Good Friday meditations, 2017
GOOD FRIDAY: Meditation 1 John 19:23-25
‘The tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top.’
Before the seed was ever sown he knew of my existence, when the tight cased blue buds of flax mirrored the distant edges of the sky it was his breath that unfurled their petals and set them facing the fertile warmth of the brilliant sun. When the seed was set and the harvesters came then his hand was with the hands which plucked each plant by its roots, tenderly preserving long strands of stem, and he knew the precise details, the true cost, of the retting, the crushing, the spinning that turned those strands into fibres, into the finest of fine yarns.
Before those fibres reached the loom, where many thousands were knit together, he knew how, why, when I would be formed, woven with great skill, soft, seamless and strong, practical and beautiful.
I came billowing off the loom, whipped into animation by the hot, dry wind, caught in the arms of the weaver’s daughter, who washed me with sweet herbs, folded me with careful hands and laid me on a stone shelf in a cool, dark room.
Days later I was lifted out into the light, turned and twirled and paraded before a crowd in the market place. There was hollering and haggling, a woman held me to her face, took in my perfumed cleanness, pressed my fresh softness to her cheek and handed over gold coins to acquire me.
Even as she carried me away – eagerly, tenderly, stroking my rich, fine weave – I wondered whether she was thinking of me or the husband, lover, son to whom I might be her precious gift.
But we did not get out of the market place. The square was alight with shouting, laughter and cheers. A dusty preacher dropped pearls of wisdom both lustrous and opaque before the eager expectations of a restless crowd, he laid hands upon the sick, proclaimed forgiveness for the repentant, and welcomed home the dispossessed. The woman, my new mistress, listened.
Listened and followed, wept, sighed, pondered over his words, took in his coarse country clothes and the sheen of sweat upon his limbs. Forgot all her chores and stuck with him until the end of the day when she shyly pushed her way between the dispersing crowds. Holding me out in her arms, she offered me to him, saying, ‘Master, please take this gift, your words speak deeper truths than any rabbi, and I know you do not need fine clothes to proclaim your authority, but take this gift as a sign of my own changed heart.’ She was gone, hardly hearing his words of thanks.
Later, in the privacy of a desert place, he stripped his dusty robes from tired limbs, then slipped me over his head. I slid like a cool balm over the knots and sinews of his day-worn body, felt the muscles relax as my fine softness touched his skin. A fierce fire seeped into every single fibre of my weaving, a jolt of knowledge that this what I had been made for to clothe and soothe the one who instinctively knew each and every molecule from which I had been created.
We became inseparable, he and I. I floated over his skin, as light and refreshing as the breeze, soaking up his scent, his sweat, his tiredness as the days grew longer and the ears of the people grew deaf. I was there to buffer him from the crowd’s mad press, the stares of the inquisitive and the barbs of the hostile. We became so close that when I was touched by those who believed in his healing heart, he knew that his power flowed through me, he knew their unique fingerprints upon my hem, he knew their needs and the cure.
But then came a dark night in a dark garden when my light strength was no match for the cruel wind biting at his limbs. There was a commotion, a scuffle and a kiss. Cords around his wrists, a crooked trial.
I was stripped from his torso while soldiers made mocking obeisance and vicious, lashing torture was their wild joke, written on his body. Afterwards, I was thrown back around his shoulders.
Now my fine luxury was to become imprinted with much more than sweat. His blood was soaked into the very core of every fibre of my weaving. Rough wood roughly thrust upon him tugged my threads in one direction while the stickiness of congealing wounds pulled them in the other and slowly, with every exhausted, dogged step he took towards the crooked hill, I was unravelling.
A respite, the chafing wood laid aside. A knife thrust against my hem, itching to slit me into ribbons and unclench my tight embrace from his battered form. But then the noble delicacy of my weave was spotted. Grasping hands plucked more leanly, I was a prize to be cherished as his life was not.
The hammer struck and nails clocked home. He was lifted up, naked, devoid of any protection, respect or dignity.
As he gasped for breath, as his blood and sweat flowed unchecked, as his life’s energy was lost, bone dice were thrown and I was ransomed, won, screwed into a tangled ball, thrust into the sour darkness of a soldier’s knapsack.
It was not my destiny to shroud his limp and breathless frame, to enter the cool and clean darkness of the fresh tomb or to be neatly folded when his breathe returned and inspiration rocked him back to life shattering the rule of death.
Instead, I will be misused, creased and torn, mended with coarser cloth, washed badly, or not at all. Eventually my fine seamlessness will crumble back into the soil.
But I have been woven into his story, for a brief time my finite fibres encased the infinite as he followed his seamless purpose that led from the muck of the stable to the blood of the cross, and from the blank coolness of the tomb to a new future dressed in cloth spun from the Creator’s own tears and the Creator’s own love.
