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He bowed his head, and gave up his spirit.

And so, in the story of Jesus’ Passion and death, we have come to the end. With those words from John’s gospel, Jesus is gone. Today the church is bare, the altar stripped. Today, Good Friday, is a day of fasting and mourning, a day of absence where once there was presence. Until the first rays of Easter shine, we live in the symbolic absence of our Savior.

Honoring this remembrance, our ancestors in the ancient church kept a fast on Good Friday not only from food and drink, but also from Holy Communion. It was the one day in all the year when the Eucharist was not celebrated, when the sacrament of body and blood was not shared. Although that began to shift in the Middle Ages, abstaining from communion is still the custom in much of the church, and it is one we’re observing this year – not only refraining from celebrating the Eucharist, but from receiving the reserved sacrament. Which means we don’t have Jesus symbolically present with us in that same way. When we celebrate the Eucharist we re-member, make present again, Jesus’ sacrifice. Today, however, we recall his original historical sacrifice, the cross erected there outside the city, the humiliating, slow, painful death that he died. 

Crucifixion was a horrible way to die. It was death by exposure and suffocation, the victim hung usually by a roadside for people to see as they walked in and out of the city. It was meant to be not just execution but deterrent – the Roman Empire sometimes crucified hundreds of people at a time, a warning to the masses against rebellion. It was what they did to slaves, to thieves, to people without power – even innocent victims were rounded up and executed for show. Usually those who died were left hanging there, their bodies food for carrion eaters. When the gospel tells us Jesus was brought to Golgotha, the place called The Skull, you can imagine the scene. Here was a place where human beings were reduced to objects. Jesus cries out on the cross, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ It is a scene of total desolation. 

And yet at Christmas, we acclaimed Jesus as the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, God in man made manifest. Now the Word hangs heavy on the cross. On this day, with Jesus dead, we contemplate God absent also. God forsaking his son, and God forsaken on the cross. 

What does it mean for God to be absent?

Often, it must be acknowledged, that’s our experience of God – absence. We hear horrible news of another act of senseless violence – so many of those in recent days here in our own city, and around the world in Moscow, in Haiti, in Gaza, in Ukraine – and we cry, God, where are you? We lie awake weeping in the middle of the night with grief, or because we feel lost and unloved, or because we are afraid, and we cry, where are you? We pray for a cure for a loved one, for a mending of relationship, for food for our hunger, and we cry, God, where are you? And all too often, we hear nothing in return. God does indeed feel absent. 

We don’t often pray and talk about this in church. We ask for God’s presence and companionship with us; we remind those who are struggling that they are never alone. We name and hold onto an endless list of images for God with us, the rock on which we stand, the comfort of my Jesus in my heart, the warmth of love felt in community, the stirring passion of call and vocation. We tell stories of how God has acted in our lives, even in miraculous ways, looking over our histories with an eye to God’s presence with us. But I know from conversations with some of you that as beautiful as all those prayers and witnesses are, you struggle to experience God’s presence in your day to day. Or you did once experience God, but these days, you don’t. The truth is, many don’t. Few of us will live our whole lives without at least some period when that is true. Several years ago, when the diaries of Mother Teresa were published, it came as a shock that this saint among us had been living for years without a felt sense of God’s presence. The 16th century monk John of the Cross called it the dark night of the soul. Good Friday is a dark night.

We can’t gloss over this absence. We can’t skip over Good Friday in our rush to Easter. We’d like to – witness how many people are here today and how many will be here Sunday. But suffering and the hard news of the world force us to be honest. Either God is in our utter desolation and suffering, or God never was at all. If God is God, our experience of absence must also be part of God. Otherwise it’s all just feel-good fairy tale.

In the early Middle Ages, the church began to explore this experience in a more profound way. The desert fathers and mothers went out into the empty wilderness to live in silence and solitude, worshiping God beyond words and images. When people would come to them asking for wisdom, they would teach them to stop asking, to abandon language, to live with the unknown. By the 7th century the theologian known as Pseudo-Dionysius distinguished two different approaches to prayer – kataphatic, the kind of spirituality that we’re most familiar with, using metaphor and imagery and storytelling to describe the mystery of God; and apophatic theology, which finds itself speechless and unknowing before the glory of the divine. Like Moses on Mt Sinai, plunged into mysterious darkness, we come to terms with the limits of our senses and intellect. God is absent in every way we would perceive God; only as we abandon ourselves to that absence do we finally meet God. Only by letting go do we receive.

Several years ago Peter Matthiessen wrote a book called The Snow Leopard, a journal of his search in the Himalayas for a glimpse of the elusive cat. He trekked some 250 miles with a biologist named George Schaller, who was there to study the Himalayan blue sheep – but Matthiessen was really along just in hopes of seeing the snow leopard. Spoiler alert: He never sees one, and the book becomes more than a journal of outdoor adventure – it’s a meditation on seeking and not finding, on the hiddenness of ultimate reality. Schaller says, ‘Maybe it’s better if there are some things that we don’t see.’ Toward the end of their trek Schaller suggests sending a porter to a local village to buy an animal as bait, but Matthiessen writes that he doesn’t want to glimpse the leopard that way. ‘If the snow leopard should manifest itself, then I am ready to see the snow leopard. If not, then somehow (and I don’t understand this instinct, even now) I am not ready to perceive it…and in the not-seeing, I am content…That the snow leopard is, that it is here, that its frosty eyes watch us from the mountain – that is enough.’

On the hard wood of the cross, Jesus dies. It is not symbol or metaphor. Death and suffering are real. Darkness can’t be explained away. And the only way around it all is through.

And so we sit, in the emptiness of this day. At the end of the words and the music and the action today, there is silence. It is not easy to stay in that silence, but I invite you to do so. Our faith, our calendar, our hopes tell us that Sunday will come. But for now, it is Friday. And so let it be.

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