Year A, Good Friday
I have a friend who calls me, most of the time with affection, “Father Smartypants.” I deserve the nickname (but don’t let me catch you using it). Last night, Fr. Smartypants showed off his knowledge of Greek, pointing out that the word for “remembrance,” “anamnesis,” literally means “un-amnesia.” This evening, I get to trot out a little Latin: Crux est mundi medicina. The Cross is the medicine of the world. If the Eucharist is the cure for amnesia, the Cross is the cure for whatever ails us. The Cross is the cure for the cares of the world. This claim comes from a hymn by St. Bonaventure, the first stanza of which proclaims,
Crux est porta paradisi,
In qua sancti sunt confisi,
Qui vicerunt omnia.
Crux est mundi medicina,
Per quam bonitas divina
Lo, the Cross is heaven’s portal,
In which trust the saints immortal,
Who have conquered in the fight.
This world finds the Cross its healing,
God’s own goodness still revealing
By its wonder-working might.
Last night, we took our anti-amnesia medicine when we received the Body and Blood of Christ. This evening, we will imbibe the medicine of the world when we venerate the Cross of Christ.
The central question that Good Friday begs is: How can an instrument of shame and death be at the same time an instrument of healing and salvation? What exactly does it heal, and how does it save?
Well, before I get to that, here’s another linguistic tidbit: The word for “salvation,” both in Greek and in Latin, can also be translated simply as “healing,” so that when Jesus says, for example, “your faith has saved you,” it can also be rendered, “your faith has made you well” or “your faith has healed you.” Salvation and healing are intimately related because both have to do with wholeness: When we are saved, we are made whole again and healed from our sins, just as when we are healed, we are made whole again and saved from the ravages of disease and, yes, even death.
The intersection of “health” and “salvation” in the Cross of Christ is nowhere as strong in our liturgy as it is in the rite for Ministration to the Sick. Just before anointing with unction a sick or dying person, the priest is to say, “Saviour of the world, who by thy Cross and precious blood hast redeemed us,” to which the sick or dying person, if able, responds with the priest, “Save us and help us, we humbly beseech thee, O Lord.” There’s only one other place this brief anthem is used, and that is in the anthems appointed to be said or sung during the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. Unfortunately, I did not plan my homilies far enough in advance to request this anthem tonight, but the fact that Good Friday and Ministration to the Sick are linked in this way is significant because these two rites both testify to the healing power of the Cross of Christ. The Cross has the power to heal precisely because it testifies to the powerlessness of death over God’s love for us in Christ, which is true even when we, or someone we love, is wracked with sickness or faces death.
Three Holy Weeks ago, my sister and father both called me just before I was to celebrate the Maundy Thursday service to let me know that my brother, Paul, who had been diagnosed with Stage Four Malignant Melanoma, had entered into home hospice care. My brother, who was then thirty-nine years old, died that summer, just a few days after my own thirty-eighth birthday. I arrived at his home the afternoon of the day he died. He was, as I mentioned, receiving home hospice care, and earlier in the day, perhaps sensing that it was his last day on earth, he got out of bed one last time, and took off the remaining piece of clothing he was wearing, so that when I arrived, he was covered only by a thin white sheet. I was at his side when he drew his last breath, and I heard his death rattle. I kept vigil with his wife over his naked body. I had never kissed a corpse—the notion of such a thing, even now, strikes me as much too Victorian. But in that first evening, the evening on which he died, I did kiss his body. Many people had once joked that my brother, the Bikram Yoga instructor, bore an eerie resemblance to Jesus, and as I looked tenderly at his emaciated, dead body, I felt very keenly that I knew what the Beloved Disciple’s grief must have felt like. Not that I was my brother’s disciple. Hardly. Paul was nowhere near as divine as Our Lord. But Paul became like unto him in his death, and as a corpse, he resembled Jesus more than any living body I have ever known.
Even now, whenever I think of Paul’s death, I know that Good Friday is where my own grief can best be joined to the grief of the Beloved Disciple, and to that of Our Lady—she who stood at the foot of the Cross and watched her thirty-three year old Son die.
Perhaps this evening you are bearing your own Cross of suffering, whether for yourself or for a loved one. If you aren’t, I am sure you can think of someone who is. Perhaps your heart grieves over a loss that is not primarily physical, but relational: a broken marriage, whether your own or someone else’s. Or perhaps you grieve over some other form of estrangement. Maybe your Cross is physical; perhaps you struggle with your own or someone else’s addiction, or anger, or any other deadly sin. Whatever the case may be, in the harsh light of such loss and grief; in the shadow of disease and death, perhaps I am being presumptuous in proclaiming that the Cross is the medicine of the world. The Cross most certainly did not cure my brother from cancer. The Cross did not have the power to relieve the physical suffering my brother endured in his final moments, any more than the Cross of Christ relieved Jesus’ or Mary’s or John’s suffering. But the Cross of Christ does reveal God’s love in the face of death and decay.
For you see, despite the worst that the world, the flesh, and the devil might send our way, I believe that the Cross is the medicine of the world, because the world’s own medicine is simply too weak to cure anyone. We shall all die, just as Jesus himself died. But the crucifixion shows us that Christ came not to put an end to death, but to put an end to death’s power over us.
And yet, while we still live, death does have power over us. We suffer because we love, and Christ suffered on the Cross because he loved us more than we loved him. Whether we will find Christ’s suffering love healing for us personally is something I cannot presume upon. I hope that it is, or at least I hope that you and I will find it to be healing and salvific—in all our own trials and temptations, passions and sufferings—in our life and in our death. But only you can know the healing power of Christ’s deathless love for yourself by contemplating his death—and your own. In the meantime, we must wait, in the hope of sharing in Christ’s eternal resurrection life—which is why we absolutely must gather here tomorrow night at 7:30 to wait in darkness for the Light of Christ, even as tonight we behold the Wood of the Cross, the medicine of the world.