The first day of February is Candlemas Eve, and the second is Candlemas Day. As the fortieth day after the Nativity, Candlemas marks the final event in the Infancy narratives, when, in accordance with Jewish custom, Mary and Joseph presented the baby Jesus to be blessed in the Jerusalem temple. You can find a reflection on that gospel story in my 2019 post, “Consumed by Love: The Flames of Candlemas.”
In medieval Europe, people would bring a candle to the church to be blessed on Candlemas. Then they would make a communal candlelight procession in honor of the Christ, whom Simeon, in the Presentation narrative, called “a light to enlighten the nations” (Luke 2:32). A Candlemas prayer beseeches the Light of the world “to pour into the hearts of your faithful people the brilliance of your eternal splendor, that we, who by these kindling flames light up this temple to your glory, may have the darkness of our souls dispelled.”
In the northern hemisphere, this celebration of light coincides with the lengthening of days. We’ve all begun to rejoice that the days are starting a little earlier, lasting a little longer. Sceptics who dismiss Christian festivals as hostile takeovers of pagan celebrations miss the point. The truth of the Incarnate Logos as the deep structure of creation does not compete with the patterns and rhythms of nature; it completes them. In Old English, sunne(“sun”) and sunu (“son”) are nearly identical, allowing a perfect theological pun: Christ is both sodfaesta sunnan leoma (“radiance of the true sun”) and sunu soþan fæder (“Son of the true Father”).
An early Anglo-Saxon poem on the winter solstice, beautifully translated by medieval scholar Eleanor Parker, celebrates the return of the light as Christological:
As you, God born of God long ago, Son of the true Father, eternally existed without beginning in the glory of heaven, so your own creation cries with confidence to you now for their needs, that you send that bright sun to us, and come yourself to lighten those who long have lived surrounded by shadows and darkness, here in everlasting night, who, shrouded by sins, have had to endure death’s dark shadow. 
Winter’s cold and dark are not quickly undone. Poised midway between winter solstice and vernal equinox, Candlemas is a transitional feast—the last of winter, the first of spring. It will take time for spring to come: now still contends with not yet. “How long the winter has lasted,” lamented New England poet Jane Kenyon, “—like a Mahler / symphony, or an hour in the dentist’s chair.” My friends in Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska echo this seasonal weariness in their Facebook posts. But for those who are faithful and alert, Candlemas marks the turning point, reawakening the hope that spring is on its way.
Long-term weather forecasts in early February have been going on for centuries, but they always hedge their bets. A sunny Candlemas is but a brief glimpse of future glory, more of a promise than a gift in hand. If the groundhog or the bear emerges from its burrow and sees its shadow, back it goes into hibernation, for spring is still six weeks away. Hope’s object will not be rushed, as traditional wisdom reminds us:
If Candlemas Day is fair and clear, There’ll be two winters in one year. (Scotland)
If Candlemas Day be sunny and warm, Ye may mend yer auld mittens and look for a storm. (Cumbria)
In other words, as T. S. Eliot put it, “wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” But for Ukrainians shivering in the shadow of war; for the homeless huddled in our frigid cities; for the abused and the outcast suffering storms of violence; for African-Americans terrorized by a nation that walks in darkness—Spring can never come soon enough.
Let us keep the feast: Light a candle; Trust the radiance; Become the Spring.
The Menologium, translated from Old English by Eleanor Parker in her fascinating and poetic book, Winters in the World: A Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2022), 88-89. The “five nights” refers to the Anglo-Saxon reckoning of February 6 as the last day of winter before it is “carried out” to make room for spring.
 Jane Kenyon, “Walking Alone in Late Winter,” in Collected Poems (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 77. Personally, I will take Mahler over the dentist every time.
 Charles Kightly, The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain: An Encyclopedia of Living Traditions (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986), 66.
