Ampleforth Abbey

14 December 2017

Talk II: Good Friday

Look graciously we pray, O Lord,
on this family of yours,
for whose sake our Lord Jesus Christ did not hesitate
to be handed over to the wicked,
and to undergo the torment of the Cross. 

Some little while ago, I heard a Radio 4 broadcast in which a very eminent bishop and theologian, a man renowned both for his learning and his spirituality, was interviewed by a well-known presenter. As you might imagine, the interview was in-depth and searching, covering many of the problematic issues of belief, and especially the issue of the “Problem of Evil” and the question of “innocent suffering”. Whilst the answers given were equally profound, at least from a theological and philosophical standpoint, what really surprised me, indeed almost shocked me, was that the bishop did not once mention the Cross, nor the name of Jesus. In the whole 30-minute broadcast, therefore, there was not one reference to Christ’s work of redemption, not one hint – at least in the words of this eminent bishop – that Good Friday had ever happened or had any relevance to the issues discussed.

In no sense do I say this in condemnation of the speaker. It may be that he had been asked to keep the discussion at the most general level possible, to be as “inclusive” as possible for the sake of the general listener, and so left his remarks at the philosophical level. It may be that he had himself deliberately chosen that approach, perhaps in order not to let listeners “off the hook” as it were, since there are many in our society today who “switch off” intellectually as soon as Jesus’ name is mentioned. As was once said “We don’t do the God-thing” – and perhaps for many, the philosophical approach to the “big questions” is the only avenue left to even begin a discussion. Faith is left in the “ghetto” of the poor fools that cannot “cut the rational mustard”, those few sad people – that is, you and me – who persist in clinging to their out-dated delusions.

Nonetheless, as I say, I found the interview both shocking and saddening. Speaking purely personally, one of the reasons I am still a Christian is that I simply cannot make any sense of life at all without the Cross. I am absolutely clear about this in my own mind: whilst the Cross is not an easy answer to the problem of suffering, I can find no sense or meaning in life without Christ and him crucified. It is some comfort to find that at least I am in agreement with my patron, St Paul, who begins his first letter to the Corinthians “I came to preach the Gospel, not by philosophy or wise words which would make the Cross of Christ pointless… (since) it was God’s own pleasure to save believers through the folly of the Gospel. While the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, here we are, preaching a crucified Christ: to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to the Gentiles foolishness…” (I.Cor.1:17-23).

And yet, for all my personal certainty, I clearly recognise that there are some real difficulties here. After all, for many in our contemporary society, what we will do this afternoon must seem completely bizarre and incomprehensible. We will sit in the Church for two hours or so, first listening to the story of a Jewish carpenter from 2000 years ago being arrested, subjected to a show-trial by an occupying army, beaten and then tortured to death whilst an eager crowd looked on. Then we will form a procession and kiss the figure of a naked man tied to a tree, take a piece of bread and go back to our places. We will, probably, be moved by all this – silenced, troubled, inwardly conflicted. Is this the proper way to spend a Bank Holiday afternoon, when there is so much else we could be doing? Even leaving aside this deliberately trivialising account of the Good Friday liturgy, we might still ask what Good Friday means. What do we really mean when we talk of Jesus’ “life-giving death” or his “glorious passion”? In a world so very, very full of suffering, are we really glorifying pain? In a world still full of violence, of torture, of political oppression, what difference does our Good Friday make? What voice in all this does Jesus have? What did his death actually achieve, if anything? These are real questions – and there are many more we could explore. They are real questions for us in this year of Faith, questions which deserve our attention, our thought and our prayer, questions we must be able to answer when our society asks us the reasons for our hope in Christ.

I cannot pretend that I can offer a fully worked-up set of answers to these questions in this short conference, but I would like to explore some aspects – some familiar, perhaps, some perhaps less so – in this time we have together.

