Sermon: We Call This Friday Good
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
T.S. Eliot. “East Coker,” IV. The Four Quartets
Good Friday. The term is an enigma, a scandal, or perhaps a unique insight of the Anglophone world. In the Romance languages, it is “Holy Friday.” In German, “Weeping Friday.” In Latin, it is simply the Friday in Parasceve – the Passover.
That the Roman tradition would refer to today as the Passover might be surprising. Wasn’t that yesterday, after all? Wasn’t the Last Supper the commemoration of the Passover? Maybe not.
The Gospels actually present two parallel timelines of the events of these sacred days. The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) present the Last Supper as a Passover meal, but St. John’s Gospel does not. John offers a substantially different timeline: Thursday is the Last Supper, at which the Lord washes the Apostles’ feet, but not a Passover meal. Friday is the vigil of the feast (recall that the Jewish authorities do not go into Pilate’s court so that they will not be defiled so that they can eat the Passover), on which Jesus’s trial and execution take place; the Passover itself then falls on Saturday, while the Lord rests in the tomb.
Why is this significant? St. John’s timeline means that Christ dies on the Cross just as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple. The new lamb, innocent and spotless, silent before His judge, fulfills in His body – the new Temple – the ancient Passover just as the victims that pointed to Him are themselves being slaughtered in the old Temple that is already obsolete.
For years, biblical scholars dismissed St. John’s chronology because it seemed too theological – it just made too much sense. But recent work, and most especially Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, has endorsed St. John’s account (which already carried a heavy endorsement by the Church’s ancient preference for texts from St. John’s Gospel on the days leading up to the Sacred Triduum, and particularly by the perpetual use of St. John’s account of the Passion today). (This is also why it is not appropriate for Catholics to take part in Seder meals.)
This is not a merely academic exercise. The fact that Christ died just as the lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple has a particular meaning for us here and now. Think back to the first Passover, the night before the flight out of Egypt, to the first Passover lambs. As the Israelites prepared for their escape from slavery, they sheltered in place, each in his own home, protected by the blood of the lamb – whose roasted flesh they ate together with bitter herbs – smeared above their doors.
We can imagine that they were scared, our ancestors in faith, on that critical night in their history. They did not know what the future would hold. The sounds of wailing and moaning reached their ears from the neighboring houses, as the first born of each family fell while the angel of death passed by. They had painted their lintels with the blood of the sacrificial lamb. But would it be enough? Would this mere smearing of blood save them from the tragedy all around?
We too, my brothers and sisters, might feel this same uncertainty and fear as we shelter in place. But Christ’s crucifixion today as the new paschal lamb reminds us that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.”
Being redeemed by Christ’s sacred blood does not mean that we are not subject to illness and bodily pain. But it does mean that illness and pain have been redeemed, and that they and the death of which they are a harbinger have no power over us. Not only are our doorways painted with the Lamb’s blood, but we have been bathed in it in the waters of baptism.
“Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” When we behold the Crucified Savior, we behold one who has been made perfect in suffering. Suffering and illness have no power over us, because they cannot separate us from the love shown to us upon the Cross. Indeed, they only bring the Crucified Lord even closer.
There is nothing to fear. Rightly, we call this Friday good.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Feria VI in Parasceve, A.D. MMXX