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Silence And Darkness

Sermons on the Gospel Readings
Series III, Cycle B
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, some times it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Over the last 25 years, I have experienced many different Good Fridays. A few of them stand out and point out my own humanness and inability to embrace the fullness of what the Lord was offering. In answer to the hymn, my answer is, "No, I wasn't there when you were crucified, Jesus." And I have made vain attempts of entering the experience of that awful day, yet there have been glimpses of grace along the way.

Today I hope to share a few of those glimpses and in the sharing perhaps you will find a glimpse of God's grace from your past or in this moment as well.

The first profound experience of the depth and meaning of Good Friday came to me in 1979. At the time, I was living with the monks of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. By the time Good Friday came around, I had been living with the brothers for most of the year. My job while living with the brothers was to take care of Father Williams. He had been the superior of the order for almost 25 years but seven years before my arrival he had been the victim of a severe stroke and was now primarily bedridden. Having the opportunity to live in a monastery was one of the richest experiences of my life.

My work with Father Williams was more a ministry of presence than active work. Throughout each eight-hour day with him, there would be some moments of contact, but most of the time he appreciated his solitude and so I resided in the room next to his spending the time working on contemplative prayer, breathing the name of Jesus for about seven hours each day. One of the gifts of living in the monastery was the opportunity to participate in the daily worship. When I first arrived, the brothers gathered eight times in the monastery chapel each day for prayers and holy communion. Later that year, after the approval of the 1979 prayer book by the general convention of the Episcopal church, they revised their worship schedule and only gathered five times each day.

Holy Week and Good Friday were particularly important days for them. They planned elaborate worship services and invited the community in Cambridge to come and join them. There were two moments in the Good Friday worship that particularly struck me. They were connected. One of the treasures at the monastery was a cross that housed inside of it a piece of the true cross. The brothers believed the cross housed within it a glass ball with a wooden splinter that was a splinter from the wood upon which our Lord was crucified. The cross was reverently brought into the sanctuary and placed upon the high altar. The brothers dressed in robes and simple vestments approached the true cross and three times as they processed they spread themselves upon the floor, face down, arms extended, prostrating themselves before this holy relic and before their holy Lord.

I found myself overwhelmed and moved by their reverence. I also knew that I would not be able to participate in good conscience in those liturgical gestures. I suppose there's something of a skeptic in me. How in the world, I wondered, could that little splinter have come from the piece of wood upon which our Lord was crucified? Then again, it didn't really matter if it was genuine or not, what really mattered was their ability to fall flat on their faces in genuine reverence before their Lord who sacrificed everything to take away the sins of the world. Lord, help me today find the grace to worship you with genuine and honest reverence.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s I had the privilege of serving as rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Hamburg, New York. One of the joys of serving in Hamburg at that time was being a part of the ecumenical community. We gathered as brothers in Christ, leaders of our respective churches. We had Lutherans and Roman Catholics and Wesleyans and Presbyterians and Episcopalians and occasional others who would join us. Each year we would plan an ecumenical Good Friday service. During the first years, the service was held for the three hours that are traditionally kept -- the hours of Christ's crucifixion -- the hours between noon and 3 p.m. Each of us was assigned responsibility for leading a portion of the service and members of the community would come and go throughout the three hours, though a few would stay for the full service. It saddened me when we decided to shorten the service to one hour because it appeared most folks could not make the commitment to the full three hours at this busy time of year. Workers who used to get time off now continued to work on Good Friday and so the congregation kept dwindling year by year.

One of the irreverent and yet memorable moments on one of those Good Fridays was the procession that we had through town carrying a large cross, witnessing to our Lord. The service this particular year was held at the Presbyterian church that was at the west end of Main Street in Hamburg. We began the procession at the east end of town, stopping at the several churches along the way, gathering followers, parishioners from each congregation. We sang songs and witnessed to our faith, reenacting the journey that our Lord took as he proceeded to the place where he would be crucified. Each of the ministers took a turn carrying the large and heavy cross made out of wooden 4x4s. I will never forget when the Lutheran minister was ready to receive the cross from the Catholic priest. The Lutheran minister had come up behind the Catholic priest; the Lutheran minister was tall and standing straight up when he spoke to the Catholic priest who at that point was carrying the cross. The priest quickly turned with the cross on his shoulder and without meaning to do so nearly knocked the Lutheran unconscious as the heavy wooden cross collided with the Lutheran minister's noggin. We try so hard to engage in holiness, and there we were overwhelmed by the comedy of our humanness. Our best efforts nearly created in ecumenical crisis in the community of Hamburg. Though we were trying to be reverent it was difficult for many of us were working to suppress the giggles that were erupting from those who had witnessed this unfortunate incident.