 T.S. Eliot, “East Coker, III” in Four Quartets (1943). The poet goes on to say, “Wait without thought, for you are not yet ready for thought: / So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” Until it fully arrives, God’s future exceeds adequate description and cannot be grasped. The reader will note that this essay’s title is a positive reversal of the opening line of Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.”
The tables outside the cantina were full of beautiful laughing men and women.… Everyone who sat there looked on display, the women in their lovely summer dresses, the men with their hair oiled back on their heads, their tanned bare feet resting proprietorially on top of their Gucci loafers. One wanted to applaud them for presenting such a successful vision of life: you could almost believe they had lived their whole lives, had been reared and groomed from birth, for this one particular night: that this was the pinnacle, this golden summery evening they had all reached simultaneously.
Yet it made me a little sad to see them there, laughing and drinking champagne, for you knew it was all downhill from here.[i]
— Peter Cameron, Andorra
The narrator in Cameron’s novel experiences the “golden summery evening” at the cantina through the lens of his own unhappiness. He has fled a failed life in America for a Mediterranean idyll, but joy continues to elude him. This apparently happy scene of shared human pleasure only deepens his alienation. Unable to join the fun, he judges the beautiful, laughing people for their complacency, their privilege, and their shallow indifference to mortality.
In Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Clarissa Vaughan recalls her own close encounter with happiness, when she made the mistake of thinking it would last.
It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and Clarissa is still somewhat shocked, more than thirty years later, to realize that it was happiness.… What lives undimmed in Clarissa’s mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right there. There has been no other. [ii]
What is happiness? It can be pursued, but can it be possessed? The word is derived from “hap,” an Old English term for fortune or chance—something that happens to us, for good or ill. But “happy” and “happiness” have come to denote only the good things, without the mishaps.
If asked to recall our happiest moments, a multitude of memories would rise to the surface. But if asked whether we are happy now, or living happy lives, how would we answer? The University of Pennsylvania is conducting an online Authentic Happiness Survey, with twenty-four groups of five statements each to measure the presence or absence of happiness. Group 24, for example, offers the following choices:
My life is a bad one.
My life is an OK one.
My life is a good one.
My life is a very good one.
My life is a wonderful one.
The #1 statement in a group is always pretty dismal (I’m usually in a bad mood … I’m pessimistic … I am unhappy with myself … I feel like a failure, etc.) The #5 statement sounds way too good to be true (My life is filled with pleasure … If I were keeping score in life, I would be far ahead … I always get what I want … My life is filled with joy … I could not be happier with myself, etc.).
The majority of my own answers landed in the middle (#3), reflecting a pretty typical mix of highs and lows. I had no #1s, a couple of #2s, six #4s (three due to privilege, three due to personality), and two #5s (“I truly love my work” and “Most of the time I am fascinated by what I am doing”—both of these reflecting a mixture of privilege, personality, and the good fortune of getting to do what I love). My authentic happiness score was 3.46 out of 5. That seems about right for a privileged white male occasionally beset by the minor melancholies of disappointed hopes, both personal and generational.
It was an interesting survey, one of many attempts to grapple with the unhappiness of our times. Currently, the most popular course at Yale is “Psychology and the Good Life,” created by Professor Laurie Santos in response to the mental health crisis among college students, who, she says, are “much more overwhelmed, much more stressed, much more anxious, and much more depressed than they’ve ever been.”
In a survey of Yale students taken before the pandemic, 60% said they had felt “overwhelmingly anxious” sometime during the last year. And 50% reported feeling “completely overwhelmed” in the past week. For many college students, and for Americans in general, “happiness feels increasingly out of reach.” The pandemic, climate change, and the politics of fear and hate have multiplied our sorrows and anxieties almost beyond measure.
According to University of California (Irvine) professor Sonia Lyubomirski, author of The How of Happiness, 50% of one’s happiness is determined by genes, while 40% flows from our thoughts, actions, and attitudes. That leaves only 10% attributable to circumstances, although many people believe that circumstance is the key factor in personal happiness. If I change my job, my home, my partner, I will be happier. Lyubomirski’s numbers assume, of course, that one’s basic needs are being met. For a war zone Ukrainian, a Central American refugee, or a long Covid sufferer, circumstance weighs far more heavily.
