My daughter’s birthday falls on Good Friday. When I pointed this out to her, she said Oh, cool! We Howells love Good Friday, from the paradox hidden in the word “good” to the shadows and somber solemnity of our service.
I’ll preach on Good Friday, but “preach” is too strong a word. “Homily” is even too grandiose. I meditate, and briefly – or like a docent in a museum, with just a few words I point to the wonder, the horror, the beauty and majesty. I think I’ll linger over the words of “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” from a new book I have coming out; check out this reflection at the end of this blog. But maybe I’ll just sigh, or shudder. That would be a good enough sermon. Maybe the choir will bail me out with Gilbert Martin’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” or something else pensive. As I ponder and prepare, I’ll listen to that moving crucifixion moment in Jesus Christ Superstar, and I’ll look carefully to an image or two of the crucifixion. Grünewald? Rouault?
At our church, we always read the Isaiah 52:13-53:12 early. Haunting. Good Friday isn't the time to explicate this complex text and its background. We trust the words to do their thing. And Psalm 22: Jesus' heart-wrenching cry, himself forsaken, and joining his God-forsakenness forever to ours. I try to ponder the horror, the sorrow Mary felt as she watched her son cry out these words she had taught him as a little boy.
Then we do the Gospel reading in stages, gradually extinguishing lights and then candles until we are immersed in total darkness. On Good Friday, more than any other day, we are humbled by our inability to say anything – just as Jesus was all but silent as he hung for hours. On this day, more than any other, we realize we do not need to make the Bible relevant, or to illustrate it. We can and must simply trust the reading to do the work it has done for 2000 years.
Here’s the pondering on “O Sacred Head”: Protestants are attached to notions of the “empty cross.” But the Bible and the long tradition of Christian prayerfulness invite us to stop, ponder and be mortified and moved by the crucified Jesus.
If there were no lyrics at all, the tune of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” itself conjures up something profound, sorrowful, riveting.Johann Sebastian Bach was so attached to the tune that, instead of cooking up something new, he kept inserting it here and there, in his St. Matthew Passion, his Christmas oratorio, and “Komm, du süβe Todesstunde.” The melody and harmonies lure us in, evoking passionate grief – but then the beauty and elegance lift the head and imply hope and wonder.
We might fixate on the grisly piercing of nails through Jesus’ hands (or wrists, actually) and feet, or the spear gutting his side. But his face, his head: there’s the man, the eyes shedding love even as his blood is shed, his mouth thirsty and muttering unforgettable words, the perspiration, eyebrows creased in agony. “O Sacred Head, now wounded.” He is our head, the head of the Church, the head of the Body; yet it is this head, wounded, “with grief and shame weighed down.” He had no cause for shame. The shame is ours, humanity’s, history’s, that such a holy, perfect, loving and beautiful one would be treated so cruelly.
Jesus’ head was “scornfully surrounded with thorns, thine only crown.” There is a thorny vine that grows to this day in fields and by roadsides in Palestine, called zizyphus spina christi, which has long sharp thorns. I’ve cut a few fronds to bring home, and every time, no matter how careful I am, I get stuck by a spine. It hurts – and the hurts lingers, as the thorn has a toxicity that leaves you itching, inflamed and with pain for two or three days. I try to imagine a few dozen of those prickly, mean thorns pressed into Jesus’ brow. I shudder.
If we gaze at that sacred head, are we shamed or delighted, stricken or honored? Yes. This ancient hymn envelops all these moods. “What thou my Lord hast suffered was all for sinners’ gain: mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.” The “mine” gets repeated, maybe to make the meter work out, but then also to remind me that I am confessing and owning doubly that my sin, all our sin, put Jesus there.
“Look on me with thy favor.” Does Jesus look on me with favor? His eyes in his head looked out and saw with favor his blessed mother, and his beloved disciple whom he charged to care for her. He saw the clueless soldiers, and forgave. He looked at the victim next to him and promised him paradise. He does look on us with a harrowing, surprising, tender favor. No greater favor could be envisioned than this one looking from that head on us with mercy and love.
“What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend?” At the birth of your child, at the death of your spouse, at any moment that is beautiful or horrific, there just are no words. We might blurt out something, inadequate, or we just sigh. What we need in this hour is a friend, who doesn’t have to say a word but just clutches us in quiet, firm tenderness. Jesus is that friend. Our dearest friend. I love the way in Michelangelo’s Pieta Mary cradles her precious son’s head, just as she had when he was born. We too are invited to hold him, gingerly, hesitantly but then with all the love we can muster to cradle that sacred head, the very mind and heart of God – praying, or just speaking to him: “O make me thine forever… Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to thee.”
Check out my book on preaching - not a how-to preach book, but how we continue preaching. The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching.