Sermon for the Good Friday
March 27, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
I’m going to end this sermon with a poem by John Donne. The last line includes the verb “retail,” but he used it with the meaning of “retell,” not “sell.” The poem is his meditation on the rare phenomenon of Good Friday falling on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. We don’t usually celebrate that feast day in our parish, though we hear the story in Advent, the story of the angel Gabriel visiting young Mary and telling her that God has chosen her to bring God’s son into the world, and Mary agreeing to do the will of God, though her joy would one day be matched with sorrow. When the Annunciation falls in Holy Week or Easter Week, the Episcopal Church’s calendar rules kick it into Low Week, where few people think to look for it. We are definitely not celebrating the Annunciation today, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to consider what the Church has, by her calendar, been trying to teach us all along.
Which is, quite simply, that the beginning and end of Jesus’s natural life are connected. Both moments proceed from acts of profound faith and the sacrifice of an individual will to God’s will. The reason why the date of Christmas is December 25 is because the first Christians who thought about it reasoned that Jesus must have entered the world on the same day he left it. And they picked the fixed date of March 25 to approximate the date of Good Friday, which moves around from year to year because it’s based on a lunar calendar, the Jewish calendar, which determined the date of the Passover holiday, which determined the date of Jesus’s death. It’s ironic that the solar and lunar dates so seldom coincide when one was chosen with the whole intent of coinciding with the other — it won’t happen again in this century — but then our Lord’s Passion is filled with larger and more bitter ironies.
The irony and the bitterness are tempered, though, when we zoom out from the Cross and see the Virgin Mary, see her looking at Jesus too, standing with his other female disciples and John. All of them had followed him there from Galilee, had left their livelihoods, their families, their whole lives behind to be his disciples. Not only were they faithful when the rest of the world had turned away from its redeemer in fear, or turned against him in hate, but their graciousness, and the graciousness that surrounds Christ’s Passion, reflects a gracious, merciful, loving, forgiving God.
For they had united their wills to the will of God, none more profoundly than Mary, whose choice to accept God’s will was no less essential for God’s plan of salvation than Jesus’s. It’s true that his Passion was God’s will, but the example Mary, John, and the other women at the foot of the Cross shows that God’s will for the rest of us is not death, but life. Not punishment, but reconciliation. Jesus’s death ensures that none of us ever need to fear death, or wrath. On this day, all the hope that began in Mary’s heart, and grew in her womb, comes to satisfaction on the Cross. On this day, God’s will has been accomplished. And we are left to react in awe and wonder, and to ponder how we might join our own wills more perfectly to God’s.
Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
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;
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy;
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angels’ “Ave” and “Consummatum est.”
How well the Church, God’s court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go;
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or ‘twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man and leave to be:
Or as creation He had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.