“He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death.”
Christian speaks these words in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. During this holy week we gather to reflect and to pray on the sacred mystery of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. “He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death.”
Today, Good Friday, we focus on the sorrow and the death. But, ever in the midst of our sorrowful contemplation of our wounded Lord hanging from the cross, our hearts cannot lose sight of the glory that is to come. For St. John tells us, at the very beginning of the story of Jesus, that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
When it is dark, here at the monastery, we monks gather to pray Compline. Every night, just before we go to sleep, we pray together these words: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” Intimate words of trust and commitment of our lives to God, and to his gracious providence.
They are words we have learned from Jesus, who, as his life drew to an end, hanging on that cross as the darkness gathered, made that perfect offering and oblation of his life to the Father. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Jesus, even at the darkest moment, never lost trust in the loving purposes of God.
And when we say those words, every day – and they are wonderful words for us all to say every night before we go to bed – we can make a similar act of letting go, of placing our lives in God’s hands. In this way, with Jesus as our model, we may, as our Rule puts it, “practice for the final letting go of dying, so that it will be less strange and terrifying for us.”
After a lifetime of surrender and offering to God, Jesus makes the final commitment of himself in death. And this is something we can all pray that we will be able to make. There was perhaps something rather important being said in the old prayer book litany, when we prayed that we should be delivered from “sudden death;” that is, death unprepared for, a too-easy guest.
“He hath given me life by his death,” says Christian. And so would St. Francis speak of “Sister Death” because she was for him no unwelcome companion. He lived constantly with the reality of death’s impending presence. She held no horror for him.
It is said of Pope John XXIII, good Pope John, that as he lay dying in 1963 of a rather terrible form of stomach cancer, he told his secretary, “My bags are packed and I am ready to go.” For him, there was a journey to be made, into the darkness, but also through the darkness and out into the light. “He hath given me life by his death.”
We too can face death without terror. For the Christian, death is no enemy to be feared. Christ on the cross, offered his life in faith and trust to the Father. “Into your hands I commend my spirit” – and God raised Jesus from death, to live forever.
And we too are called to follow Jesus through the darkness of death, and beyond into eternal life and light, when in that lovely phrase of St. Peter in his second letter, “the day dawns, and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
When you come up in a moment to venerate the cross, as you kneel or bow down, offer your life again to God your Father who knows you and loves you and has redeemed you by the cross of his Son – the wondrous cross, which for each of us, has opened the gate of eternal life.
When I was chaplain at St. Francis Hospice in Berkhasiled near London, and subsequently had the privilege, as a parish priest, to sit with men and women in their final hours and moments, making prayers of commitment of them to God, I found these simple words of Tagore sustaining, “Death is not extinguishing the light, but putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”
That surely is our greatest hope in Jesus: that however dark the day, even as dark as Good Friday, we can look in confidence and trust to the cross. “For he hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death.”
The reality of that truth will become especially vivid in this chapel and in churches all over the world early on the first day of the week. We will find ourselves at first shrouded in the black darkness of Jesus’ cross and death. But we know that the day will dawn, that the bells will ring, and that the morning star shall rise in our hearts. All that we do today, this Good Friday, is because of that dawn which is a little while away. However dark the night, nothing can extinguish the hope in our hearts.
In Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian is weighed down by the burden of sin and the fear of death. In his pilgrimage he seeks a way to be rid of his burden. In the most marvelous passage we read,
“He came to a place, somewhat ascending, and upon that place stood a cross, and just as he came up to the cross, the burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his shoulders and fell from off his back, and tumbled down and down, until it came to the mouth of the sepulcher, where it fell in and I saw it no more. Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, ‘He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death.’ Then he stood still a while to look and wonder, for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked and looked again, until the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks. Then Christian gave three leaps of joy and went on his way singing.”
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