Today is Good Friday.
It is the day in Holy Week in which we walk with Jesus to Golgotha and watch him- beaten, scourged, taunted and tortured- get nailed to the cross.
If we dare, we stay on for the next three hours, waiting and watching as life ebbs out of him, punctuated by his occasional utterances:
Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.
Today you will be with me in paradise.
Woman, behold, thy son! Behold, thy mother!
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
It is finished.
Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.
These “Seven Last Words” have a character all their own: they reveal a compassionate God-man who continues to love, even while dying; they offer human words of despair and abandonment; physical truths of discomfort and agony; and resignation and release.
In the parish where I served as Curate, we held a three-hour service each Good Friday to hear these words and to meditate on Jesus’ final hours. We held long periods of silence, prayed the Good Friday collects, and sang hymns that reached us, down in our souls: “Were you There,”“Ah, Holy Jesus,” and “My Song is Love Unknown.” The Rector had invited seven parishioners whom she believed were prepared in their hearts to reflect on the Words and to asked them to write short meditations. This was a genius pastoral act, a deep knowing of the roads that each person had traveled in the past year, an invitation through liturgy to claim their story and through it, to heal. In the years that I served in that parish, I was never anything but amazed at what was offered up in reflection from each season’s group of preachers.
I have preached on some of the Seven Last Words as well, in various places and times: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “Woman, behold thy son! Behold thy mother!” “I thirst.”
On each occasion, the Word given to me was just right- for that season, for that time- it fit.
For a portion of this day, I will take to the woods. I’ll pack a thermos of tea and walk on my favorite trail. I’ll bring my prayer book and read the office for the day. I’ll reflect on each of the Words and imagine which one I might choose this year as “my Word.” Which of these Seven Words will lend an opportunity to crack myself open and to make the point of connection to our Saviour who hangs on the cross?
Which Word do you choose for yourself this year?
Anne Sexton’s poem “Jesus Dies” offers an additional imagining of these gruesome hours:
From up here in the crow’s nest
I see a small crowd gather.
Who do you gather, my townsmen?
There is no news here.
I am not a trapeze artist.
I am busy with my dying.
Three heads lolling,
bobbing like bladders.
The soldiers down below
laughing as soldiers have done for centuries.
We are the same men,
you and I,
the same sort of nostrils,
the same sort of feet.
My bones are oiled with blood
and so are yours.
My heart pumps like a jack rabbit in a trap
and so does yours.
I want to kiss God on His nose and watch Him sneeze
and so do you.
Not out of disrespect.
Out of pique.
Out of a man-to-man thing.
I want heaven to descend and sit on My dinner plate
and so do you.
I want God to put His steaming arms around Me
and so do you.
Because we need,
Because we are sore creatures.
go home now.
I will do nothing extraordinary.
I will not divide in two.
I will not pick out My white eyes.
this is a personal matter,
a private affair and God knows
none of your business.