GOOD FRIDAY: Meditation 2 John 19:28-30
‘they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’
Wine at the start and wine at the finish – that’s Passover.
Wine at the beginning of his ministry and at its ending, that’s how John tells it.
The starting point, a moment of definition, took place at a very public occasion, a wedding, a consciously social expression of love, of a contract, the binding and loosening of ties, the bringing together of families, the prelude to a new creation.
The party was going flat, the ritual was faltering, one vital element was missing. The wine had run out. Invited, as guests, Jesus, his mother and his disciples noticed the scurrying stewards, the whispered conversations, the expressions of horror. She looked to him – do something! His friends looked at him – what did he have to offer? He gazed back at her – his hour had not yet come. He wasn’t ready for this. But his ready or not he heard the cry of human need: No wine meant no celebrations, no celebrations meant no ritual, families reneging on promises to guests, a wedding blighted, social failure that would be branded onto them, pariah families, cursed, mocked, belittled.
So Jesus declared his hand. Wine was poured out, gallons and gallons of surging, gushing red liquid, the finest vintage and the wedding was saved, the relationship blessed, new life given new hope.
Here was abundance flowing unasked for, yet so desperately needed. A sign initiating a new ministry, opening ‘The Book of Signs’, as scholars have designated the first half of the Fourth Gospel.
Rich, luxurious, intoxicating, uninhibited, this ministry, like the wine, surprises, delights, overwhelms. Not everyone likes it – for some it is too frivolous, for others it leaves a sour taste by its very generosity – too fine a gift to be splashed around indiscriminately, and shared with those who’s palate isn’t truly refined.
For here is the Creator, the one who spoke every cell of every grape, every molecule of water, every grain of sugar into being, treading the soil of our earth. Here is God walking, uncontained, unrestrained, pitching his tent on our land, laughing and crying with us, listening to us, teaching us, healing us, revealing divine glory, tending us, feeding us, stirring our spirits.
Tending us, feeding us, pruning us. Before the wine was bottled, before the fermenting began, before the grapes were crushed, there was the True Vine.
The True Vine – John the Evangelist lets its tendrils curl about the centre of his Last Supper. They stretch and breathe and unfurl around the new commandment that Jesus has released into the hearts of his followers, to love one another as he has loved them. This is the fruit from which his vintage is created. Love, love in service, which he models, on his hands and knees, with a towel around his waist, with water, as he washes his disciples worn and callused feet, feet that have followed him for days and weeks and years on a journey from Cana to Calvary.
‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’
This is a Passover where the main ingredient is love, love as giving up to give life, hope, freedom. There is no bread broken as John tells it – for hasn’t Jesus already said ‘I am the Bread of Life’? And there is no wine as John tells it – for we are in the presence of the creator of wine, the True Vine, the one from whom all blessings flow.
But there is wine at the end. On the Cross, when the axe is about to strike at the root of the Tree, there is wine. The Passover meal is ending. The story of redemption is reaching its climax.
And there is one cup remaining. The cup that is poured for Elijah, the one that no one gets to drink, the draught that is held back for the day when God’s messenger will come in glory and snatch his children from the hands of their enemies.
‘A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’
This is the cup that Jesus takes in his hand at the Last Supper. The last remaining vessel after the Passover rite is concluded.
He takes the cup, blesses it and says: ‘this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.’
Wine poured out at the beginning. Gallons upon gallons of the finest, sweetest vintage. Blood and wine poured out at the end. Wine, the cup of Elijah drunk – ‘It is finished.’
And it is finished. Blood mixed with water flows from his side.
But it is just beginning. ‘A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you.’
GOOD FRIDAY: Meditation 3 John 19:31-37
‘But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.’
What were the things he carried on that last journey from Jerusalem to Golgotha?
There was the cross, probably just the cross beam taken from the garrison stores and thrown back in there at the end of the day. A coarse cut plank inches thick, heavy, unwieldy and stained from previous use.mOnly he would have known, with his carpenter’s eye, the potential this piece of wood once had to be a thousand useful or beautiful objects – the shaft of a plough or the leg of a table, the mast of a sailing boat or a finely turned feeding bowl. But perhaps it did become a plough shaft, ploughing the fertile soil that God had sown
with the crops which would grow and feed all peoples. Perhaps it was the table on which God’s abundant feast would be spread. Perhaps it was the feeding bowl where all would dip their hands and eat together. Perhaps it was a mast and Jesus was the sail to be lifted high leading us out of the waters of death. But that would not have been how he felt when he grasped its splintered roughness and hefted it on to his scourged back. This wood had been reduced to the lumpen keystone of a savagely devious killing machine.