Santos’ course, and her ongoing podcast, The Happiness Lab, seek to help people address the more significant 40% factors: thoughts, actions, and attitudes. I’ve only listened to the first episode, but many have testified to the value of her efforts.[iii]
Happiness is a subject of supreme interest. Everyone wants it, but for many it seems in short supply. It’s also hard to define. A century ago, Vita Sackville-West questioned its usefulness as an index for life.
But what was happiness? Had she been happy? That was a strange, clicking word to have coined—meaning something definite to the whole English-speaking race—a strange clicking word with its short vowel and its spitting double p’s, and its pert tip-tilted y at the end, to express in two syllables a whole summary of life. Happy. But one was happy at one moment, unhappy two minutes later, and neither for any good reason; so what did it mean? … Certainly, there had been moments of which one could say: Then, I was happy; and with greater certainty: Then, I was unhappy—when little Robert had lain in his coffin, for instance, strewn with rose petals by his sobbing Syrian nurse—but whole regions had intervened, which were just existence. Absurd to ask of those, had she been happy or unhappy? … No, that was not the question to ask her—not the question to ask anybody. Things were not so simple as all that. [iv]
Well then. Am I happy or unhappy? I have had moments and days when it was indeed bliss to be alive. But what should I say about those intervening regions where the evidence is mixed? Is happiness only an occasional oasis in the desert of ordinary time, or can happiness reside in the barren places as well?
“Small things go a long way,” says Zadie Smith. “All day long I can look forward to a Popsicle. The persistent anxiety that fills the rest of my life is calmed for as long as I have the flavor of something good in my mouth,” [v] Rebecca Solnit, arrested for demonstrating at a nuclear test site in the Nevada desert, said that “even when you’re in handcuffs, the sunset is still beautiful.” [vi]
In The Spiritual Meadow, John Moschos’ seventh-century collection of tales about desert monastics, an elder warns a wayward disciple, “Brother, pay attention to your own soul, for death awaits you and the road to punishment.” The disciple took little heed, and when he died, the elder continued to worry about his fate.
The elder fell to his prayers and said, “Lord Jesus Christ, reveal to me the state of the brother’s soul.” He went into a trance and saw a river of fire with a multitude of people in the fire itself. Right in the middle was the brother, submerged up to his neck. The elder said to him, “Didn’t I warn you to look after your own soul, my child?” And the brother answered, “I thank God, father, that at least my head is spared from the fire. Thanks to your prayers, I am standing on the head of a bishop.” [vii]
Even in hell, small things go a long way! And happiness can turn up anywhere, as poet Jane Kenyon reminds us:
There’s just no accounting for happiness … It comes to the monk in his cell. It comes to the woman sweeping the street with a birch broom, to the child whose mother has passed out from drink. It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker, and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots in the night. [viii]
We are grateful when it comes, and for the memory it leaves. But happiness is more than the occasional perfect moment. It is a practice, a way of being, a fullness of life which transcends the inevitable fluctuations of fortune. Such a practice might be summarized in two words: authenticity and love.
Authenticity is fidelity to your truest self: becoming more and more like the person you have been created and called to be. Sometimes the way is rough and steep. Sometimes you get lost or delayed. But by God’s grace, you embrace the journey. Parker Palmer describes this process as a matter of vocation:
Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” [ix]
Authenticity, then, finds its greatest expression in acts of love. Becoming our truest self takes us beyond our individuality, into the interdependent communion of the Divine Whole. My own happiness cannot be sustainably severed from collective well-being. Happiness, as it turns out, is not a private affair. It is the way of self-diffusive, self-offering love. And until justice and human flourishing are universally shared, the way of love will include suffering. Self-sacrifice for love’s sake can be costly and painful, as Jesus and the saints have shown. Happiness accepts the truth of that. No justice, no peace. But it is also true, as Catherine of Siena said, that “all the way to heaven is heaven.” You don’t have to wait until the end of time for happiness to show up.
