A Sermon for Good Friday 2006
Around the year 380 A.D. a Spanish nun named Egeria made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Sister Egeria visited all the “must see” sacred places on what had by the late fourth century become a popular pilgrimage trail. Thankfully, the good sister kept a detailed journal of her travels and it has survived through the centuries for us to read. As a result, we know a great deal today about worship practices in the Holy Land at the time of her visit. This is how she describes worship in Jerusalem on Good Friday around the year 380:
“The bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table covered with a linen cloth is placed before him; the deacons stand round the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood of the [True] Cross. The casket is opened and [the wood] is taken out, and both the wood of the Cross and [the sign Pilate had affixed to the Cross] are placed upon the table. Now, when it has been put upon the table, the bishop, as he sits, holds the extremities of the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it. It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people … come one by one and, bowing down at the table, kiss the sacred wood and pass through. And because … some one is said to have [once] bitten off and stolen a portion of the sacred wood, it is thus guarded by the deacons …, lest any one approaching should venture to do so again. And as all the people pass by one by one, all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross and [the sign,] first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through, but none lays his hand upon it to touch it."
Tonight, my brothers and sisters, our liturgy echoes across sixteen centuries. We share it with the communion of saints. Sister Egeria would undoubtedly feel at home with us this evening.
Now the idea of deacons inspecting the mouths of departing pilgrims to insure they are not smuggling out a fragment of the True Cross is, I admit, a bit humorous. But what motivated those early Christians to attempt sacred larceny as they knelt and reverenced that precious wood? Even for those of us who have been born again to new life in the waters of Holy Baptism, there are times when this fallen world be can be a trying place—a place where hopes and dreams are routinely stifled, where pain and loss are ever-present but nothing good seems to last. Those early pilgrims to Jerusalem longed for their Lord to be with them in some tangible, lasting way as they traveled through the dark places of life, just as we do. And nowhere is the abiding love of God more tangible than the Cross “whereon hung the world’s salvation.” Who would not, in the presence of that holy Cross, long to keep it with them always?
It is, of course, deeply ironic that our hearts now long to be in the presence of Christ’s Cross. On that first Good Friday certainly none of Christ’s followers wanted to be at the Place of the Skull. Most of the apostles were absent. Maybe they simply couldn’t bear to see their Master executed, or perhaps they still feared for their own lives, or both. A few of the faithful women who had followed Jesus watched from a distance as their Lord was murdered. Only the Apostle John and the Blessed Virgin dared to approach close enough to speak with Jesus in His last moments. It was all so confusing and tragic and pointless. How could those first witnesses possibly find any meaning in this horror? The intense absence they felt as they took His precious Body down off of the Cross—an absence symbolized by that empty Tabernacle and missing lamp tonight--must have been too much to bear.
Their personal grief and shattered dreams understandably blinded them to the most astonishing event in human history, indeed in cosmic history. The Lord of Creation--the One in whom all things live and move and have their being, the Word made flesh, the Alpha and the Omega--was dying before their eyes on that Cross in order that they–and we—need never die. God Incarnate took upon Himself all of the sin and suffering the world has ever known—or will ever know. From the “harmless white lies” we tell to make our lives easier and the questionable business practices that we tell ourselves are so “necessary,” to the blows and curses of abusive parents and the atrocities of concentration camp guards, every sin committed by the human race since that last dawn in Eden until the End of Days—Christ took them all upon his shoulders as “He stretched out His arms of love on the hard wood of the cross.” Every broken heart ever suffered, every ache and pain of old age, every tear shed at every graveside—our Lord Jesus bore them all deep in His own soul on Calvary. And in some mysterious way beyond human comprehension the Love of God made manifest, our Lord Jesus Christ, took all that sin and suffering and swallowed it whole! There is no pain that we can suffer that Christ has not already shared, and there is no sin that is beyond the redemption of the Holy One who became accursed for our sake. By His sacrifice of Himself upon the Cross our Savior God has filled the abyss of Death with Love. And all Christ asks in return for the innumerable benefits of His Passion is that we repent of our sin and turn to Him in faith with love.
Tonight you and I do not have the privilege of reverencing the physical wood of the True Cross upon which Christ died, but we shall soon have in our midst something far greater. When the deacon returns to the sanctuary with the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, the One who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” will again be specially present here with us in tangible form. Therefore, brothers and sisters, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, “since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Dear friends in Christ, let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful, faithful even unto death on a Cross.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.