When Jesus carried his cross he would have known how barbarously tortuous and barbarously efficient a form of execution crucifixion was, designed to cause the maximum amount of pain for the maximum length of time. Refined by the Romans as their weapon of choice for keeping subjugated peoples in line, its use was commonplace. Across the empire forests of naked trees bore a deadly strange fruit. Crucifixion made a good spectacle. It was horrifying and fascinating in equal proportions. Crucifixions drew crowds. Some following in sorrow and terror. The rest with morbid fascination rubbernecking over the grief of others, swept up in the excitement of the moment, screaming accusations, reduced to a herd mentality, united in their hatred of the defenceless victims, perhaps through relief it was not them, perhaps through terror that they could be next, perhaps for a myriad ghoulish reasons.
It is easy to do, to follow the crowd, an easy way to stop yourself from having to think too clearly, an easy way to stop having to stand up for your principles, an easy way to abnegate your own responsibility.
As Jesus carried his lumpen cross beam so he also carried his responsibilities, responsibilities for the crowd yet which put him at odds with the crowd. They saw failure, promises unfulfilled, when for him this was love unbound.
He may have carried his cross of his own volition but he had no choice in his coronation, the crown of thorns rammed down upon his head. The vigour of natural growth twisted into a circlet of pain. A pantomime parody of kingship telling stark truths about the authentic character of leadership. Jesus had led as a true king, living as a servant to his people, prepared to get on his knees and wash their feet, prepared to treat them as brothers and sisters, prepared to deal decisively with those who reject him. Prepared, also, to pay the ultimate sacrifice and lay down his life for his people.
The seamless robe he carried was the last vestige of his humanity, a symbol of his own purity. Once it was stripped from him he was dehumanized, his individuality taken from him, his dignity shredded, his connection with the crowd cast aside. Like so many poor victims across the centuries, beaten so harshly that their tormentors no longer see them as human, rounded up and stripped of all distinguishing marks, reduced to the status of dumb creatures by their captors, Jesus became not a person but an animal, a scapegoat for his generation and for every generation.
Yet the physical things that he carried are only a small part of his burden. On his shoulders rested all our sorrows, all our disappointments, all our terrors and all the times his message, his mission, his vision had been misunderstood. The sorrows he carried – for he was the man of sorrows – were all those moments of pain, of disappointment, no matter how small or how grievous, that cut into our lives, or cut lives short, that made our vision grey and our energy dissipate. He carried his own sorrow, that made him weep at the graveside of his friend Lazarus, that made him cry out with the women of Jerusalem over the horrors he saw would happen to their children in the name of religion and politics.
He carried the sorrows of his followers and of all who misunderstood his mission. Those who rallied to his preaching because they were searching for a warrior king to expel the Romans, those who thought his cry from the cross was him calling on Elijah to save him and prove him to be the all-conquering Messiah. Those who thought his words were about upholding the status quo and those who thought his words were a license to destroy their enemies.
And so we reach perhaps the most harrowing burden of all. For on his shoulders were also pinned the sins of the entire cosmos, sins both universal and personal: All the crushing remarks I have ever made to my loved ones. All the tiny cuts I have inflicted on another’s dignity. All the times I have been so lost in my own self-absorption that I was unaware of the pain I was causing to others or the good I could have done for them. All the intemperance that I have indulged in for selfish ends.
All the energy we have squandered on the pursuit of comfort. All the waste that we send to landfill. All the missiles that we have stockpiled. All the dictatorships we have tolerated to safeguard our own resources. All the economic systems founded on ever-escalating consumerism. All the animals we have caused to suffer in the name of fashion or an overfull belly. All the rain forests we have deleted. All the wild-flower meadows we have ploughed up. All the innocents who have been defiled. All the poor who have been exploited.
He carried it all as he carried Peter’s denial and Judas’s silvered kiss. He carried it because God so loved the world… and because God came to call the sinners into his arms.
He carried our sins because he wanted to carry us.
For ultimately on his shoulders he carried the love of God. The love which meant that out of his most gruesome pain he could turn to the equally pained man hanging next to him, could discern his change of heart from thief to penitent, and could offer him hope of a better life, a new life free of suffering, held in the arms of God.
The love that meant that even as his persecutors nailed him to the beam and hoisted him high he could say ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ The love that he had given to his friends hours before – his new commandment.
He carried that love with him right to the end, against all odds. He carried it to the grave. With that last despairing breathe he opened wide his arms on the cross and offered that love to us all. Then he carried it beyond the grave. A gift of love freely given for us to freely give.
Let us carry that love with us always. Let us do more than carry it, let us open our own arms as wide as his and share it.