“Do not look for rest in any pleasure,” said Thomas Merton, “because you were not created for pleasure; you were created for JOY.” [x] Happy are those with a hungry heart. Happy are those who give themselves away. Happy are those who do not mistake crumbs for the feast. Happy are those who know it’s not just about them. Happy are those who say yes to the gift. Happy are those who yearn for the Divine Beloved. Happy are those who don’t count the cost. Happy are those who love their story.
We think of Saint Francis of Assisi as a joyful saint, but he was also pierced by the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. And he taught that the most perfect joy is to be found neither in worldly things nor in spiritual enjoyments. Nor is perfect joy simply a matter of pleasure, contentment, or delight. This was bewildering and counterintuitive for his brothers, so he explained it this way:
“Imagine coming home to the monastery on a stormy night. We knock on the door, but it is so dark that the surly porter mistakes us for tramps. ‘Go away!’ he shouts. And if we continue to knock and the porter comes out and drives us away with curses and hard blows— and if we bear it patiently and take the insults with joy and love in our hearts. Oh Brother Leo, write down that that is perfect joy! Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ gives to his friends is that of conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations and hardships for the love of Christ.” [xi]
Saint Francis wouldn’t have sold many self-help books, but he knew that happiness unacquainted with suffering and sorrow isn’t the real deal. “If it be sweet, if it be not sweet,” [xii] my story is what I was made for. My story is why I’m here. Happiness is saying yes to the story’s gift with a thankful heart.
When I go back to earth And all my joyous body Puts off the red and white That once had been so proud, If men should pass above With false and feeble pity, My dust will find a voice To answer them aloud:
“Be still, I am content, Take back your poor compassion!— Joy was a flame in me Too steady to destroy. Lithe as a bending reed Loving the storm that sways her— I found more joy in sorrow Than you could find in joy.” [xiii]
— Sara Teasdale, “The Answer”
[i] Peter Cameron, Andorra (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), 149-150.
[ii] Michael Cunningham, The Hours (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1988), 98.
[iii] The statistics and quotes from Santos and Lyubomirsky are found in Adam Sternbergh, “The Case for New York Face,” in Lapham’s Quarterly, Vol. XII, No. 3 (Summer 2019), 81-85. Four times a year, Lapham’s Quarterly presents a marvelous and stimulating collection of writings and images from many periods and sources on a given topic. This issue’s subject is “Happiness.” Sternbergh’s article was originally published in New York Magazine in 2018. Additional quotes from Santos were taken from her podcast, The Happiness Lab, Season 1, Episode 1 (“You Can Change”): https://www.happinesslab.fm
[iv] This excerpt from Sackville-West’s novel, All Passion Spent (1931), is also in the “Happiness” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, p. 139.
[v] Ibid., 134. Smith’s excerpt is from her essay “Joy” (New York Review of Books, Jan. 10, 2013).
[vi] Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
[vii] John Moschos, The Spiritual Meadow (written c. 600), trans. John Wortley (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 1992/2008), 35.
[ix] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 16.
[x] Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (1949), p. 172. Cited in William H. Shannon, Christine M. Bochen, Patrick F. O’Connell, eds., The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 231.
[xi] Adapted from The Little Flowers of St. Francis, 53 chapters on the life of Francis of Assisi written at the end of the 14th century.
[xii] Anne Sexton, “Rowing.” “As the African says, / This is my tale which I have told,/ If it be sweet, if it be not sweet,”/ Take somewhere else and let some return to me.…”
[xiii] Sara Teasdale, “The Answer,” in Christian Wiman, ed., Joy: 100 Poems (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 138.
