Isiah 52.13-53.12 Hebrews 4.14-16, 5.7-9 PASSION according to St John
Wood is a natural substance; at one time, most of the earth was populated by trees. They are vital to the well-being of the planet, a life-giving part of the eco-system, as we have learnt at our cost over the last few decades as we have experienced the results of the ravages of deforestation across the world. From time immemorial, humankind has burnt wood to keep warm, and has harnessed it to create all sorts of items, from houses to baby’s cradles, ships to furniture, carts and carriages to eating and drinking vessels – the list is endless. And who hasn’t found a piece of driftwood on the seashore and marvelled at its inherent beauty and shape?
Our Lord knew all about wood; he was trained as a carpenter at his earthly father’s knee to work with God’s most versatile of materials, human skills to produce items of usefulness or decoration…and here on Good Friday, we remember the cruel wood, the wood of the cross, on which he was nailed, lifted up and left to die in agony, crying out in thirst, sour wine on his lips and his final words, It is finished.
Working with wood is a skilled job; to the craftsman, it is slow and painstaking work. There is a sense of purpose, sawing, planing, chiselling, turning, smoothing and varnishing, until he can say, It’s finished and gaze on a thing of beauty. One of my most prized possessions is a small carved wooden figure of Our Lady, Madonna and child, carved from wood excavated at Ephesus, where Christ’s mother, as our gospel tells us, lived out her days with St John. It is a link right back down through the generations, and given to me when I was ordained – a sign of God’s infinite creativity and generosity, a new life begun, a new order.
As Christ dies on the cross, earth and heaven meet. His broken body, life ebbing away, is fastened onto the rough wood and as the earthiness of the cross becomes the instrument of death, so it also gives new life, life not in dead wood, but life in abundance, life which is God’s gift in creation, glorious life from ignominious death. For the divine nature of Christ overcomes the earthiness. The cry of accomplishment It is finished is not just the physical death of the body, it is the accomplishment of God’s purposes, and in that cry, at the moment of death, a tiny seed stirs into life, to remain dormant for three days while the wood of the cross, its job done, falls away.
The It is finished of St John’s gospel carries within it a deep sense of the cross as a victory; it is the moment this magnificent gospel has been leading up to, the fulfilment of God’s plan to overcome the darkness of the world. Christ’s life has already been one of victory, walking among us full of grace and truth, among his own people who received him not. Now on the cross, he gives himself in unreserved love, dedication and obedience to God and to the needs of the world. Throughout the gospel, Christ has been firmly and undeniably in control – and never more so than in the meeting with Pontius Pilate, so graphically re-told in John, power on earth and power in heaven clashing, and Pilate defeated – and knowing it – by the sheer force of God’s inexorable plan rolling on. And Christ, far from being passive, is active in his Passion. It is his actions, the things he says and does, which allow God’s action to flow through the world.
Rowan Williams comments: The cross is the seal on a particular kind of life, a life which has turned away from violence, manipulation, domination; a life in which the Son of Man is there not to be served but to serve, a life in which the very act of God is made flesh and blood in a vulnerable human being…..The life that began in the womb of Mary, which is worked out in the ministry in Galilee, which is apparently ended on the cross, which is released again in the resurrection – it’s one thing, one story.
And this is why, as Christians, we gather together on this sombre afternoon, not to shy away from its awfulness, but to gaze on the wood of the cross, to embrace it as Our Lord did, to venerate it as the God-given means by which his purpose is fulfilled. And all this is never to deny the pain, the agony, the horror, the desperate, desperate human story of a good man suffering and dying horrifically, alone, abandoned by those he came to save; for just as in our everyday lives we experience suffering, sorrow, cruelty, agony, the shadow-side of the human condition, so in lifting up the cross we show our one-ness with Christ, our own earthiness, reconciled for all time with his glorious divinity. Christ’s suffering is our suffering, his compassion our compassion, his death our death – and his rising our assurance of God’s infinite love and mercy, his grace and truth revealed on this portentous day.
Behold the wood of the cross, on which was hung the Saviour of the world. Amen.