Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Sermon Good Friday 2017

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
The Passion according to John

One of the hymns we are going to sing later has quite a history. In the year 560 Radegunde, Princess of Thuringia and Queen of the Franks, escaped from a dynastic murder plot at her royal court and fled to the Bishop of Noyen, who ordained her a deaconess and professed her as a nun. She founded an abbey at Poitiers, becoming its first Abbess.
To enhance the dignity and holiness of this Abbey she persuaded her friend the Byzantine Emperor, Justin II, to give her a large relic of the True Cross, and she asked another friend, Bishop Venantius Fortunatus, to write some hymns for the occasion of its solemn reception.
They are masterpieces of theology, still well known and widely used. One is “The Royal Banners forward go”, a Passiontide favourite. We will sing another before communion today:
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,
sing the ending of the fray;
now above the cross, the trophy,
sound the loud triumphant lay,
tell how Christ, the world’s redeemer
as a victim won the day.
The dominant note is triumph. The cross is lifted up in celebration as a standard of victory, the banner of a conquering warrior. Describing the cross as a trophy in fact refers to the ancient custom, after a battle, of decorating a convenient tree with the captured armour and weapons of the defeated foe. It was called the tropaion, from which we get the word trophy.
The cross is the tree, the trophy, on which the armour of the defeated foe is hung. What is that armour? It is death. Death has been defeated and hung on the tree, and Christ is the victor.
But when we consider that Jesus did actually die on the cross, that today marks his violent death at the hands of those who hated him, this of course seems very strange. It is paradox. Opposites are simultaneously true: by dying, Jesus destroyed death. How can this be?
Venantius’ hymn is a masterpiece, condensing much New Testament theology in a few verses. And when we read the New Testament, paradox is what we find: the triumph of the victim, the defeat of death by means of death.
This shines through particularly in John’s account of the Passion of Christ. For John, the cross is the hour of Christ’s glory. He, the victim bound and helpless, is in fact in control. In John Chapter 10 Jesus had said, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
That is the lens through which we have to read the whole of the passion narrative in John. Those who seem to be taking the life of Jesus from him in fact are, all unwittingly, collaborating in the Father’s will, which Jesus is enacting. He is in charge, and his final words, “it is finished”, are a cry of victory attained. The Roman power and the religious authorities, who think they are in charge, are actually being exposed and overthrown. The one who is lifted up from the earth will draw all things to himself, and those who seek to defeat him will actually serve his purpose through doing so.
On Good Friday we stand before a mystery, the triumph of the crucified one. A mystery in the Christian sense is not a puzzle to be solved, or something we can know nothing about. It is rather, something we can never wholly know, a journey into depth and meaning that will never be exhausted.
This is why the New Testament talks about the death of Jesus using so many different images. It is paradox: the stone that the builders rejected has become the corner stone.
It is sacrifice, which itself has different dimensions. Sacrifice is the surrender of a good thing in order that another good might come, Jesus giving his life so that we might live. But it is also in the strict sense an act of ritual violence which Jesus undergoes, becoming the scapegoat of humanity to take away our need for victims.
Again, the death of Jesus brings about reconciliation, in St Paul’s words, by putting to death hostility – the hostility between Jew and Gentile, the hostility between humanity and God.
Jesus himself describes his death as the new covenant, sealed with his blood, to reconcile humanity and God. He describes it as a ransom paid to free us from the captivity of sin.
Elsewhere in the New Testament the death of Jesus is described as an example inviting imitation, identity with Christ through patient suffering and acceptance of God’s will. It is the debt owed because of sin paid on our behalf. The death of Christ is also our death, baptise din him we have died with him and been buried so that we might share his resurrection.
Again, Christ is victor conquering the powers of evil through his death and resurrection, taking them captive and leading them in his victory procession – the imagery that Venantius takes up in his hymns.
In Hebrews, Christ is described as passing into the heavens through his death, so as to act as an advocate and intercessor, obtaining forgiveness for sins.
All of these scriptural images describe but do not exhaust the meaning of Christ’s death. And all of them lead us to the same truth, that by the death we are saved and washed clean of our sins, and by his resurrection we are raised to life with him and in him.
So today is a day of triumph, though it is also in the liturgy a day of fasting, mourning and sorrow. It has to be, because the death of Christ is not a fantasy escape from grim reality, but a real and total sharing of all that it is to be human, down to the last and bitterest dregs of the cup of suffering.
Christ has identified himself with us, in life as it really is, in all its joys, sorrows and sufferings. He even identifies himself with our sin, innocent though he is, enduring freely the death that came into the world through sin.
Christ identifies himself with the whole of humanity, sharing the totality of what it is to be human. Because of this every human being can be saved. Nobody is outside his saving work. It is precisely where we are defeated that Christ has conquered. By faith in the crucified and risen One we share in his victory.
Today, we express that faith in the liturgy in restrained and simple ways. In silence. In the prayerful gaze on the representation of the cross. In the simple kiss which expresses, more powerfully than any words, love, worship and identity. For we sing the triumph of the victim – today, in sorrow, tomorrow, in great joy. 

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