Walking toward Good Friday

Walking toward Good Friday

by the Rev. L. Ann Hallisey, D. Min., Dean of Students, Church Divinity School of the Pacific

I have always struggled with Good Friday – not the liturgy, not the lessons, not the summons to repentance and deep prayer. The difficulty lay in having to preach some kind of cosmic arithmetic that did not add up in my soul.

The thing that hung me up (in theological-technical-speak) was St. Anselm’s understanding of the Doctrine of Atonement. For most of my life I thought the notion of this 12th Century Archbishop of Canterbury about why Jesus had to die, was the only way to look at it. The idea that Jesus had to die for sins, my sins, that his death was required to rebalance the deficit of Adam’s sin, was where I got stuck. It is that note of passive voice that distracted me, as if the obligation came from outside of Jesus, even though, obviously, this external “requirement” of the Father (as taught in traditional theology) had to be met by Jesus’ own willing.

A few years ago, when I was asked to preach on Good Friday and couldn’t dodge the task by assigning it to someone else, I finally got some theological clarity on Good Friday. I’ve been a priest for almost 30 years, but, as my friend Winnie the Pooh says, sometimes I am a bear of very small brain. So God keeps offering the opportunity over and again to learn the hard things. After all this time, clarity was granted through a poem by Denise Levertov. Every time I read it, it goes straight to my heart and teaches some things that I have struggled with in this day’s meaning. I share it with you because it is so important to me, as together we walk toward Holy Week and its remembrance of Jesus’ passion and death.

On a Theme from Julian’s Chapter XX
Denise Levertov

Six hours outstretched in the sun, yes.
hot wood, the nails, blood trickling
into the eyes, yes –
but the thieves on their neighbor crosses
survived till after the soldiers
had come to fracture their legs, or longer.
Why single out this agony? What’s
a mere six hours?
Torture then, torture now,
the same, the pain’s the same
immemorial branding iron,
electric prod.
Hasn’t a child
dazed in the hospital ward they reserve
for the most abused, known worse?
This air we’re breathing,
these very clouds, ephemeral billows
languid upon the sky’s
moody ocean, we share
with women and men who’ve held out
days and weeks on the rack –
and in the ancient dust of the world
what particles
of the long tormented,
what ashes.

But Julian lucid spirit leapt
to the difference:
perceived why no awe could measure
That brief day’s endless length,
why among all the tortured,
One only is ‘King of Grief.’
The oneing, she saw, the oneing
with the Godhead opened Him utterly
to the pain of all minds, all bodies.
- sands of the sea, of the desert -
from first beginning
to last day. The great wonder is
that the human cells of His flesh and bone
didn’t explode
when utmost Imagination rose
in that flood of knowledge. Unique
in agony, Infinite strength, Incarnate,
empowered Him to endure
inside of history,
through those hours when He took to Himself
the sum total of anguish and drank
even the lees of that cup:

within the mesh of the web, Himself
woven within it, yet seeing it,
seeing it whole. Every sorrow and desolation
He saw, and sorrowed in kinship.

Here is the new thing I understand, helped by Levertov’s poem. Jesus’ willingness to become a victim joins him with all victims throughout all history. What Jesus takes up at the cross when he chooses to accept that “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all,” (Is 53:6) is, Jesus becomes the willing victim, the innocent who willingly dies for others. He joins himself to all suffering, stands with all who suffer, experiences in himself the absolute of all human suffering. His suffering is not to be compared with that of the victims of torture or the hurt of an abused child – it is one and the same.

And the way it connects to my sin is, I have caused others to suffer. Sin always has a victim. Sin always causes suffering, that’s what sin is. Sin’s ultimate victim is always God, as well as those we hurt by our sin – because of the cross. This sin is personal, individual – one person to another. And it is also collective, like my participation in the obscene consumption of the Western World simply by virtue of where I live and the suffering it causes the rest of the world, or my participation in war because I am a citizen of the perpetrating State. This is how Jesus suffers for my sins, not because of some distorted divine calculation that demands parity of reparation – God has been offended so one equal to God must pay. Jesus suffers for my sins because when I hurt others, I hurt Him. How is that possible? Because he was innocent of any sin, he took on the effect of all sin. The effect of sin is suffering and the location of its absolute is Calvary in a way that transcends time and geography and encompasses all.

Atonement: at-one-ment. Levertov’s “oneing”.

7 comments (Add your own)

1. Harry Allagree+ wrote:
Wonderful, Ann!

Tue, March 12, 2013 @ 12:53 PM

2. Kayleen Asbo wrote:
Wonderful meditation- thank you so much.

Tue, March 12, 2013 @ 2:10 PM

3. Norman Cram+ wrote:
Clear, forceful and economic in expression. Thank you, Ann+.

Tue, March 12, 2013 @ 7:17 PM

4. Judy Furlong wrote:
Great, Ann, I have also struggled with this and LOVE the poem, which gives such clarity. God Bless!

Wed, March 13, 2013 @ 2:39 PM

5. Ann Sullivan wrote:
Thank you Ann! Very enlightening and helpful as we approach
Good Friday! God bless you!

Thu, March 14, 2013 @ 8:28 AM

6. Heather Innes wrote:
Thank you!

Thu, March 14, 2013 @ 9:41 AM

7. The Rev. Ted Ridgway wrote:
Hi, Anne+, In my own Good Friday homily I pose the objection to any concept that God allowed Jesus' atrocious suffering as a prelude to "The Great Event" two days' hence. My theme is "Out From the Shadows" and explores events such as the devil's umbered temptations in the Judean wilds, Nicodemus getting only partial enlightenment in John 3 as he emerged from the shadows, Judas slipping away from the Upper Room into mthe gloom, onlty to reappear with the torch-bearing Temple Guard, offering a kiss as though that could make it all right. Thank you for that poem. Ted Rdgway

Thu, March 14, 2013 @ 9:55 AM

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