Reflections on Great and Holy Friday: The Cross of Christ and the Wise Thief’s Confession
Sermon written by Linda Arnold and delivered by Maggie Rodriguez on Sunday, March 22, 2015 as part of Antiochian Women's Month
Today we are encouraged to “stay a while with the dying,” as we meditate together on the events of Good Friday. Prior to this we began our journey at Great Monday and Tuesday with a view of the Bridegroom Matins and its themes of repentance and vigilance. We traveled then to Holy Wednesday with the Sacrament of Unction where we discovered the access we have to healing of soul and body both individually and collectively. Last week we arrived at Holy Thursday where we reflected upon Christ’s Offering and His model of humility.
Today we focus on the Crucifixion of Christ and the Confession of the Wise Thief that we commemorate on Great and Holy Friday. It is here that we read 12 Gospel accounts of the Passion of Christ. At the conclusion of each of these readings we respond, “Glory to thy long suffering, O Lord.” We believe and profess that God still reigns in glory even in His all venerable suffering. It is remarkable to note that the 12 Gospel Readings which detail the various accounts of the death of Jesus Christ parallel the cycle of the 11 Resurrection readings that we proclaim throughout the year at Sunday matins. As we are reminded in hymns, readings and prayers from the Orthros through the Lamentations, the Crucifixion of Christ is remembered and relived with the light of Pascha always beckoning to us in the distance. And yet, the late Catholic priest and theologian, Richard Neuhaus gently pleads with us to “stay a while in the eclipse of the light, stay a while with the conquered One, stay a while with the dying, there is time enough for Easter.”
In reaching this point in history, past, present and future, we come face to face with the suffering of the Son of God on the cross and His willful letting go and giving up of His life for our sakes and for the sake of the world. On this day, we commemorate and yes even participate in this dreadful, awesome, unjust and yet justifying, immense suffering and at once liberating supreme act of LOVE. For He who is LOVE Himself freely endured all things even unto death so that we might no longer be bound by death. As Father Calivas states, “On Great Friday, the church remembers the ineffable mystery of Christ’s death.” He reminds us that, “Death, tormenting, indiscriminate, universal casts its cruel shadow over all creation. It is the silent companion of life.”
The scriptures reassure us that God did not make death and that He does not delight in the death of the living. He created all things that they might exist. And yet, who among us has not cried out, “Why then does God allow suffering and death? He, who could have called ten thousand angels to rescue Himself from His own agonizing death, did not. He remained silent. He willingly participated in this once and for all act of reconciliation. Father Calivas states, “In Christ who is the new Adam, there is no sin. And therefore there is no death. He accepted death because he assumed the whole tragedy of our life. His death is the final and ultimate revelation of His perfect obedience and love. He suffered for us the excruciating pain of absolute solitude and alienation, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Mark 15:34. He accepted the ultimate horror of death with the agonizing cry, “It is finished!” John 19:30. His cry was at one and the same time an indication that He was in control of His death and that His work of redemption was accomplished, finished, fulfilled.”
At His Passion and in the events leading up to the climax of the death of the Son of God, there were several people present. Do we perceive ourselves in any of these persons? Do we see ourselves as Peter who declared with boisterous enthusiasm that he would die for the Lord and yet found Himself denying Christ three times? Do we see ourselves as Pilate who could find no guilt in Him and therefore washed his hands of the actions of the people? Do we see ourselves in the crowed yelling, “Crucify Him, Crucify Him?” Do we see ourselves as the centurion who said, “Surely this man was the Son of God?” Do we see ourselves as the thief who cried out, “Remember me O Lord when thou comest in thy Kingdom?” Don’t I, don’t we, see ourselves in all of these? Who among us has not found ourselves in these exact situations at various points in our lives?
Jesus met death in person, face to face. Is this perhaps some semblance of help for us as humans as we suffer and as we watch others around us suffer on a daily basis? Who can understand the immense atrocities that are committed in our world? Acts of violence, exploitation of women and children in the market of human trafficking, abuse, neglect, exterminations, unspeakable acts of genocide, senseless accidents that claim the lives of young people, illnesses like cancer and Parkinson’s that rob those we love of quality of life and length of days, traumas that happen which leave scars and damage and pain. This list goes on and we cry out Why? What have we done, what has anyone done to deserve this?
Father Antony has touched on this question repeatedly and reminds us that God is not the author of injustice, evil, and suffering. He cannot contradict the essence of His being which is LOVE. He is however present with us in the suffering. Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus. Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter. Jesus feels our pain because he bore all the pain in his entire being on the cross for us. Surely He has borne our griefs and sorrows. If we wait a while with the dying One, perhaps we too can face our own sorrows, griefs, anxieties and fears. We can choose just as Christ chose. We can sit with the pain and be present in it, be mindful of it, even embrace it. This is no small feat. We are not invited to do this alone. The church is a unique hospital. If one of us suffers, we all suffer. If one is healed, we all experience some of that healing as well.
We, the beloved, matter. All creation matters. What Christ has done He did because we matter! Let us wait a while with the dying One. Let us not rush to Pascha. But after a time, when we have lamented, when we have come to our senses, when we have let go, when we have owned our stuff and given Him all the parts of ourselves, when through loss and suffering we are stripped of all our fantasies and illusions, let us go into the bright and dawning new day of Pascha. Let us go as the theologian Alfred North Whitehead says, “with hearts that can trust in this life, which is found on the other side of darkness. Hearts that can trust the joy that is felt on the other side of pain.” Crucifixion and confession. Christ who was suspended on a tree died to open His kingdom to all. He suffered between two thieves. The one thief reviled Him but the other reproached the reviler and cried out, “Remember me O Lord in they kingdom!” By his confession, (the Synaxarion for the day tells us that) the gates of Eden were opened. We are given this same opportunity. Each week, we are invited to profess in the prayer before we receive the Body and Blood of the Risen Christ, that we “will not give (Christ) a kiss as did Judas, but like the thief, will confess, “Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.” In the Exapostelarion or the Hymn of Light sung at the Friday Matins service, we are reminded that Christ counted the wise thief deserving of Paradise. “The wise thief, at the same hour, O Lord, Thou didst deem worthy of Paradise.” Using the wise thief as our example let us implore, as we sing in the Hymn of Light, “Enlighten me as well by Thy Cross and save me.” Next week we will journey together to Great and Holy Saturday where we reflect on the themes of praise and hope.