected
a man of suffering and
acquainted with infirmity,
and as one from whom others
hide their faces
he was despised,
and we held him of no account,
we can see that what we are reading is a description of the condition of Jesus after the flogging that Pilate ordered; note that he ordered it, even though he "found no case against him"; we see again the terrible sight of the thorns piercing his brow; the shame of having temple police and members of the mob strike him on the face; we allow ourselves to feel the terrible pain and the shame.
Let us face it, Dorothy L. Sayers says in her book Creed or Chaos, "the man we hanged was God Almighty." Unless we realize the horror, the weight of such an act, she says, we cannot feel the extent and importance of this drama. By indifference and thoughtlessness in our worship and by bad preaching, we have made it dull, she complains. "But this is the dogma we profess every time we recite the creed, the terrifying drama of which God is both victim and hero."
We have to reach this awareness for the remembrance of this awful day, the day of the crucifixion, to touch us. We must not allow the familiarity of the story to rob it of its horror and of its drama. Even though it is reenacted in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist whenever we gather in worship, it is on Good Friday that the reenactment is at its most poignant.
Good drama on this day makes for good theology. It is the day on which God, in the person of Jesus, suffers the worst that human beings suffer. And throughout eternity, this suffering is part of God's nature.
But he was wounded for our
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that
made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
In the person of Christ, this prophecy, this verse, filled with paradoxes, becomes the center of the theology the church was to develop. "By his bruises we are healed." Who can fathom this paradox? How is it possible that one man's wounds can heal the rest of us? By the time the Epistle to the Hebrews was written, the church had arrived at this understanding here expressed less poetically than in Isaiah: "And it is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." Later in the same chapter, the writer of the letter assures his readers and all those who came after them, "For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified." And he repeats: "where there is forgiveness of these (lawless deeds), there is no longer any offering for sin."
The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross on a specific day in human history, in a specific place called Golgotha in Jerusalem, becomes current and timely and personal for each one of us. His offering was made once and for all. It is up to us to accept it, trust in its healing wounds, and be thankful.
But none of the interpretations of the crucifixion in Hebrews or in any sermon written or spoken can come close to the impact of the words used by the writer of St. John's Gospel as he tells the story. In the chapter that concerns us this day, he has recalled the arguments among the accusers of Jesus, their questions, Jesus' answers, Jesus' silences, the bloodthirstiness of the mob, the fears of Pilate, the perfidy of Jesus' friends. After he notes the last cry of the chief priests, "We have no king but the emperor!" the writer continues in shattering simplicity: "Then (Pilate) handed him over to be crucified. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him."
There they crucified him. He doesn't tell us about the sound of the hammer on the nails as they tear the flesh and ligaments to enter the wood of the cross. But we hear it. He doesn't tell us how the body hangs from those torn hands and becomes a sagging mass of bones. But we feel the horror of the sight. He doesn't tell us about the drops of blood that must have fallen on those miserable soldiers as they lifted the cross from the ground and pointed it toward heaven. They must have felt dirty. But we pray for the blood to touch us, to cleanse us. The writer does remember to tell us of the touching care for his mother as he entrusts her to his dearest friend. And this human concern is followed by the human cry, "I am thirsty." The terrible dryness in the throat as life ebbs away. All of us will feel it one day. And then, the human blends with the divine in the final cry, "It is finished." The drama of the incarnation has drawn to a close. The body he received from a human mother is breathing its last breath. At the same time, the work he came to do is completed. It is accomplished. It is finished.
Thanks be to God.