The Rev’d. N.J.A. Humphrey
Good Friday, Year C
25 March 2016
Last evening I reflected on John as the disciple who understands what it means to abide in Jesus’ love, and it is because he alone of all the disciples knows what it means to love and be loved by Jesus in the present moment that he is able to stand firm in that love even at the foot of the Cross.
This evening, I want us to see through John’s eyes what Jesus is doing on the Cross by focusing in particular on one small element of the passion narrative:
“When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he said unto his mother, Woman behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home. After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished…said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.”
As I mentioned in my Friday letter last week, today is March 25th, and were it not Good Friday, we would be celebrating the fixed feast of the Annunciation, the day on which the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary to announce that she has been chosen to bear the Son of God. March 25th is nine months before Christmas Day, so it is the liturgical celebration of the conception of Jesus. Because of Holy Week, our celebration of the Annunciation will be delayed until Monday, April 4th at 6:30 p.m., but I think it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the way in which Mary becomes a mother both on the Annunciation as well as on Good Friday. At the Annunciation, she accepts the Archangel’s tidings and the world’s salvation is conceived in her womb. On Good Friday, her Son announces that the Beloved Disciple is to become her son. From a purely human perspective, this is a tender and touching moment: a devoted son ensuring that his bereaved mother will be looked after by a faithful companion and beloved disciple. But I believe John sees this event as the conception of something new: the Church. Mary and John become a new family at the foot of the Cross, and as an icon of the Church they stand for an entirely reconfigured set of relationships.
In the wider tradition, the birthday of the Church is celebrated on the great feast of Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the Apostles in the Upper Room. While Pentecost may indeed be regarded as the birthday of the Church, in John’s eyes the Crucifixion is the conception of the Church, and it is fitting that Mary herself is the one who conceives the Church, and equally fitting that the firstborn of that Church should be the Beloved Disciple.
Related to this, there is one other detail I would like to look at through John’s eyes, and that is that when the soldiers find that Jesus is already dead, they pierce his side, and from it flows blood and water. I have read in several places a plausible medical explanation that this is evidence that Jesus literally died of a broken heart, technically known as “stress-induced cardiomyopathy,” wherein the collapse of the ruptured heart cavity results in the separation of the watery serum from the clotted blood in the pericardium. Whatever the medical cause, however, in John’s eyes, I believe this is symbolic of the sacraments of baptism and communion. At the foot of the Cross, Jesus conceives a new family, the Church, in the person of his Mother and the Beloved Disciple, and from his very Body given for them on the Cross, he baptizes them and washes them with his sacred Blood.
We, too, are invited to stand at the foot of the Cross with Mary and John. Our impressive Rood Screen is a physical reminder that we already do so. Jesus’ words to his mother, “Woman, behold thy son” and to the Beloved Disciple, “behold thy mother” are also addressed to us: we are instructed to look around us and see, through John’s eyes, our mothers, and fathers, and sisters, and brothers, in the new reconfigured relationship that is known as the Church.
But let’s be honest. When I look around at my church family, both locally and in the wider church, I am often but not always filled with tenderness and joy. The Church is not a perfect family simply because it is a family constituted by Jesus. Mary and John are the ideal Christians, but all too often each and every one of us falls far short of the ideal. Yet we are called at every Mass and every time the Church gathers for prayer to see each other not through rose-tinted glasses but through John’s eyes, as sinners who have been redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb. This allows us to bear with one another in our struggles, and, by God’s grace, to see each other as standing equally in need of the healing and forgiving power of Christ.
And so, this evening, John says to us: As we look at each other, hear the words of Jesus addressed to you: Look around you. Behold your mothers. Behold your fathers. Behold your sons. Behold your daughters. Behold your brothers. Behold your sisters. And from this hour, warts and all, take each other into your own homes, that is to say, into your hearts.