In the convent of San Marco in Florence, Fra Angelico painted a fresco of the mocking of Christ. The cruelties of Christ’s tormenters are represented as fragments, floating in the space around the white-robed, blindfolded victim: a disembodied head spits at our Lord, a floating hand strikes him with a rod. These fragments are very flat, two-dimensional, as though pasted on the image’s surface. But Christ himself is not restricted to the plane of the image. It projects forward in an illusion of three-dimensionality, into the space occupied by two saints. The suffering Christ emerges from his own time into theirs.
But neither saint is looking at him. They face away from the scene, toward us. The mocking is not something they look at with their physical eyes. It is for them an interior contemplation. And their devotion to the Passion takes two different forms. On the right, St. Dominic, the great intellect and preacher, is looking at a book, open in his lap. The Passion is something he is reading about, and processing in his mind. On the left side, the mother of Jesus, sitting in an attitude of quiet sorrow, has no book. She is apprehending the Passion through the medium of her heart. Dominic is thinking about the suffering of Christ. Mary is feeling it.
On God’s Friday we bring both head and heart to the foot of the cross. We may want to puzzle over the why of it: Why did this have to happen? Why do we keep returning to this bloody act? Why does it matter? Or maybe we just prefer to watch and weep over a mystery beyond all comprehension.
In any case, here we are again, at the foot of the cross. A lot has happened since the last Good Friday—so much suffering, so much struggling, so much dying. We bring all that with us to the cross today, along with our questions, our wounds, our laments. Finding the right words for this strange time is a daunting task.
Wiliam Sloane Coffin, one of the great Christian voices of the twentieth century, once told a young minister not to worry too much about his Holy Week sermon. “Anybody can preach on Good Friday,” he said. “Hell, read the newspaper!”[i]
On Good Friday, 2021, we don’t need a crucifix to remind us of a premature death which should never have happened. We’ve seen it replicated over half a million times in this country alone—worldwide, nearly 3 million times.
We don’t need an ancient form of execution, designed to cause asphyxiation in a sagging body, to remind us of human cruelty. This very week, in a Minneapolis courtroom, a congregation of judge and jury is meditating on the last words—of George Floyd: “I can’t breathe.”
We don’t have to go back 2000 years to learn the story of hatred, violence, and innocent victims. We’ve got Atlanta and Boulder and far too many other examples.
As for the mindless mob shouting “Crucify! Crucify!” in Pilate’s courtyard, we’ve got our own version from January 6th, that epiphany of collective rage by the ones who “know not what they do.”
Yes, we still see crucifixions every day. So why do we keep returning to Golgotha? How is the death of Jesus not like any other? In one sense, it is like every death. In choosing to embrace human experience, to live and die as one of us, the Divine identified completely with our suffering as well as our joy.
Anglican poet Thomas Traherne expressed this truth with 17th-century fluency:
“O Christ, I see thy cross of thorns in every eye, thy bleeding naked wounded body in every soul, thy death lived in every memory. Thy crucified person is embalmed in every affliction, thy pierced feet are bathed in everyone’s tears ….” [ii]
Jesus is not only the icon of God but also the representative human, our “Everyman” and “Everywoman,” who bears our griefs and carries our sorrows. A folksong from back in the day said it this way:
If somehow you could pack up your sorrows, and give them all to me, you would lose them, I know how to use them, give them all to me.[iii]
Why did, and why does, Jesus want to carry the full weight of our human condition? Love. Love so amazing, so divine. God thirsts for us even more than we thirst for God. And as the incarnation of that love, as the divine thirst for communion in human form, Jesus was willing to drink the bitter as well as the sweet.
Why on earth does God desire us so much? It’s not because we’re so easy to love—God knows we’re not. It’s because love is God’s nature, love is who God is. When the eternal self-offering, self-giving, that constitutes the Holy Trinity, got narrowed down into human shape, that loving nature came with it. Jesus loves me, this I know, because Jesus is love incarnate. It’s who Jesus is, and what Jesus does.
