Skip to content
A Welcoming Church

For me, the high Holy Day of the church year is Good Friday, more impactful and relatable and real even than Christmas or Easter. It is the Crucifixion that makes sense out of the incarnation and resurrection, that gives them their meaning, and not the other way around.

It is the Crucifixion that the gospels describe in agonizing detail, from the crown of thorns to the sword piercing Jesus’ side. Meanwhile they hurry through the rest of the narrative – Jesus and his disciples go to this town or that, and this or that happens – so they can arrive at the passion account.

They drive toward the Crucifixion, which is the point of the story. One scholar calls the gospels a crucifixion story with a really long prologue. As Fleming Rutledge writes in her masterpiece The Crucifixion,

“The unique feature of the Christian proclamation is the shocking claim that God is fully acting in Jesus’ death on the cross. The Creator of the universe is shown forth in this gruesome death.” We have a God who suffered death on the Cross.

Our Lord’s sacrifice for us makes no sense without our first staring into the darkness of our sinfulness. We follow the words of “O sacred head sore wounded”, “When I survey the wondrous cross”, and “Were you there when they crucified my Lord”, in order to grasp the meaning of our faith.

The message of the gospels is that God loves us. He, or She, loves all of us, everybody, all the time. For sure. But that is not because we are so inherently lovable. It is because God is love; love is what God does. We are loved in spite of ourselves. And the way we know that is by his sacrifice for us of his Son on Good Friday.

Our Lord hung on the cross for about six hours in the heat of the day, from about 9am to 3pm. During that time, he uttered seven sayings, also called his last words. We read three of them today in John’s Passion account. Together they show us both Jesus’ divinity and his humanity. They help us understand the mystery of who Jesus was: God or man? Answer: both.

Jesus’ first utterance, when he was first put on the cross by the soldiers, was, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) This was an astonishing reaction to such a barbaric sentence, unless you are the Son of God. The Father’s forgiveness is a full pardon. All the stuff that makes us flawed is forever and totally redeemed by his blood.

Jesus was not just forgiving the soldiers, who were only following orders, nor Pilate, who was reluctantly executing the sentence passed by Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. He was also forgiving all the priests and elders and the baying crowd and Judas, and the disciples who fled. He was forgiving all mankind; he was forgiving all of us.

The point of the Passion narrative is that we are all capable of great cruelty and sin. The reason we read it, and it is the most detailed account of any event in the gospels, is to show us what we ourselves might be tempted to act out. Like doing evil in the name of righteousness, or showing cowardice in the face of force, or allowing ourselves to be incited.

Three years ago, we got a big reminder of how capable we are of deranged rage and violence. Before they were deceived and incited, the people there were not so very different from us.

Two criminals were likewise crucified, one on Jesus’ right and one on his left. One of them asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Our Lord said to him, “Verily, I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

This second saying, called the word of salvation, like the first one, would only make sense on the lips of the Son of God. The saying expresses the central truth of our faith; “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) The criminal believed, and so was saved. Belief in Him is our salvation.

Standing together by Jesus’ cross were his mother Mary and the beloved disciple John. He said to his mother, “Woman, behold thy son!” And he said to the disciple, “Behold thy mother!” (John 19:26,27) From that hour, the disciple took Jesus’ mother into his home.

This third saying shows one side of Jesus’ humanity, his love of his mother, his concern for her well-being. As we know from literature and life, the relationship between mother and son is especially human. And who better for Jesus to entrust his mother to than John, who might have been the only one of the twelve still there at the foot of the cross.

Jesus did what a son would do for his mother. Even in his excruciating agony, and with the appalling responsibility of the salvation of the world weighing heavily, Our Lord thought of others, including his mother.

In Our Lord’s fourth saying, he is recalling Psalm 22, which we just read. It is in both Matthew and Mark. Jesus cried with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34) I have found it the most affecting, most moving, and most human of the seven. Father, remove this cup from me!

This word expresses all the suffering and despair and unbearable pain and confusion and betrayal and loneliness it is possible for a human being to feel. But at the same time, it suggests a great closeness with the Father more than a loss of faith. Jesus speaks to God the Father as an intimate.

When we feel pain or are suffering, it is our great comfort and solace to know this: there is nothing we are experiencing that Our Lord did not also know. He shares all of it with us.

The fifth and sixth words (John 19:28-30) again show Jesus as fully human. He said, “I thirst,” and then, “It is finished”. The first fulfills Psalm 69:21, “and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”

That second one especially rings true to me. When my mother died of a years-long battle with cancer, at the end she said simply that she was done; no more; she had had enough. No recrimination or bitterness. Maybe some sense of accomplishment, but also a profound fatigue. Her great comfort was in knowing that our Lord knew all about that. It is finished.

In the final word, we come back to Jesus as the son of God. Speaking in a loud voice, he said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46).

It is a quote from Psalm 31:5, and is sometimes called the word of reunion. It is an expression of ultimate trust and faith. Jesus is rejoining the Father in heaven. After that, Luke says, “he gave up the ghost”.

To read the seven last words is to understand just a little better the great mystery of Our Lord and his incarnation. He was fully human. There is no experience we can have that he does not share; as we say, he lived and died as one of us.

At the same time, we can agree with the centurion standing by the cross and watching, when he said, “Truly this was the Son of God.” (Matt 27:54; Mark 15:39)