Good Friday: March 30, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
As Annie Dillard writes in her book For the Time Being, the dead outnumber the living. The numbers are staggering. The number of people who have ever lived on earth is over 108 billion. We have some 7.6 billion people alive today – so the dead outnumber us by over 14 to 1. We are some 6.5% of all people who have entered this world to date. As Dillard says, ‘this is not a meaningful figure.’
The history of the world has seen atrocities and purges that have killed us in numbers that also stagger the mind. 2 million in Cambodia under Pol Pot. 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. 20 million in the famines and purges in Stalinist Russia. 72 million in Communist China.
And 56,755 Americans in 3 years, by guns; 2,710 of them children under the age of 12.*
And yet, says scripture, every hair on our head is counted. We are made in God’s image. We are precious in God’s sight. Jesus died out of love for us. Every last one of us, 108 billion of us precious souls, mostly dead, some of us still living.
Those numbers are so staggering that they can overwhelm us – sometimes or all the time. The relentless of our mortality, the ongoing enormity of our violence to one another, the blurring of our ability to recognize and honor individual people in the wash of terrifying statistics. There are times, perhaps for some of us more often than not, that all of that horror can make belief in a God who loves us laughable, difficult, impossible. There are too many questions we can’t find the answer to.
I’ve traveled now twice to the Holy Land. Both times I have walked the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem, called the Via Dolorosa. The 12th station, the crucifixion, is at what is called the Calvary Chapel – a small chapel in the enormous Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the church that is built into the hill and over the place where it is thought Christ’s tomb lay. The Calvary Chapel is thought to be over the hill of Calvary, or Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified. The church is a place of great holiness, a place that has been a destination for pilgrimage and devotion for centuries. You can feel the holiness as you walk into the chapel – it hits you like walking into a wave of water, this palpable sense of the sacred. You can feel it even though the chapel and the church as a whole tends to be a place of chaos, of people coming and going and speaking all different languages, some treating it as a tourist site and others as the place most central to their faith.
The first time I was there, walking the Via with a group of mostly English clergy, a squad of young Israeli soldiers got to the chapel ahead of us. They were being led on a kind of cultural tour through a place which meant little to them but was, they knew, in need of extra security measures. The day I was there the organ in the church was being tuned, note by note, and someone in another part of the church was repairing something with loud bangs of a hammer. And a group of Korean tourists came in with cameras and took turns posing in front of the altar of agony before rushing onto the next site, bulbs flashing in an endless procession of photographs. Just as happened at the actual crucifixion, there were soldiers doing their duty, crowds come for the spectacle, people going about ordinary life. All sort of as I expected, as I thought about it. Millions of people visit that church every year, after all – another staggering number.
The traditional act of devotion in the Calvary chapel is to get down on your knees underneath the altar, to kiss the icon there, and to reach your hand down deep into a hole in the floor to touch the rock below. It’s awkward to do, but people wait in line to do it because the rock is believed to be the rock of Calvary, the rock of the hill on which Jesus was hung on the cross. So I stood in line and took my turn doing this. And something happened, something for which I still can’t quite find the words. I put my hand through the hole and onto the rock, and for a moment, I couldn’t move, like I was overcome with a kind of great weight, the heaviness and total-ness of the presence of God. I was probably only there less than a minute, but it felt like an eternity. It was only because I remembered people were waiting behind me for their turn that I pulled myself away and stepped aside. I walked out of the chapel and onto a dusty balcony and leaned my head against a pillar and began to weep, and it was some time before I could rejoin the group again afterwards. When I did, others in my pilgrimage group were kneeling, or sitting in tears; one was lying on the floor weeping with great wracking sobs. And these were English people, mind you – but something about the physical experience of touching the rock, reaching down through the centuries to this actual physical thing, touching something real and solid, was itself overwhelming, for all of us.
Touching that rock, I was suddenly certain that this event that we are about today, this particular crucifixion, the focus of our devotion, really did happen. It felt like finding myself at the far side of what I thought was an empty chasm – the chasm of uncertainty and doubt and wondering just what I was doing in this act of traditional piety – and realizing that I had walked across it – no longer standing at the edge in fear and wondering how to get across, but finding that I had already got across, and what I thought was empty space had held up like solid ground beneath my feet. Without even quite choosing to, I had walked out into the void of doubt, and found solid truth rising up to meet me. I didn’t have to try to believe – the believing was done for me. My doubts were not so much answered as overridden by God, the immensity of God’s love for us. Every last one of the 108 billion of us.
This day, Good Friday, puts us firmly in the enormity of that love. However much time we may spend in our lives standing on the edge of our questions and peering over, Good Friday is the one day that puts us right over the edge. Dwelling on the story of a God who died for us, all of this we do on this day is like kneeling and reaching our hand down to touch the rock. And as we gather here together in the emptiness of our uncertainty, we find that the ground holds beneath us. In the midst of all that is dark and sad about this day – the bitter emptiness of a lonely death, the feelings of abandonment and loss, the collective pain of humanity turning our back on God – there is solid ground. The solid ground of God’s deep and abiding love. In all the death and treachery of human life, God loves us – each and every one of us.
Jesus’ last words from the cross are, It is finished: Jesus offers up his spirit to God, into God’s hands – trusting that God will receive it, hold it, do what is right with it. Trusting to the very end that God’s hands are there ready as he takes the final leap over the void. And as Jesus breathes his last, the void is filled, the chasm of all of our fear and anxiety and violence is healed, all becomes solid ground. The rock holds; our spirits are commended firmly into God’s hands. The trusting is done for us, whether we choose it or not.
It is more than we can wrap our heads around. It is more than we deserve. It is more than we can ever make happen ourselves. And it is done for us.
There’s a blessing that we have used here in healing services, words and actions that we all do together – today I offer just the words:
All our problems
We send to the cross of Christ.
All our difficulties
We send to the cross of Christ.
All the devil’s works
We send to the cross of Christ.
All our hopes
We set on the risen Christ.
from the Kenyan rite.