And what happens to love in a world gone so wrong? It suffers. Love hurts. On Palm Sunday we sang about “love’s agony, love’s endeavor, love’s expense:”
Drained is love in making full, bound in setting others free; poor in making many rich, weak in giving power to be.
Therefore he who shows us God, helpless hangs upon the tree; and the nails and crown of thorns tell of what God’s love must be.[iv]
Nobody wants to suffer, but it seems to be part of the deal. As Julian of Norwich said in the century of Europe’s most deadly plague:
If there be anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe from falling, I know nothing of it — for it was not shown me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again, we are always held close in one love.[v]
In early 19th century Kentucky, 3 women founded a religious community called the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross. They were dedicated, in their words, “to bring the healing spirit of God into our world.” One of their current sisters, Elaine Prevallet, has written some very helpful words about suffering:
Suffering is always about change — either something needs to change, or something is changing. And changing means letting go of the way things are, the way I know them, the way I have put and held my life together…The idol of control holds out to us the hope that suffering and death can be eliminated. ..That false hope, in turn, has the effect of setting suffering up as an enemy to be avoided at all costs. [But] if we are unwilling to suffer, we are unwilling to love.[vi]
Nobody gets off lightly on God’s Friday, not God, not the world, not us. But we get through, we all get through—it is the way, the only way in this mysterious universe of freedom and risk, dying and rising.
You can do several things with suffering. You can try to avoid it or at least repress your awareness of it. Some people make that their life’s work. But avoiding suffering means you avoid a lot of love and a lot of life. Jesus considered this strategy of avoidance, in the desert Temptation and in the agony of Gethsemane. But that “adamant young man”[vii] chose instead to embrace the consequences of his divine nature and his human vocation.
Another way to deal with suffering is to struggle against its causes, to work for its elimination. As both healer and prophet, Jesus demonstrated this way, even onto death at the hands of the oppressive powers. But like the weeds among the wheat, violence and suffering remain a persistent part of the fabric of creation, despite our best efforts. We do what we can, but suffering remains.
And so we, with Jesus, come to the third way: to undergo suffering as a means, not an end. To see suffering not as life-threatening, but life-giving. Suffering, instead of thwarting God’s purposes, becomes part of the repertoire of salvation. God does not create suffering, but does deal creatively with it. Suffering becomes, in God’s hands, formative rather than destructive. The Passion is not a detour. It is the way. As a recent hymn puts it, God is “wiser than despair.” [viii]
I once read about a Quaker meeting held on Easter Day. The assembled Friends were speaking, as the Spirit moved them, about the Resurrection. Then one woman got up and said that her only son had been killed in a car crash some months before. A chord of shared grief was struck in every heart. We know about that, don’t we, here on Bainbridge Island, thinking about Hannah, Hazel and Marina.[ix] But then this sorrowing mother said, “My heart is broken, but it is broken open—this is my resurrection and my hope.” [x]
To speak of the way of the cross as the way of life is not to deny its pain or its horror—Jesus himself cried out in deep protest from the cross: Why? Why? And the way of the cross is more than a simple homily about building character or learning compassion or awakening our own vocations to relieve the world’s pain where we can. Those are all valuable outcomes of our suffering, but on this day, at the foot of this cross, we must say something deeper and more difficult to grasp.
For this dying man, this Jesus upon the cross, is not just one more victim ground up by the teeth of history. This Jesus “bears in His Heart all wounds”[xi] carries our griefs and our sorrows, carries them into the divine heart, into the deepest place of God. Our pain has become God’s own pain, and however long we must dwell in that Pit where there seems to be suffering without end, God dwells there with us. The One who died abandoned and alone now keeps us company on our own crosses—for as long as it takes.
Jane Kenyon, the poet who died too young of leukemia, knew the truth of this:
The God of curved space, the dry God, is not going to help us, but the son whose blood spattered the hem of his mother’s robe.[xii]
God does not create suffering. But God is the place where all suffering comes to rest. “Give it to me, ” God says. “I can take it. I will transform it.” When our suffering becomes God’s suffering, something new happens. It is no longer the tomb of dead hopes. It is the place of new birth.
