On Good Friday, we focus on the Cross — the central symbol of Christianity. And we reflect on the meaning of what God accomplished on that Cross in the person of Jesus Christ. The cross we bring today, you will notice, is bear, along with the altar and other chancel appointments. Stripped bear. In order to appreciate what it all means, we need to be called in our hearts to a greater simplicity. Indeed, throughout the forty days of Lent, this has been the spiritual call – to simplicity.
This call to simplicity perhaps first makes sense to us in “giving something up for Lent” – chocolate, coffee, snacks, desserts, TV, etc. I can say I have appreciated the opportunity during past Lenten seasons to simplify and try to shed peels off the proverbial onion of my life – not that some of those peels are bad things in and of themselves. But that those things are not the most important nor helpful for my physical, spiritual, mental health. It’s good to do from time to time: Simplify. Because when we do we begin to get at what’s essential in life.
And so, this holy week concludes a season of going where we don’t normally want to — call it downward mobility, or doing without, or looking at that part of our lives we keep hidden from others.
When Jesus was stripped of his dignity, his clothes, his honour and humiliated; when the king of kings submitted to torture and brutal death a criminal of the state, I can’t think of much else to do except approach the Cross with humble adoration. And bring the truth of our lives to the foot of the Cross as well.
Every time a sports team struggles through a losing streak, I hear the same thing from coaches when they’re interviewed and asked why their team is losing; often they say – “we have to get back to basics, doing the small things right.” Simplify. When the chips are down, when we’re at ground zero, it’s back-to-basics time.
And while at first this may seem an unfortunate development, it’s actually important to return to those basics. In the couple of days leading up to the Superbowl — the biggest championship game on earth — the coaches for both of the best two teams in the league were advised to have their players review basic skills and focus on these.
Getting back-to-basics doesn’t just mean taking things away. On the contrary, when we focus on what is essential we may need to return to something that we’ve forgotten over the years, such as intentional prayer with God.
And not that we must pray the same way. But simply, in our communion with God who connects with us in our hearts: as we listen, as we wait, as we praise, as we lift our hands and hearts, as we use words even as words aren’t always necessary, as we reach out in prayerful action in the name of Christ. Prayer – getting back to basics. Doing small but meaningful things from the heart.
The call to simplicity on Good Friday is then also a call to come to terms with our own mortality. Admittedly, this is not a popular way. The reality of death is one we naturally want to deny, to put off thinking about – because its unpleasantness and mystery can unnerve us. No wonder many Christians care not to worship on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – and wait then to rejoin the worshipping assembly on Easter morning.
But without Good Friday there can be no Easter. This Friday is “Good” because without the Cross stripped bear there would be no salvation. Winning teams are always committed to doing the basics, the fundamentals, of their game well.
That’s the starting point: You can’t have Easter without, first, Good Friday. We must not deny the suffering, dying Christ – nor our own. We must first accept it.
Archbishop Desmund Tutu, fighting prostate cancer, gave an interview a few years ago right before Easter. In it he spoke of the redemptive side of suffering, the good that can come out of embracing, owning and accepting your own pain and suffering. He said, “When you have a potentially terminal disease, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. It gives a new intensity to life. You discover how many things you have taken for granted: the love of your spouse, the Beethoven symphony, the dew on the rose, the laughter on the face of your grandchild.”
Often we think of times of suffering in our lives as the “dark” times. We often associate darkness with suffering and death – and therefore bad. Christian writer Joyce Rupp admits that it is difficult to believe that darkness could be a source of growth and new life. She writes:
“Darkness to a child, as well as to many adults, can be a scary, fearsome place where wild creatures wait to pounce and prey. But, in actuality, some kinds of darkness are truly our friends. The world of our mother’s womb had no light: It is where we grew wonderfully and filled out our tiny limbs of life. Our earth would be quite lifeless, too, if we did not plant seeds deep within the lonely darkness of the soil so they could germinate and bring forth green shoots. I know, too,” she continues, “that we would soon die of an overheated planet if nightfall did not come to soothe the sun-filled land. Darkness is very essential for some aspects of growth and protection.” (p.3-4 The Star in My Heart).
When we come to terms with our own suffering by answering the call to simplicity, good things come out of it. Betty Ford, former first lady in the United States, talked openly about her cancer. She changed the culture of the time – which in the 1970s was very guarded, embarrassed, and hidden when it came to talk of breast cancer. As a woman, those secrets were at best whispered in the privacy of the home; as a woman you just didn’t talk openly about it.
But thanks be to God for Betty Ford – that she took the risk of vulnerability, for her not being ashamed or fearful. As a result, her public witness is estimated to have saved millions of women’s lives in subsequent decades – because now women could speak legitimately about their problem openly, own it, accept as their own – and therefore receive needed, life-saving medical attention.
So, finally, the call to simplicity means having an attitude of gratitude. Being thankful for simple things doesn’t begin by noticing other people’s suffering and then saying – “Well, I’m better off.” It doesn’t begin by comparing ourselves to others worse off. The kind of gratitude I speak of begins deep in the heart of our own suffering. Because we know – given what Jesus did for us on the Cross – we know that God won’t let our suffering be the end of us.
On this Good Friday, let us be thankful for the small mercies and the moments of grace that surround us and come to us, even in our suffering and death. Above all, let us give thanks to the Lord for his love for us, a love that led him to make that incomprehensible sacrifice, for us. Thanks be to God!