March 25, 2016

Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1 – 19:42


In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

The garden was beautiful. It was a sunny afternoon; the tree branches were swaying in the gentle Mediterranean breeze. The smell of fresh rosemary added to the ambience of a quiet, lazy, summer afternoon. The garden itself is in the city of Jerusalem. It is a quiet, reflective space adjacent to a nearby mountain slope. The mountain is really more of a hill, and at least when I saw it some twenty years ago, the rock face of the hill was nestled over what appeared to be a bus station. If you looked at the rock face of the hill at a certain angle, you were able to see two areas carved into the rock that appeared to resemble eye sockets. Beneath these two holes was another one which resembled a nose, and beneath that, a horizontal indentation that appeared to resemble a mouth. Taken together, the eyes, the nose, the mouth – they resembled, in somewhat of a crude fashion, a human skull.  Immediately I thought of the word Golgotha, which we hear today was the Hebrew word for a place of the skull.  

As I looked toward the rock wall which actually resembled a skull, my gaze drifted toward the top, above the bus station or whatever it was, above the appearance of a skull, and I stood, and looked. And wondered. Where there was now grass atop the hill, were there ever three crosses, upon one of which hung the Son of God?  

It’s hard to say, we don’t know, we have no way of proving. Not far from this rock wall in Jerusalem, if you followed the path through the garden, it lead you to another rock wall, distinctive from the one I just described.  Carved into this wall was a cave-like structure. Upon entering it, the guide told me it was likely a first century tomb where a body was placed to rest. Outside the tomb, there was a small, unique carving beside the entry, which appeared to be an anchor, however in the middle of the anchor was a cross.  The anchor was also upside down –the arms of the anchor, rather than being at the bottom, were at the top. In Christian symbology, the anchor represents hope. The upturned anchor carved outside the opening of the tomb conveys a sense of hope as well – perhaps a way of saying that whoever was in the tomb was no longer there. They had risen. They were in heaven.

This garden I speak of in Jerusalem is called the Garden Tomb. I visited it some twenty years ago.  The tomb and the corresponding skull like rock face were only discovered in the late 19th century. While it seems this tomb dates from the time of Jesus, was it the tomb where Joseph of Arimathea placed the body of Jesus? We don’t know. Perhaps it was.

But even if it wasn’t, the close proximity between that rock hill and that tomb in the garden teaches us something critical for Good Friday. The skull on that rock wall and that tomb teach us that just as the resurrection is impossible without the cross, the cross has no meaning without the resurrection. The story of a Jewish man being crucified is not good news, nor was it exceptional for the time. Many others died in a similar way. What makes the death of Jesus different is that Christians see the cross through the resurrection. There is no way for us to ignore Easter Sunday and think only of Good Friday.

And so the cross and the empty tomb go together – they are the same story. The risen Christ is the crucified Christ, his wounds clearly visible. But the crucified Christ is also the risen Christ. Yes, the cross is an instrument of death, yet for us it is also the tree of life. That is why today is Good Friday.  Death and Resurrection, the cross and the empty tomb, are not separate things – they are two different sides of the great Paschal mystery we honor this week. Death and life are one and the same, redeemed by the cross, and perfected by the tomb whose stone was rolled away. There is no empty tomb without a cross, no cross without a tomb whose stone was rolled away.  

Before leaving the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, a person gave me a gift – a small sprig of rosemary which grew in the garden. I placed it in my pocket, and carried it with me for the rest of my journey through Israel. The sprig of rosemary flew back to the United States with me, and I placed it in a scrapbook of my journey where it remains today. When I peel back the clear plastic scrapbook page under which it is placed, it still offers up a fragrance of a garden next to hill and a tomb. The rosemary offers a fragrance of sacrifice, of grace, of and forgiveness.

There is no end to God’s love. In a world ravaged by violence and suffering, God entered as a vulnerable infant, who grew into a man whose life ended violently. Today we look around our world, we see suffering and bloodshed in Jerusalem, in Brussels, in our own city. We witness death in hospital rooms, prisons, and in long term care facilities, and we might be tempted to believe that the rosemary in the garden has died. That it no longer offers its fragrance of grace. In the face of death and intolerance we might believe that the carving of the anchor was washed away, covered up, and that the skull on that mountain cleared away and in its place nothing but more concrete and metal and a larger bus station. It is easy to believe such things.

We stare out into a dark abyss demanding an answer from God that death, sickness, disease, and addiction are not bereft of meaning. We find ourselves dead and hanging on a cross, our bodies placed inside a dark tomb. And in the darkness of that tomb we believe hope has died. There is no breath of life, no smell of rosemary. And yet there is also a stirring within us that compels us to protest against this reality.  We get up and in the darkness find the stone and with all our might we press against it, summoning our strength against the principalities and powers of this world. After great exertion, the stone begins to move, and a beam of light, like a flame, enters our tomb and as our eyes adjust we see the garden in all its beauty.  We smell the flowers, we pick the rosemary, and we know death has lost the power of its tyranny. We kick over the anchor, turning it upside down, so that it points to our future – it points to heaven. We are alive.  It is a Good Friday. AMEN.