York Minster

Good Friday 10 April 2009

I had not heard from a friend of mine for quite a long time, in fact, for more than a year. I sent them the obligatory Christmas card, but no reply came. Then suddenly in February I received an email. She explained that her father had been taken ill earlier in the previous year and had died just before Christmas. I knew that her father meant so much to her. She told me that they had quite a lot of time to prepare for his death and that they were able to tell one another all the things that they had always meant to say.

I suspect in those circumstances, in the face of death, what people say to one another is pretty important and really comes from the heart. At crucial moments like that you wouldn’t waste time on trivia or chit-chat. Recognising our mortality tends to sharpen our focus and screen out what is superfluous. In this context our thoughts and our words tend to be summoned from the depth of our spirit, from the very core of who we are. When they reached the place of the skull, they crucified him there and the two criminals also, one on the right and the other on the left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.”

What I am going to say sounds a little obvious given the day, the place and the congregation, but I’ll say it; forgiveness is right at the heart of the Lord’s life, death and resurrection – for Christ has ransomed us with his blood and paid the price of Adam’s sin to our eternal Father, We know we are sinners – I hope I am not shocking anybody here? – we are sinners not by the sins we commit but first and foremost because by our nature we are prone to evil and selfishness. It is a fact and, if we are honest with ourselves we have to admit it. Left to ourselves we cannot shake sin away; it clings to us, holds fast. It is only in and through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross that we can be cleansed and made whole. And this is what the Father wants us to understand and accept in and through Jesus: Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.

Before I was made a bishop, I had a proper job, I worked as a parish priest in various parts of this country and further afield. One of the parishes was near a large hospital and from time to time I would be called out. This particular day I was bleeped and when I phoned in to ask what the situation was I was informed that that a young woman had just been told that her unborn baby had died in the womb. Before she would allow the medical procedure to take place she had insisted on calling a Catholic Priest even though neither she nor her partner were Catholics. I went to the hospital with great apprehension, wondering what she wanted me to do and what I could say in the circumstances.

When I arrived she and her partner were patiently waiting and were very obviously composed and calm. She asked me if I was a Catholic priest. I answered yes. Then she said, “You believe in Mary don’t?” I was just about to get into a slightly defensive apologetic position about the place of Mary in the Catholic theology, when she brushed my initial comments to one side. “No”, she said, “don’t you believe that Mary is in heaven?” I said yes, we do.” And then she said, “and don’t you believe that somehow Mary is like your mother?” By this time, I realised that there was a certain urgency and deliberateness about her questions, so I no longer tried to explain things but just simply said yes. She then asked me where did I think her baby had gone? Again I simply said that I believed that God had created that baby out of love and that now it would be sustained in God’s love for all eternity. “So, he’s in heaven?” she pushed me. “Yes”, I said. “All I want to know”, she said, “is that someone is there to look after my baby, a mother to care for him and hold him while I can’t do any of these things. Mary will do that, won’t she?” The pathos and simple drama of that moment have never ever left me. Even now I find it hard to tell that story without my eyes watering or my throat catching And I simply said yes.

Seeing his mother and the disciple he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, this is your son”. Then to the disciple he said, “This is your mother”. And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home.

Over the years, ministering, praying, experiencing the joys and sadness of my life and others, I have recognised both in my life and the lives of others a thing I call desperate faith. I have also recognised it in the scriptures. So many instances of people realising that they had reached the end of their tether. There is no-one else to turn to, no place else to go – the woman with the issue of blood touching the fringe of Jesus’ garment, the paralysed man lowered through the roof of the house in which Jesus was speaking; the Roman official whose daughter was close to death; the leper who said “if you want to, you can heal me”; the blind man sitting at the side of the road as Jesus was passing and wouldn’t shut up despite the apostles protests; the bold cheek of the Syro-Phoenician woman.

They were all desperate; it was their last chance and they threw themselves at Jesus and somehow this desperate faith seemed to be the key to open the miraculous powerhouse.

There are some of us who are too polite to tell God our problems and difficulties. He won’t want to know about the tortuous situation I have got myself into. While our lives are sometimes filled with darkness, pain, misery and sickness, our prayers don’t always reflect that same reality. We feel that prayer, spirituality, Church should only concern nice things, good people, angels gambolling on fluffy clouds.

Our faith in Jesus as our Saviour and Redeemer is rooted in the reality, the good, bad and indifferent reality of our lives – joy and sadness, light and dark, exultation and despair, heroism and cowardice, generosity and selfishness. When Christ became flesh and suffered and died for us, he took on all that, not just the nice bits; he became human in every way that we are except sin. There is no situation in which we can find ourselves where Christ has not been, even through death, the darkest door, Christ has gone before us; those moments of desperation which often lead to desperate faith, Christ has been there. I suspect for most of us here this evening we know this from our experience and that is why, despite all that life throws at us, we have hope. But there are some who do not know Christ, and do not know that hope, and for them, for us, and for all of humanity throughout the ages, Christ calls out to the Father in the final act of his self-giving sacrifice for us:

“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?”

A few hours more, a few minutes more, a few instants more. For thirty three years it has been going on. For thirty three years you have lived fully minute after minute. You can no longer escape, now you are there, at the end of your life, at the end of the road. You are at the last extremity, at the last edge of the precipice. You must take that last step, the last step of love, the last step of life that ends in death.

You hesitate. Three hours are long, three hours of agony; longer than three years of life, longer than thirty years of life.

You must decide, Lord, all is ready around you. You are there motionless on your cross. You have renounced all activity other than embracing these crossed planks for which you were made. And yet, there is still life in your nailed body. Let moral flesh die and make way for eternity. Now life slips from each limb, one by one, finding refuge in his still beating heart.

Immeasurable heart – overflowing heart – heart heavy as the world, the world of sins and miseries that it bears!

Lord, one more effort. Humankind is there, waiting unknowingly for the cry of its Saviour. Your brothers and sisters are there; they need you. Your Father bends over you, already holding out his arms. Lord, save us. Save us.

See, he has taken his heavy heart and, slowly, laboriously, alone between heaven and earth, in the awesome night, with passionate love, he has gathered his life, he has gathered the sin of the world, and in a cry he has given all. (Michel Quoist, Prayers of Life – Prayers on the Way of the Cross – 12, Jesus dies on the Cross.)

After this, Jesus knew that everything had now been completed, and to fulfil the scripture perfectly he said, “I am thirsty”.

After Jesus had taken the vinegar he said, “It is accomplished”; and bowing his head he gave up his spirit.