In 1998, I experienced a much more profound procession on a Good Friday. Betsy, my first wife, had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. She had three tumors in her brain, all of them too deep to be surgically removed. On this particular Good Friday, we were experiencing a transition time -- transitioning between Hamburg, New York, and Spokane, Washington -- transitioning between life and death -- transitioning between the sweet innocence of not worrying about health concerns to the daily reminder that life was short and could end at any moment.

In this particular holy week we had the gift of simply receiving the liturgical leadership of others. We had taken some time as a family to visit my mother and father in Boca Grande, Florida. In Boca Grande, there was also a strong ecumenical community, and the way of the cross was part of the worship there. These steps that we took as a family were perhaps the heaviest and closest steps to that first journey that our Lord made through the narrow streets of Jerusalem that we have ever experienced. The heaviness of death was upon us. Betsy's bravery was overwhelming as she walked these steps with Jesus knowing that her death was imminent. That time underneath the glorious, cloudless, rich, blue sky of the Florida springtime, a time where the sounds of the surf breaking on the shore and seagulls screeching overhead, was a time when our hearts were heavy and our souls were tired. In the midst of the wonder of creation and the beauty of the environment, we were caught up in the darkness of death. Perhaps there, more than at any time before or after, we walked the way of the cross and participated in the holiness of Good Friday.

Betsy's one prayer as she prepared for her death was that she would die a holy death. I believe those steps in Boca Grande when she engaged and shared in the journey of her Lord were perhaps the most important steps she took during her journey from diagnosis with cancer to death. I suspect most of us upon reflection can discover others who have engaged this journey with deepest sincerity, great need, and a profound faithfulness. There may be someone in your life right now that is on that journey between diagnosis and death and perhaps you are called to walk with them, and like Simon who was a simple bystander in Jerusalem, you may be consigned to be with them to help them carry this burden, to help them carry their cross.

The final Good Friday reflection that I wish to share concerns a service that is held on the night of Good Friday, preferably in the dark. Thirteen candles are placed upon the altar or a table. The candle in the center represents our Lord, the other twelve candles preferably in non-matching candlesticks, with different heights and different colors, represent the twelve disciples. The service begins with a few prayers acknowledging and welcoming the presence of our Lord. The service includes four readings. The first describes the betrayal of Judas. After the reading is concluded a few moments of silence are kept and one who has been assigned before the service comes out and extinguishes one candle that represents Judas. A song can be sung and then there is a second reading this time describing the scattering of the ten disciples. Again, after the reading an acolyte comes out and randomly extinguishes ten candles representing the ten disciples. More silence is kept as we move into deeper darkness, perhaps another hymn is sung and then a third reading. This time we read of Peter's denial of his Lord. The acolyte returns, extinguishes the candle designated for Peter and now only one candle remains lit. The Christ candle, the light of the world, stands alone upon the altar having been abandoned by his closest friends and companions. The fourth reading is of Jesus' death and after the reading; the acolyte comes into the service and removes the candle from the church without putting it out. In absolute darkness a bell is slowly rung 33 times, symbolizing and counting the years of our Lord's life. The Christ candle is brought back into the church and the congregation is dismissed in silence.

This service always moves me because it engages the senses and the imagination. The participant is confronted with light and dark, sound and sight. The simplicity of this worship service for me captures the utter simplicity and profound nature of Jesus sacrificed upon the cross for my sins. There is a mystical experience that I invite you to share in this Good Friday. Consider opening yourself to Jesus as he looks down from the cross, allow yourself to see him looking at you, into your whole life, knowing your weaknesses and your strengths knowing the fullness of who you are. Let us also risk looking at him and be willing to gaze into the loving, wounded, sad, forgiving, and gracious eyes of our Lord Jesus Christ opening ourselves to the wonder of him.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Lord, we pray that you will give us grace on this Good Friday to be with you, where you are, receiving this most precious gift of your sacrifice for us. Amen.

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