As many of you will know, I was a doctor in a past life, and perhaps that gives me a peculiar view of suffering, and so of Good Friday. As both doctor and monk-priest, I find I have a slightly ambivalent view of pain and suffering. Let me try to explain a little of what of I mean. In purely biological terms, our pain systems are a complex series of interlocking nervous and chemical responses. They can be a warning which alerts us to danger of injury (through the reflex arc system) or to infection or cuts (through the inflammatory processes). They can be protective, encouraging us to remain immobile to allow healing to occur, or even more directly by their link to the immune system. Pain is thus a necessary part of both the defence and healing of our bodies. In many more complex animals, including ourselves, pain can also be part of the learning or conditioning process which allows us to avoid circumstances which are risky or threatening. Finally, pain is an almost inevitable consequence of the “biomechanical failure” of any part of our physical nature – whether it is our arthritic joints or our blocked coronary arteries. Alongside these “physiological” aspects of pain, humanity at least (and perhaps other species too) has another layer, the “psychological”. Because we are self-aware, self-conscious, we can not only suffer pain, but both imagine pain in ourselves and in others and, at least partially, modify our experience of pain by psychological overlay. In many ways, these “extra dimensions” of the human experience of pain can bring great benefits – without them, it would not be possible for us to have empathy and sympathy, nor would it be possible for the injured to show such bravery in conflict or disaster, effectively ignoring their own wounds for the sake of helping others. Yet these extra dimensions also bring us troubles – our “imagined” pain can be the cause of real emotional difficulty, of anxiety, of fear. It is this “imagined” pain which is the source of the power of the torturer.

In one sense, it is entirely possible to see the human experience of pain as “morally neutral” (with the obvious exception of torture mentioned above, and other cases in which pain is deliberately inflicted by one person on another). That is to say, that suffering pain is simply part of what it means to be a human being; it is an intrinsic, inescapable, but morally neutral part of our nature. There is no blame involved in the pain of toothache, or of a broken leg, or – perhaps more importantly – in the psychological anguish of depression. It is just how we are. Likewise, the changes and sufferings endured through the natural life cycle of birth, growth, ageing, diminishment and dying are just that – natural parts of what it means to be human, nothing more, nothing less. Medics are trained to alleviate pain, to find and treat the causes of pain and illness, to bring healing – all without moral judgment, and there is nothing at all wrong in that. But there is a problem with this approach. To reduce the pain and suffering inflicted by “natural” causes of illness or through accident to a simple question of biochemical disturbance or biomechanical failure can be to reduce the human being to a machine. If we follow that line of argumentation to its logical conclusion on the grand scale, then we are simply the products of a random process of gradual evolution amongst a series of biochemical elements generated over the course of millennia in the hearts of distant stars, brief flickers of consciousness in an otherwise vast and voiceless universe – we are born without asking, our bodies function until they wear out or become irreparably damaged by external agents, and then we return to the great recycling station to be broken down to our constituents and re-utilised. For many, that is exactly their view of the universe and of humanity. That does not mean to say that such rationalists are inhuman, or in any way lack compassion. It is perfectly possible to build a rationalist, humanist ethic, which recognises both the value and the fragility of human life and seeks to treat others with a dignity inherent in their uniqueness, but at its heart that ethic has something of a void. One might, perhaps both unkindly and unfairly caricature this type of ethic as (hold on to your hats!): “the mutual interaction of sets of fantastically improbable self-replicating assemblages of semi-stable thermodynamically-optimised quantum mechanical perturbations in the fabric of n.dimensional space-time for their fleeting co-operative advantage against entropy” – or put more simply “There is no meaning to our existence, we are merely here. We are part of a process. We may not have long. Let’s make the best of it”. For me, that does not seem to be enough.

I was always uncomfortable with this, both as a young man and as a young doctor. I did not find this mechanistic view of humanity broad enough to encompass my experience of people as people. For me, such an approach gave me plenty of scope for examining the “What?” and the “How?” of life (and that was fascinating to study, hugely challenging, but huge fun). But it gives no clue as to the “Why?” – and as human beings, we seem to be deeply imbued with the sense of the importance of the “Why?” questions – as the parents of any young child will know. Hence perhaps the ambivalence I felt and I still feel about pain and suffering.

Not only did the mechanistic view of humanity not tally with my experience of humanity, it did not have room for what I had already experienced of God, of the transcendent, of the mystery of our life. Yet, even the “God-idea” brings its own difficulties as we consider the problem of pain and suffering. For most of us, I think, our sense of ‘who God is’ is as deeply tied into classical philosophy as it is to the Bible. By that, I mean that we have absorbed the idea that God must be “perfect” – all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving and so on. The root of this conception of “perfection”, however, is human; the qualities we expect God to have are the qualities we ourselves would like to have, but somehow maximised, made infinite or limitless in a way that goes beyond ourselves. In short, it is a “bottom up” view of God, based on rational thought and not necessarily on experience, and certainly not on revelation. It is little surprise, then, to find that when we apply such notions of “perfection” to God as creator and ruler of the universe, we run into a set of severe moral difficulties. A simple example will show the problem. We could ask: “How could an all-powerful and all-loving God allow children to get cancer?” – if he is all-loving then surely he will not want innocent children to suffer and die needlessly, and he is powerful enough to stop the cancer; if he does not stop the cancer, then it is either because he cannot, and so is not all-powerful, or because he does not want to, and so is a sadist. One could multiply examples like this ad nauseam, but you probably get the idea.

