Good Friday, 30 March 2018

March 30, 2018 | by Robert McDonald

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 Psalm 22 Hebrews 10:16–25 or Hebrews 4:14–16, 5:7–9 John 18:1–-19:42

Discussion of the Texts: I should think that today requires little by way of an introduction:  though we look ahead to the dawn of Easter Sunday in two days, we are nonetheless left with the sobering realization that to arrive at the empty tomb we must first walk the via Dolorosa, walking with Jesus through his passion and crucifixion.  Still, there is an ancient homily (or sermon) which is often read on Holy Saturday as a part of the Office of Readings in the Catholic Church’s Liturgy of the Hours (the Divine Office).  Possibly first written in the fourth century, the author remains unknown; still, it recounts a narrative of what is oft known as “the Harrowing of Hell.” For today, Good Friday, with its somber liturgies and umbral atmosphere, the opening paragraph seems apropos:

Something strange is happening — there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness.  The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began.  God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear (Anonymous, “The Lord descends into hell,” in Christian Prayer:  The Liturgy of the Hours 1976, 1987; italics added).

Given the extensive readings for today, I will only treat them briefly.  We begin with Isaiah 52:13–-53:12, hearing of God’s servant whose appearance is marred, and being “beyond human semblance” (Is. 52:14).  Yet, there is little of this servant to draw us: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (53:2).  What is more, this suffering servant was struck down for the iniquities of others (53:5), “by a perversion of justice” (53:8). For this, the servant was exalted (53:12), because “[out] of his [sic] anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (53:11).

From this third-person perspective of the suffering servant—bystanders and God—we turn to Psalm 22, the opening lines of which are more than familiar:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1; cf. Matthew 27:45: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”).  Feeling abandoned, encircled by ravenous beasts (22:12, 16, 21), the servant bemoans their mockery and pain at the hands of others (22:6 – 7, 13, 17).  Still, the servant glorifies God several times, proclaiming their faith and hope in God: “In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.  To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame…You who fear the LORD, praise him [sic]! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!” (22:4 – 5, 23).

We then come to second reading from Hebrews, either parts of chapters 4 and 5 or part of chapter 10.  In Hebrews 4 and 5, we are exhorted to recall Jesus, the high priest of the New Covenant: “F or we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).  But, as high priest, Jesus was not to be saved from suffering, because though “he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8). Turning to Hebrews 10, the theme of Jesus’s priesthood (10:21) continues by stating that it was by him that we can enter into the sanctuary (10:19), “by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)” (10:20).  Because of this, we may “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (10:24 – 25).

Of course, the Gospel reading from John is the climax of this story we have been following for the last six-and-a-half-weeks.  Since we all know the story well, I will not recount it here (18:1 – 19:42), though it is rife with both problematic passages and process-oriented passages.

Process Theology and the Texts: Perhaps the obvious difficulty with the Gospel reading from John today is how it may be (and historically has been) construed as deeply anti-Semitic.  This would make for an excellent preaching topic, to curtail any such sentiments within one’s congregation(s). But where may we find elements of a process-oriented theology?  Recalling that “relatedness is the condition of an organism” at any level of reality (Robert B. Mellert, What is Process Theology? 1975, 23), and that creative advance — or novelty — is central to a process worldview, we may parse out certain central themes.

For relatedness, we find that all of our actions (or inactions) ripple outward from ourselves, impacting others according to their proximity to us:  my choices will have a greater impact on those friends and family within my immediate vicinity than they will have on a stranger who lives in another state.  There may be no immediately discernable impact, but we remain nonetheless constituted by our actions and relations. This leads us to creativity and novelty. They are the foundation and aim of our occasions of experience, experiences which may be either positive or negative.  That is the price paid for a cosmos which is creatively moving: any novel element may be either good or bad, positive or negative, but the movement goes on.

How does all of this connect back to the texts of today’s readings?  Relatedness is central to the closing passage of Hebrews 10, wherein we are reminded to consider how we may assist one another in building the Reign of God by “encouraging one another” (Heb. 10:25).  Creative advance is made clear in both the Psalm and Isaiah, as well as John’s Gospel; however, the suffering servant makes evident the fact that creativity does not always provide positive advance. For Teilhard de Chardin, this was the reality of “original sin”:  rather than being the result of some historically discernable “Fall,” original sin is the simple fact that an evolving cosmos entails the possibility of both positive advance and negative disintegration (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Note on Some Historical Representations of Original Sin,” in Christianity and Evolution 1971 [1922, 1969], 45 – 55).

This can allow us to make sense of the Gospel account of the passion and death of Jesus of Nazareth.  As we know, Jesus is considered by many process theologians to be wholly human, and any ascribable divinity is not wholly unique to him (Mellert, 75 – 88), though there was certainly a uniqueness of relationship between God and Jesus.  Still, even Jesus experienced suffering — not as an “atonement” for some past failing or fall from a prior state, but simply because creative advance — an evolving cosmos — entails the possibility of evil with the good. But while the crucifixion of Jesus, though gratuitous and visceral, has so shaped our world that one-third of the human population follow he who has been “made perfect” through suffering (Heb. 5:9).

Preaching the Texts: We all have our own traditions for celebrating the solemn liturgy of the Passion on Good Friday.  For example, Catholics today will engage in what is known as the Veneration of the Cross: the congregation, following the shared reading of Passion narrative, will process up to the sanctuary to ritually kiss a wooden cross (the one at the parish of my youth was twelve feet tall with a horizontal beam approximately six feet long).  After this, there will be a communion service, as this is the only day out of the entire year that the Eucharist is not consecrated.

For those who wish to provide a sermon or homily, there are a number of points which seem to be especially significant from a process perspective.  As I mentioned, the apparent and historical anti-Semitism of the Johannine account of the Passion would be one potential topic, given that anti-Semitism (and any other chauvinism) is contrary to the fundamental relatedness of our world.  Personally, I would intrigued to hear or offer a sermon on the plaint of Pilate’s: “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:38). While many have depicted Pilate hear as being derisive or condescending of Jesus, I confess that I have never found such interpretations to be meaningful.  Rather — and this is likely due to my philosophical training — I have been one to hear longing in Pilate’s question. He genuinely desires to know truth. Of course, I also am a fan of Doubting Thomas, Job, and Jacob.

A final potential topic I would consider could be the meaning of the Cross for us today.  There are many who would have us forget the Cross — and they may be right. Still others will focus upon the empty Cross in conjunction with the empty tomb — and this is good.  For still others, like myself and Teilhard, the Cross with corpus (the Crucifix) is not something before which we swoon; rather, it becomes for us a light by which we climb toward those “peaks…shrouded in mist” (Teilhard, The Divine Milieu 1968 [1957, 1960, 1965], 103).  What is more, we may ask ourselves a deceptively simple question:  would we have been like the Apostles who fled when Jesus was arrested, denying him three times like Peter; or, would we be the Beloved Disciple, the Blessed Mother, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the wife of Clopas (Jn. 19:25 – 26) — will we stand at the foot of the Cross with them?

Robert McDonald

Raised Roman Catholic, Rob is a first year PhD student with the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology.  Having studied philosophy, theology, history, and public policy/administration at the undergraduate and graduate levels at both Gannon University (Erie, PA) and Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA), his specific research interests with the Center and CST (to hopefully culminate in a dissertation) are the ethical implications (especially environmental and social) of a comparative analysis/integration of the lives/works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ and Morihei Ueshiba (as well as the Kyoto School of philosophy), in light of Whiteheadian process thought.