Grief in Slow Motion
Good Friday 2011
Reflection on John Chapters 18 and 19
John is utterly determined to take the traditions of the crucifixion which he has inherited, and make it clear that this apparent disaster is all in the plan of God. The desperate humanity of Jesus in Mark's gospel is replaced by a Jesus who is in control, and confident of the outcomes.
We know what is going to happen. This is not just because the story is one we know, but because the outcome is written into the story each time we read it. The betrayal is no surprise; it is explicitly foretold. Somehow this does not detract from the power of John’s writing. Even though there is no surprise, when we listen to the whole story, the pathos and the enormity of what is happening brings a congregation to pin-drop quiet.
However, if we read carefully, there is also a sense that the narrative in John is heavily stylised, and unrealistic. It is overblown and artificial. Soldiers coming to arrest a rabble rouser fall to the ground. A governor who successfully managed a most fractious Roman province for ten years-a poisoned chalice kind of appointment you have to be excellent to survive- is portrayed as an incompetent and vacillating; and at the mercy of his subjects. (Although when it suits him, he is immovable: "l have written what I have written.”) And so many things happen, we are told, “that the scripture may be fulfilled.” (19:28)
lf we move beyond the eyes of a naive of piety, it is clear that the story has been carefully shaped and revised to emphasise John's point that this terrible event is all God’s plan. It is not an attempt to record the literal facts of what happened. It is recording the meaning and significance of what happened, not the facts. John’s concern is what the death means, not the exactitude of how it happened. If we think in terms of facts, and argue too much for the facts, then we will forget to look for the meaning.
There's not time, and it is not appropriate on Friday morning, to fully exegete this lengthy reading. But in a bible study I would encourage people to look for the un-natural and the artificial. It is in those things that the deeper message lies.
Despite the artificiality, the power of the narrative remains. It is still there even for those who are fully aware of its contrived nature. It is so powerful that we have a tradition in our congregation of reading the whole story, with little comment, and seeking to let the heart hear.
Usually I have avoided the reading from John and used the reading from the Gospel of the year. This Friday I will use John. I’m listening to the ordained nature of things. We will begin with a short prayer, and then read a drama where despite the appearance of apparent disaster, God is fully involved. There will be a solemn hymn part way through.
Then I will speak at the end, before a closing blessing. A few words
inviting us to remember our great grief in life; the loss of the ones who are dear to us.
For some of us it will have been a grief in slow motion. Death will have weaselled its way into the life of our loved one, as we watched weight falling away. For others the visitation will have been sudden and unexpected. Sometimes it will have been tragically early, a malignant insult to all our hopes and aspirations.
And we have been left with shock, numbness, disbelief, and denial. We wake up and turn to say something... We see them in the street... We wonder why they are late home... and then remember... And the grief never quite fades away. The regrets of things said, or not said, are never entirely forgotten.
We also grow more aware we are coming to the time when it is our turn... when all we strive for, and hope for, will be finished... when there will be nothing more we can do... when we must leave our children to fend without us... perhaps just as we are beginning to enjoy life, and feel like we are finally beginning to understand what it’s all about.
We live in a slow motion grief with an ending just as certain, and just as clear, as the end to which Jesus came. It is foreordained, and unavoidable. It is difficult, sometimes, not to feel betrayed.
The only difference is that I am not sure l will be the Jesus of John, who is determined to drink from that cup God brings for us all. l am more likely to be one of the disciples, deserting him and running in fear, fleeing death in a futile attempt to avoid what God has ordained. At best I will be like the Jesus in Mark, crying out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
We do Good Friday too easily. Most of us don't come to church all. How morbid to celebrate an ancient death! Celebrate the time off- five days this year! Already, sometimes weeks ago, we have begun to consume the Hot Cross Buns and The Easter Eggs.
Let us go home and feel the pain of Jesus. Let us grieve for his loss, and the loss of parents and friends, and all we have held dear. Let us sit in that unimaginable and yet inevitable place where we are the one dying. Let us remember it, for it will come.
This is the first message of Good Friday. Death is no longer the enemy. It is the way of all life. It is the only way of all life. It is the path given to, and chosen by, Jesus the Pioneer of our Faith. It is the only way to go if we are to truly live.
We say we will follow him. Well, let’s follow. Let us drink the cup. Let us lay the promise of Easter Sunday aside, and go home truly sad and grieving. Let us replay the Good Friday readings in our minds, and remember our losses, with all their pain. It is through these, and through the greatest loss, that the Easter freedom will come, not despite them.
And after the Sunday, let us pick up the cross again, and risk the loss. For that is the way he travels. It is the only real way.
This is a "very first reflection." Much thought and polish is yet required. But I want to help us feel the pain and travel through it, rather than avoid and deny it. Easter Sunday triumph grasped without the pain and cost might just be an illusion.