This is why I think the Cross and Good Friday are so important, because we see in them neither the mechanistic view of the abandoned and deluded Christ throwing himself into the void nor the rational God of the Philosophers, neither meaningless pain nor an uncaring but omnipotent deity. So what do we see?

I spoke yesterday evening about our experience of “brokenness” both in ourselves and in our relationships. I spoke too of the relationship of that brokenness to the idea of original sin and its consequences for us, and of Jesus’ free choice to enter our brokenness, his free choice to take that brokenness on himself to heal it from the inside. If we look again at the idea of the “moral” nature of pain and suffering mentioned earlier we can perhaps extend these ideas somewhat in the light of the Passion narrative. We have to admit that much of the pain and suffering in the world are a direct result of deliberate human activity; they are deliberate evils carried out by people on people, and motivated by greed or power, or political compromise, or fear. These are evils with which we are very familiar, even in our own day and in our own lives, and they find their echoes very clearly in the sufferings which Jesus endures as he goes to the Cross on Calvary. So much of that narrative is about sheer wanton cruelty, the cruelty of the Jewish leaders afraid for their own security and position, the cruelty of Pilate afraid for his own political future, the cruelty of the soldiers who had nothing better to do than make the weak suffer, the cruelty of a crowd for whom death was an entertainment. But these deliberate evils suffered by Jesus are only the surface layer. Beneath them, there is the hidden layer of injustice, oppression, inequality, poverty; by refusing to compromise the truth which he has come to speak, Jesus becomes the symbol of all those who suffer and die through these more intangible evils. Beneath even those, there lie the natural evils, the fundamental brokenness of Mankind which lies at the heart of every choice of evil over good, in the choice of sin over righteousness, ultimately in humanity’s self-destructive instinct to choose death over life. And just as Jesus, at the Last Supper, freely chose himself to enter Man’s brokenness by handing over the broken bread which is his Body to begin the process of healing, so now again he freely chooses to hand that same body over to death so that he might enter fully into our brokenness, might plumb the depths of the darkness in Man’s heart and bring his healing there too. It is perhaps not too far-fetched to imagine that when Pilate leads out Jesus after his scourging, and presents him to the crowd with the words “Here is the Man”, that deep in Jesus’ heart were echoing the words: “This is my Body, which is for you”.

And what does all this achieve? I believe it achieves nothing short of the beginning of the new Creation, the beginning of the healing of our brokenness, the beginning of our liberation. The Word, through whom all things were made, and without whom nothing exists, has entered into the creation which he made and we had damaged, and started to rebuild it again from the inside out. That Word who became flesh, has entered into the deepest level of the brokenness of humanity, that is Death, and has started to destroy it. That Word who died in the flesh after suffering all that we could throw at him in our cruelty, has shown us something absolute and definitive – that God has not abandoned his creation, that he will not abandon his creation, that he is alongside and present with and in his creation, and with each of us in every possible moment of our experience. The Cross proclaims that we do not live in an empty mechanistic void. The Cross proclaims that the God we worship, the God revealed to us in Christ, is not the God of the philosophers, not the God we imagine, not the God we create for ourselves in our rational or philosophical fantasy. No. This is the Father. This is the loving God who does the unimaginable, the irrational, the unexpected, because that is truly who he is. The Cross proclaims that the God whom Jesus makes manifest is the God who still cares, the God who not only “gets his hands dirty” with the messiness of life (as he did on the day of our creation when he made us from the dust of the earth) but has those same hands smashed by hammer and nails in order to re-create us, the God who, in his love for us, saves the world and us from ultimate self-destruction.

