As you grow older you begin to notice that there are certain things we took for granted as youngsters that are either over-simplified or else plain wrong. Much of what I learned at school – in Arts or Sciences – was simplified in order to help me learn it. In later life, I’ve learned to flesh out my understanding of the characters in Shakespeare’s plays, and I’ve begun to see that my simple grasp of physics or mathematics was, at best, an approximation to get me started.
One of the phenomena we all notice as we get older is Time. We grew up thinking that time was about seconds and minutes and hours and years. When we were very young we could barely distinguish between a week and a year as both seemed rather long. Now many of us find that both seem very short. We used to think of time as a direction – like the numbers on a digital clock where the hours move on, moving only forwards.
It takes us quite a while to realise that clocks and time are not the same thing at all, and that time definitely does not move only in one direction. In fact, you may wonder as I do if it moves at all, because sometimes it seems that past and present and future are all much of a muchness. Oh, the hours pass – whatever that means – but past, present and future are something different.
Our sense of time as an ever-rolling stream, rolling ever in one direction, is an illusion. I think that, on Good Friday, it is very important to hold in our minds that the events of that day are not only in the past, but also in the present and the future. That the fear and the hatred that make ordinary people attack, torture and kill perfectly innocent other people is a present reality, and that we have no grounds at all for believing it will stop soon.
The crucifixion of Jesus is not a sad, distant event, thankfully buried in the dust of history. It is happening now and will happen again and again. It is something engrained in the story of our world.
Of course, if that were all that could be said on the subject, we would have only despair to take to ourselves and to offer to others out of our Christian story. But that is not the case. Even on this day when, as Sydney Carter wrote, “it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back,” there is yet a message of hope. On this day, Jesus prayed for his torturers “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” If you have been following the excellent Lent course on the Passion narratives in the four gospels, you will have learned that this prayer (which appears only in Luke’s gospel) is so shocking that many early gospel manuscripts omit it or even perhaps deliberately cut it out. “Father, forgive…” But it is there and it seems to be a genuine part of Luke’s account of Good Friday.
People who took part in that course will also remember that St John’s gospel (again, only John) tells us that, on Good Friday, Jesus also said “It is accomplished,” a sigh or a cry of fulfilment as his torture ends in death.
It is important, on this day, that we Christians bear in mind / let into our hearts that just as the crucifixion of the son of God stands outside the ordinary time of weeks, months and years, so too does Jesus’ prayer for sinful, ignorant humans; and so too does Jesus’ sigh of triumph – yes, it is accomplished.
If that were not so, if Good Friday was only at that time and place 2000 years ago, then we have little hope or prospect of being saved from human sinfulness and ignorance. God has stepped into human history – is in our past, our future and our present. It is now that God forgives, now that God’s mission is accomplished. In that confidence we can live through this day, through the nopersonsland of Easter Eve and into the glorious hope of Easter Day.
Let me end this sermon with a reflection by the priest-poet R S Thomas. Thomas had been to see the great violinist Fritz Kreisler play, and noticed in the glare of stage lighting, the extraordinary exertions of the man’s body and soul:
The poem is entitled The Musician, first published in Thomas’ 1961 collection entitled Tares.
I used R S Thomas (1993) Collected Poems, 1945-1990, London: JM Dent, The Orion Publishing Group.