Good Friday 2021 Holy Wisdom Monastery
Isaiah 52:13-53:12; John 19:16-30 Patti La Cross
I suspect that today we approach the cross not only a year older, but humbled – by our own experiences and losses, by the suffering of those we know and those we don’t, and by our growing awareness of the compounding impacts of racism and poverty.
These opening opportunities to worship in person are indeed a boost for the gathered,
and hopefully an encouragement to those who may soon be here.
Wherever we are now, we turn to reflect on this central event of our faith: perhaps with awe, maybe with grief, likely for strength.
But comfort? Not so much.
Neither the Passion, the cross before us, nor the solitary confinement cell down the hill are symbols of comfort.
Today’s readings -Isaiah’s song of the Suffering Servant and John’s Passion – are wrenching depictions of rejection, pain, and death.
For many of us they are familiar and may carry strong emotional weight. However you heard them, a little context might aid your reflection.
The stunning poetry of Isaiah dates to ~ 500-700BCE, the period after the Jewish exile. Its imagery is retrospective to the prophets, servants and communities who were faithful to the God of the Covenant, and crushed by an earlier imperial power. It honors their sacrifice, and finds acceptance for it in terms of atonement for their own transgressions.
Isaiah was written for trauma survivors and their descendants, for believers trying to make sense of the intense and prolonged suffering from which their community had emerged; it was not written inanticipation of a messiah.
Yet, this passage has long found resonance among Christians, especially those undergoing persecution. Christians have read this passage over the past 2000 years as an anticipation of Jesus and his crucifixion, a singular appropriation of the text that ignores the wise and spiritually enlightened figures who helped the People of the Covenant interpret their experience, and move on in trust and openness to God’s presence in their midst.
Specifically, in white American Christian society we also risk taking on an ancient interpretation of vicarious suffering, which wants to find necessity in unjust suffering of some persons for the good of the whole. I started this reflection under a poster of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, during the week of his anniversary of martyrdom. I had a CD of some of his sermons. One was in memory of his fellow priest, Rutilio Grande, who had been killed by Salvadoran soldiers for organizing impoverished farmers. Reflecting on Isaiah 53, Romero told the farmers gathered at the mass: “You are the image of the divine victim, ‘pierced for our offenses.’” He did not say that they nor Grande deserved or should have to bear suffering, nor even that their suffering was redemptive in and of itself. But Romero wanted them to know that God was present with them in the midst of their unjust and undeserved sufferings.
We can also see that since the founding of our nation, white Christians have assigned that suffering to Indigenous, Black, Asian and Brown persons – from every form of slavery; through the building of our railroads to the production of our food. The colonists decreed that someone had to free up the most fertile soil, pick that cotton, lay that track, pick our produce. Where slavery ended, incarceration and its life-long consequences ramped up, so that power would never be shared.
James Cone, Black American Liberation Theologian, wrote of this Isaiah passage: “God in Christ became the Suffering Servant, and thus took the humiliation and suffering of the oppressed into God’s own history.” In Cone’s understanding of the cross, God participates willingly in suffering to form solidarity with the oppressed – not because suffering is in itself good or healing or necessary. For Black American Christians, the Suffering Servant has been a source of comfort during centuries of slavery and the lynching of over 5000 men, women and children before jeering crowds, crowds of White Christians, including ministers. When Mamie Till-Mobley demanded a public viewing for the disfigured corpse of her 14-year old son, Emmett Till in 1955 she said she “wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.”
How could our nation not think then of the Pieta? But they did not. Today, having seen video after posted video of modern day lynchings – mostly at the hands of those hired to “protect and serve” – maybe, finally, we see it. In his final book The Cross and the Lynching Tree James Cone became the first American theologian to unequivocally state that “to reckon with our history of white supremacist violence we must engage with the story of the crucifixion. When we think of Jesus’ cross, we must see its deep connection to the lynching tree. Black artists, poets and musicians had long reflected that truth, but not even Rev. Martin Luther King could go there.