The Cross we venerate is not, though, some sort of ‘magic wand’ which makes everything new and shiny. I said earlier that the Cross is not an ‘easy answer’ to the problem of sin and human suffering – we are only too well aware that both of these things are realities in our lives. The Cross does not “magic” those things away, leaving us free from temptation or from pain, and we cannot live as though it does. Rather, the Cross proclaims the beginning of a new Creation, just as the return of the light after Jesus’ death, after the three hours darkness, heralds a new dawn, and just as the tearing of the veil of the Temple from top to bottom proclaims the presence of God with his people, that Emmanuel, in a radically new and different way. The Cross – together with the Resurrection of Jesus – proclaims that brokenness, that sin and suffering and death are no longer the absolute, no longer the final word about humanity. Their power over humanity is broken definitively, but for each of us there remains the struggle to bring this process to fruition. In a way, Christ’s death on Good Friday “takes the brakes off” our limited humanity, as it were. His choosing to be broken for our sake starts to heal that brokenness, giving us a new chance to become fully human, as at the beginning we were created to be. His radical act of obedience reverses the disobedience of Adam’s choice, and gives us the power to choose freely to do what is right. His suffering on the Cross does not take away our pain, but gives it new meaning, showing it to be but the birthpangs of the new Creation. Yes, we can still be tempted, we can still commit sin – but the radical difference is that now we are actually free to actively choose against these things in a way which was not possible before. Yes, we will still suffer pain, we will still die – but the radical difference is that we no longer need to see these things as meaningless, as empty punishment by a cruel creation, as annihilation, but an integral part of our journey with Christ back to the Father.

There is one last thought I would like to share with you before we bring this conference to a close. It is a thought which has become quite dear to me over the past few years, and which I have often wanted to share, but have never had the courage or opportunity to speak about it until now. It may be a thought which has occurred to you too, but I offer it for what it is worth. A few Sundays ago, we heard the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke c.15. It is a story with which we are all familiar, a gospel parable of repentance almost ideally suited to our meditation during Lent. On Jesus’ lips, its meaning is fairly clear: the elder son is Israel, the Israel which feels it has always kept the Law and deserves better than it gets from the Father. The younger son is the pagans, the gentiles, those once sired by the Father, but who then go their own dissolute way, squandering their inheritance until suddenly, when all else is gone, they come to their senses and decide to return home. Filled with remorse, they know they deserve nothing and are prepared to live as slaves, no longer as sons – but on their arrival the Father brushes all past faults to one side in his joy at seeing them again, and immediately restores them to their place, much to the horror and disgust of the “faithful” older brother. It is a beautiful and moving parable, and one which has provided much food for thought and contemplation throughout the life of the Church.

I have often wondered, though, just what Jesus was thinking when he spoke that parable. I have often wondered just how much he identified himself with that younger, prodigal son, just how much he saw his own mission in this parable. Obviously, it is not in the details that one sees this, but rather in the overall shape of the story. You may think this an odd thought, it might confirm your growing conviction that I have gone quite mad, but I would like to explain this a little.

I wonder if Jesus himself asked the Father for his mission to us, himself asked the Father for his share of the “inheritance”, asked him if he could come to us and spend his inheritance, his divinity, on us. With the Father’s blessing he leaves and comes to us, seemingly squandering his possessions – his wisdom, his healing power, his teaching – on the dissolute, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the sinners, the people like us. He gives literally everything away, keeping back nothing for himself in a truly prodigal, a truly generous way. But then things turn nasty – people stop listening, start plotting, start hating this new generosity which seems to threaten their greed. He has only one last thing to give, and that is himself, and so he gives even his life. I wonder whether Jesus’ last words “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” is the point where he reaches the absolute depths of self-giving – parallel to, but not the same as the point where the boy in the parable “comes to his senses” – and there is literally nothing else to give, only the journey home. And so he returns to the Father, seemingly empty-handed, seemingly having wasted everything, only to be greeted by the Father’s enraptured joy – the feast, the new robe and the return to his proper place.

Obviously, one cannot push this too far, and yet I wonder. For Jesus’ actions today, on Good Friday, are so truly prodigal, so truly spendthrift, such an overwhelming act of God’s generosity towards us that I cannot help hearing echoes of the Cross in that parable. I cannot help hearing echoes of the great Philippians hymn that we have meditated on so frequently in these past days “Jesus did not count his equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” I cannot help hearing echoes of Jesus’ own hope that the Father would welcome him back from the dead, perhaps even that he might be allowed to bring some of his new friends with him to the feast in the Father’s house – those friends he made in the far-off land, those friends who are you and me.

O God, who willed your Son to submit for our sake
to the yoke of the Cross
so that you might drive from us the power of the enemy,
grant us, your servants, to attain to the grace of the Resurrection
through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever.