Saturday, April 3, 2010

Good Friday

Jesus’ final “word from the cross” in the passion narrative from John’s gospel is simple and declarative: “it is finished.” We can understand that statement in two ways. “Finished” can mean concluded, ended, over with, gotten through. It can also mean completed, accomplished, done, consummated. The first meaning is, of course, literally true at the moment of Jesus’ death. His agony and shame are over with and gotten through. But I strongly suspect that it’s the second meaning he had in mind. It was if to say, “I’ll be leaving now. My work here is done, my mission accomplished.”

The substance of what we observe on this day, the “work” that Jesus accomplishes on the cross, is so essential, so critical for our lives as Christians, that it can best be understood by getting back to the basics, the naked realities of the human condition.

We’ve got a problem, as human beings, and our problem is this: God is, by definition, holy—absolute purity, total perfection. We, on the other hand, are not. We are created in God’s image, but that image is corrupt. It is distorted. We are bent. God’s holiness and our sinfulness are like oil and water—they don’t mix. We are all at odds with God, and that’s not a very desirable state to be in.

Yet, this God in whose image we are created, and from whom we are separated by sin, loves us—unconditionally and infinitely. So he determined early on to “do something” about the fact of our being at odds with him. The Paschal Triduum, these three sacred days which we are in the absolute middle of at this moment, celebrates God’s “doing something” about our separation. This is the work which is “finished” —accomplished, done, fulfilled, consummated—as Jesus exhales his last breath.

But there was first an interim measure, a stopgap, a band-aid, which God had ordained and which had been in effect for several hundred years prior to   the original Good Friday. It was the Hebrew system of priesthood and  temple worship and animal sacrifices which is described so elaborately in the Old Testament books of Exodus and Leviticus. It was divinely-ordained, but was also intuitively provisional and inadequate—like the temporary checks you get when you first open an account, or the loaner car the dealer sometimes gives you when yours is in the shop, or an “interim” rector or company president. It works; it gets the job done for the time being, but it’s not a permanent solution. Day by day, month by month, year by year, the priests of Judaism had to offer the same sacrifices, because the people, human beings that they were, kept on sinning. So the priests had to keep on sacrificing. They had to persevere in the ritual slaughter of various sorts of animals. And once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the High Priest alone entered the Holy of Holies with the blood of a goat and pleaded with that blood for the forgiveness of God on behalf of the people.

Jesus is himself the permanent solution, the faithful high priest who would offer the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, who would offer not the blood of a goat for the forgiveness of mankind, but his own blood. Jesus’ self-offering is not a band-aid, not a patch, but the real thing, the once-for-all fix to our problem of alienation from God. His death “accomplishes” our reconciliation with God by providing the basis for the forgiveness of our sins—namely, the perfect self-offering of a human being, not an animal—to the all-holy God. In Luke’s account of the passion, which we read last Sunday, the veil of the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem is torn asunder during an earthquake in the moments before Jesus’ death. This is a sign that the true and permanent high priest has entered the heavenly Holy of Holies, of which the one in the temple is a mere copy, and offered his own blood, which alone can dissolve the oil of human sin in the water of God’s holiness. Quite an accomplishment!

It means that we don't have to live in morbid fear of the consequences of the sins which, despite our best efforts and intentions, we continue to commit. The provision for our forgiveness is already in place. Jesus said, “It .. is finished.” Never has a two-letter word like “it” carried such a weight of meaning. Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.
It’s not quite time for us to keep the feast yet; that comes tomorrow night. But the basis for our Easter celebration is laid in the agony of the cross. That’s why they call it Good Friday. 

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