April 15th, 2022
by The Rev. Dr. Deonna Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Almost six months ago, we began the church year with Advent, remembering the visitation of the angel Gabriel to Mary, announcing to her that God had chosen her to give birth to the Son of God, if she was willing to do it. We read the Gospel of Luke:
The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
What must it have been like at the foot of the cross, knowing the kind of death her son was to suffer? Knowing he was innocent? How was she feeling as she thought about Pilate, who publicly proclaimed Jesus’ innocence, yet was afraid of the political unrest the Jews might cause if he didn’t condemn Jesus and abdicated his responsibility. Hatred? Loathing? Helpless?
What must Mary be feeling as she watches the chief priests, the scribes, and the Pharisees the experts in the Law–the most learned, honored, members of Jewish society, who represented the Jewish people to the Roman government, demand her son be crucified? How is she feeling? Angry? Betrayed?
How must Mary be feeling as she watches Peter and the other disciples, who lived, and loved, and laughed, and learned from Jesus for 3 years–teaching them everything he knew. Performing miracles in their presence, abandon him and deny him at his darkest hour? Shock? Disappointment? Contempt? Disbelief?
How must Mary be feeling watching her son be tortured? Dying the most brutal death? Does she feel like any mother would seeing her child suffer? Wanting to take her son’s pain away? Is she wishing she could die in his place?
Is she remembering the Angel’s words to her 33 years ago? Was her own sacrifice and obedience to God for nothing? Was the shame she endured during her pregnancy, nearly being stoned to death had Joseph not agreed to take her as his wife, meaningless? Was it all a hoax? Was all the hope and anticipation of this promise of the angel of who her son was and who Jesus himself said he was all wrong? Did the angel lie to her? Were all the difficulties she suffered for nothing?
How was Mary feeling about her own future? If they killed Jesus, her son, would they kill her eventually, too? What would her life be like as the mother of a condemned man who claimed to be the king of the Jews? What would her life be like going forward with Jesus’ closest disciple as her new son? Was she herself going to be next, facing a future of unending suffering and persecution and pain?
As I think about what Mary might have been feeling and thinking on that day–in the face of the traumatic and tumultuous events of that day for her, her son, and all of Jesus’ followers, I can’t help but think of things going on in our world today.
I’ve been thinking about the 10 million refugees who have left Ukraine. Their lives upended. Loved one’s killed or lost or missing. Facing an uncertain future. Wondering where they will live? What school their children will go to? How can they make a living? Where will they start a new life. Everything they have lost to senseless and unnecessary violence, victims of merciless human military and political power.
I’ve been thinking about a woman who came to us for financial assistance a few months ago–in the midst of battling cancer, having lost her job because her medical appointments caused excessive absences from work. Her husband left. One son had been shot to death as part of gang violence. Her other son, also shot, but not killed, whom she now had to care for as well. I remember her eyes welling with tears as she thought about her sons and the lives they’ll never have.
I’ve been thinking about the increasing rate of suicides among members of our military, it’s now more likely a military member will take his own life than be killed in combat or even a training accident. What it’s like to experience a pain, despair and suffering that seem like they might never subside. That healing and hope are impossible.
I’ve been thinking about our first responders and health care providers, who respond to and treat victims of domestic violence events, racial violence, sexual violence, homicides, suicides, and fires. And the trauma that they themselves suffer in the service of the fellow humans. Witnessing the effects of human sin day in and day out, often feeling helpless in the face of it.
I’ve been thinking about the nuclear missile tests in Korea, reminded that collectively across all nations, a nuclear exchange could annihilate the human race and most other forms of life. I think of how astonishing a thing it is that God would grant us the knowledge and capability for destroying ourselves and most of the rest of life on the planet.
I’ve been thinking about what seems like the increasing intensity of wildfires, tornados and hurricanes, the glaciers melting, droughts, the ozone layer. Wondering how long it will take for our increasing world population and growing patterns of consumption until we render our planet uninhabitable?
I’ve been thinking about the moral relativism of our society, the erosion of civil discourse and public decency.
I’ve been thinking about 30 years ago school shootings were unthinkable, and now we prepare our children and teachers for them as a matter of course.
I’ve been thinking about the viability of sustaining a democracy in an environment of fake news and corrosive and destructive partisan politics. I’ve been thinking about how we seem to have resigned ourselves now to expect that falsifying facts, blasphemy, denigrating science, sexual misconduct, fraud, libel, slander, defamation of character, and baldfaced and shameless lying and misinformation is accepted as part and parcel of what we are to expect from our political leaders and elected officials.
I could go on, of course. You could make your own list. It is not for nothing that the term “doom scrolling” is the common term for reading the news and social media.
Today, as on that Friday 2000 years ago, the people of the world knew pain, suffering, sadness, anger, rage, hopelessness, fear, uncertainty, cynicsm, demoralization, and despair.
But, unlike Mary, on that Friday, you and I, this Friday, know how the story ends. But, if we don’t have the resurrection of Christ on the third day, and the life of Christ ends on that Friday the pitiful victim of torture and tragedy, then we would have the perfect recipe for despair. We might know of Jesus of Nazareth as nothing more than a compassionate philosopher who cared for the poor and the marginalized, who suffers injustice, cruelty, and torture as a reward for his noble but ultimately misguided efforts.
Indeed, if he died on the cross that day and that was the end of it, we may never even know that he existed at all. He might be lost to the annals of history. The Gospels would never have been written. Paul would not have written his letters, the Early churches would not have formed, I would not be a priest, we would not be here today, and we might know of a vague sect of ancient history called Christians in the same way we know of people who followed the teachings of Socrates.
Indeed, what happened to Christ on that Friday shows that any form of a merely human ethic of life and justice will always be defeated by religious and political authorities who will sacrifice justice and truth out of fear of losing power. It was true 2000 years ago and it is true today. This is why no merely humanistic ethic or philosophy or form of government will ever usher in the kingdom of God. If we keep thinking that the next political leader will save us or make things better, or new laws will make us a more moral or just or religious society and that the kingdom of heaven will be realized on earth then we are delusional and have placed our lives and our hopes in the hands of fellow sinners. And, that as we see today, leads to Christ on the Cross.
As Paul so aptly says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
But as we will see on Sunday, when Mary and the disciples see that Christ has triumphed over sin and death, the experience of that changes them and those who would come after them. They saw that their hope and sacrifice and suffering was not in vain. And, they believed that they could put their hope in Christ and trust their life to him.
Peter who denies Christ, becomes a leader of Christians and his faith so strong he become a martyr himself. An encounter with the risen Christ turns Saul into Paul, one of the greatest missionaries of all time. An encounter with the risen Christ produces 2000 thousand years of holy men and women, from Perpetua and her companions to Martin Luther King, Jr. who each in their own generation witness to the truth of Christ and the power of God facing persecution, suffering, and death with courage and hopefulness.
When life and the world feels like it is stuck in a perpetual Good Friday, we must give thanks that we come to the story of the crucified Christ on this side of the resurrection. We live as a Christian community with 2000 years of witnesses to the truth of who Christ is. The whole world does not know it yet. But, many have, some still do today, and others will in the future. Their faith witnesses to the fact that the angel did not lie, Mary’s obedience and sacrifice was worth it. And Christ is who he said he was.
In the cross of Christ, we are shown that the gateway to eternal life is through death. And, only when we believe that to be true and can have the faith and hope and trust in God’s love in the way Christ has shown us, will we be able to bear the pain, the suffering, the disappointment, and the sins of the world with courage and confidence and to live without the fear of death. And, knowing that the goodness, and grace, and life, and peace that sometimes also find in the midst of our suffering and sinful broken world, is a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven and the life in Christ, that Jesus inaugurates for us on this day. This is why this Friday is called Good.