I want to highlight a few of the ways in which John’s account of the Passion diverges from the synoptic Gospels, and what we might take from these differences, What did John want to uplift for his community, and for us? For one, only John insists that Jesus carried the cross by himself. No Simon, Cyrenian of Northern Africa, has been enlisted to support this preacher – he who had been snatched from his prayer, dragged into court for a mock trial by night, and then whipped. Why omit a credible support figure, one believed to have been converted by the experience and known among the early followers? John’s message was not fatalistic. In his Gospel,it is Jesus who asserts power in every moment. Pilate would not rule the day. Jesus would shoulder the cross bar and march unbowed to that Roman execution reserved for insurrectionists, or otherwise threatening Roman supremacy. And he would hang unapologetically between two of them- two of that half of the Roman population who were enslaved. Because yes! he had rebelled against the oppression of his people, his work was for their liberation, and he would see it through.
John also expands the detail of the insignia placed on Jesus’ cross. Only he has Pilate write Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews, and in three languages, as would only have been done for imperial proclamations. Scholar Raymond Brown suggests that with this, Pilate may have flipped the charge made by the chief priests, “and thus ironically made its wording. prophetically true”. The cowardice of those officials’ failure to defend a daring preacher of their own tradition would not have been attractive to Pilate. Pilate recognized the power of Jesus’ courage to take on the Roman occupiers, even as he was indicted by it.
Finally, as he has throughout this Gospel, John is the one evangelist who places a witness of women near Jesus, at the cross. Just before he dies, Jesus instructs his most trusted disciple to assume his role with his own mother. To enfold her into the community of his followers. Raymond Brown concludes this from Jesus’ use of the title Woman over Mother. She, a woman, becomes first in the expansion and diversification of discipleship. From Jesus crucified she is infused with his spirit to carry on the mission. And with this, Jesus’ own mission is completed, and ours begun.
Today we may stop for a few moments into a Solitary Confinement Cell, hear this Passion, approach this Cross. With each we are reminded that the cross of Jesus is not just a symbol of his execution. It is a declaration that in NO MOMENT of our personal or shared pain are we abandoned by a loving God. This is not comfort, but courage to move more fully into the work of God which is liberation.
Liberation theologian Segundo Galilea of Santiago, Chile wrote “There is no spirituality of the Cross, but rather a spirituality of fidelity and discipleship. To follow Jesus in this fidelity to God is the peak of Christianity.
We cannot imagine the suffering of Jesus on the Cross, slaves in the field or hung from a tree in our nation’s past, nor the fear and rage of Black boys and men leaving their homes today. Their lives have meaning to us only when we dedicate ourselves to their liberation and dignity.
We draw strength from the courage of Jesus and a vast cloud of witnesses.
Our comfort comes in community, and in every breakthrough on behalf of justice.
In 8 years of engagement with MOSES – full of setbacks and minor victories – I have seen change. There are fewer people in Solitary – though for those spending time in it the damage is enormous; there are gains in treatment and diversion programming, there are locally fewer people revoked and returned to prisons for minor rule violation. Much work remains, but awareness grows.
Some members of this assembly are working diligently to assure that citizens do not have the power of their vote robbed by gerrymandering. Others have published editorial letters calling out the destructive lies of public officials; many are engaged in study and deep reflection on racism and non-violent communication, or on behalf of our schools.
All of this – and more – is within our commission from the cross, renewed in our prayer, powered by the very Spirit of God. May we persist in our mission, encouraging and supporting one another on the Way.
Simon The Cyrenian Speaks
He never spoke a word to me, And yet He called my name; . He never gave a sign to me, And yet I knew and came. (con’t next page)
At first I said, “I will not bear His cross upon my back; He only seeks to place it there Because my skin is black.”
But He was dying for a dream,
And He was very meek,
And in His eyes there shone a gleam
Men journey far to seek.
It was Himself my pity bought;
I did for Christ alone
What all of Rome could not have wrought
With bruise of lash or stone.
Countée Cullen, 1903-1946; poet of the Harlem Renaissance
In the wake of George Floyd’s lynching, St. Louis artist Kelly Latimore created a powerful icon of a Black mother cradling the body of a Black Jesus. Entitled “Mama”, it now hangs behind the altar at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion, and prints of it in many parishioners’ homes. https://holycommunion.net/icon-mama-by-kelly-latimore/
- Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah Vol.II. (New York, N.Y.Doubleday, 1994)
- Segundo Galilea, Following Jesus (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis,1981)
- James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011).
- Jon Sobrino, Witnesses to the Kingdom: The Martyrs of El Salvador and the Crucified Peoples (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 28-31.