April 19, 2019
“The Passion Never Ends”
Today is Good Friday when we observe the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus. Today is the hinge on which turns Holy Week. Together with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday provides that point in time and remembrance when betrayal leads to arrest; when disciples, who promised to be true, scatter, hide and deny ever knowing Jesus. The principalities and powers of this world turn on this day to do their worst, convicting, beating, and torturing to death a man they know to be innocent.
Jesus is wounded today in all sorts of ways, in body and soul, crying out (quoting the opening words of Psalm 22), “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” and, though feeling himself forsaken by humanity and God, nevertheless, speaking words of grace, praying to the God he feels has forsaken him, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.”
In the ancient traditions of the church, the period of time from Maundy Thursday through Easter Sunday is known as the Triduum. Always in the ancient traditions of Christianity, the new day begins at dusk rather than dawn, just as it does to this day in Judaism. Thus, the Triduum means “the three days.” The fact that these three days are seen as a single unit is crucial for the meaning of what Jesus accomplished in the cross and resurrection.
First, holding together Good Friday (beginning at dusk on our Thursday), including the last supper, prayer in Gethsemani, betrayal, arrest and denial, as well as the trials and crucifixion, with Easter tells us that the cross is not a failure which was reversed by the resurrection. Rather the resurrection was God’s ultimate stamp of divine approval upon the life that led to the cross. As ancient theologians said, “Jesus reigned from the tree.” Jesus was not a passive victim playing a role in a predestined drama of sacrifice, but a human being living and dying as God intended. He ended up on the cross because that’s where his quality of life ends up. His death shows us that the powers and principalities of this world may conspire to hurt and kill those guided by compassion and love, but all these powers can do is cause pain and death. God alone has the power to create life out of death. This good news was not lost on the early Christians, and it remains the core message of our faith.
Second, the Triduum teaches us that the same Jesus who is risen from the dead (and the Jesus who ascends, who sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, as the creed says) bears the wounds of betrayal, denial, and crucifixion. The nail marks in his hands, the slash in his side, never heal, even in the risen Christ. The scars remain. What humanity did to Jesus – what our humanity did to Jesus – never goes away, even while he prays without ceasing for us, interceding eternally on our behalf.
Finally, the ancient observance of the Triduum offers a response to the Passion of Christ that is both powerful and perfectly appropriate. In many Christian traditions, the celebration of Easter still actually begins at dusk at the close of the Sabbath (that is, on Saturday evening, which is when Sunday began in ancient Christianity) with what is traditionally called the “Easter Vigil.” In this simple service, Christians read a variety of biblical texts, from the story of the creation to the resurrection narrative. As darkness envelopes the earth, they light candles. I’ve preached in such vigil services and have found it moving to celebrate Easter when the world remains shrouded in darkness. I’m not sure there is a more fitting metaphor for the lives we live, so often in the dark yet upheld by the promises of God.
As we walk through these days, again as we have so many times before, I invite us to walk in the footsteps of the disciples with the ancient Triduum in mind. Saint Mark’s Gospel, our earliest biblical account of the story of Jesus, paints the disciples as the bumbling “Everymen” of the gospels. Nowhere is this more the case than in chapter sixteen of Mark’s Gospel, which ends abruptly with the disciples shocked and afraid at the possibility that Jesus is risen. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t think I’m much different from those bumbling disciples.
I have to confess that I don’t expect, driving by the cemetery at the corner of Washington and Prytania early this Sunday morning, to see the gates open from the inside and the visiting tourist being welcomed within its walls by long-time residents of the cemetery. I believe such a sight would leave me shocked, afraid, and looking for a place to hide too. But, like the first disciples, I’m not sure that either the walking dead or the newly risen would frighten me nearly as much as the expectation that I am now supposed to live a “risen life,” that is, a life of compassion and love like that which Jesus lived, a life lived in spite of the threats of pain, rejection, shame, and death, all of which are symbolized in the cross.
The resurrection faith makes demands upon us that leave me, like they left the early disciples, ducking for cover. The Passion never ends. That is one enduring promise of the Easter faith.