How does this happen? How does God bring forth good from evil? How does the cross of Christ make all our crosses into trees of life? How does God turn our abyss into a redemptive journey?
We could discuss theologies of atonement and sacrifice, or reflect upon the spiritual and psychological and social implications of Christ’s death. But on this day, we don’t come to the cross for ideas. We come for love.
In Antonello da Messina’s Crucifixion we see, as in Fra Angelico’s Mocking, two witnesses in the foreground: Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John, the beloved disciple. John is gazing intently at his Crucified Lord, while Mary looks inward, to her pierced heart. For me this image expresses something written by a present-day friend of Jesus, Virginia Stem Owens:
“Good Friday is the day when you can do nothing. Bewailing and lamenting your manifold sins does not in itself make up for them. Scouring your soul in a frenzy of spring cleaning only sterilizes it; it does not give it life. On Good Friday, finally, we are all, mourners and mockers alike, reduced to the same impotence. Someone else is doing the terrible work that gives life to the world.” [xiii]
So here we are, at the foot of the cross on God’s Friday, while Jesus does the terrible work that gives life to the world.
“Give me your pain,” Jesus says. “Give me your sorrow. I will make it the place where your healing begins. I work good in all things. That is my nature. There is nothing that I cannot make into the means of new life.
“Suffering…fear…grief…illness…anger…depression…despair…abandonment…. whatever your burden, give it to me, join your pain to mine, and I promise you: You shall rise up with me.
For there is only one death in the history of the world, and I have made it mine. And there is only one life in God’s universe, and from now until forever it is yours. I give it to you.
“Die with me today…rise with me tomorrow…It is accomplished.”
This sermon may be seen on video in the Liturgy for Good Friday at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church (Bainbridge Island, WA), available on YouTube starting at noon on Good Friday, 2021.The link is here.
[i] Personal reminiscence by Will Willimon, in “Stunned observers: A Conversation between Richard Lischer and Will Willimon, The Christian Century (March 24, 2021), 35.
[ii] Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, i.86.
[iii] Richard Fariña and Paula Marden, “Pack up your sorrows” (1965). I heard Farina and his wife Mimi sing this in concert in my college years. They were local favorites, and I often played their songs on my campus radio show. A promising writer and novelist, Fariña died in a motorcycle accident a year after writing this song. He was 29. To hear the song: https://youtu.be/NHRNqjOcaMM
[iv] W. H. Vanstone, “Morning glory, starlit sky.” This powerful text is set to a beautiful tune, Bingham, by Dorothy Howell Sheets, in The Episcopal Hymnal 1982, #585.
[v] Julian of Norwich, Showings (the Long Text), 14th century.
[vi] Elaine Prevallet, Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life (“Letting Go,” Vol. 12, No. 2, March/April 1997), 14.
[vii] I love Dag Hammarskjöld’s use of adamant, a Greek word for a hard stone or diamond. This term for a resistant substance came to mean “invincible.” Jesus’ refusal to let his love be misshapen by the world makes this an apt adjective for him. I found Hammarskjöld’s phrase in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 163.
[viii] Brian Wren, “Bring many names” (1989): “calmly piercing evil’s new disguises, glad of good surprises, wiser than despair.”
[ix] The tragic death of these three teenagers in an automobile accident last month has deeply shaken my local community.
[xi] The line is from Edith Sitwell’s poem, “Still Falls the Rain.” Written during the bombing of London in 1940, it does not single out the enemy, but laments the collective guilt of a warring humankind. The last lines: “Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man / Was once a child who among beasts has lain—/ ‘Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.’”
[xiii] Virginia Stem Owens, cited in “It Is Done,” a reflection on the Passion by Watchman Nee in Bread and Wine, p. 244. Nee (1903-1972) was a Chinese Christian who spent his final 20 years imprisoned for his faith.