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Powerful Truths & Ineffable Mysteries – Br. Keith Nelson

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Br. Keith Nelson

John 18:1—19:42
Good Friday 

I.

“It is finished.”[i]

Logically, there should be no more to say. “It is finished.” The altar is naked, the flame extinguished, the holy water dried up. 

And yet, we linger here  where powerful truths have been expressed and ineffable mysteries suggested.

II.

The Truth: that the Love of God risks everything, forsakes all sense, abandons natural order, acts contrary to human expectation. We read in this truth the voluntary self-gift of God’s only-begotten Son “into the hands of sinners” that he fashioned from clay. 

And the Truth: that the Love of God can – and shall – convert every instrument of death that cruel humans can invent into a key that opens the door to Life. We read this truth in the Cross that bore his Body. 

And the Truth: that the Love of God endures the worst imaginable suffering. Through this, not in spite of this, as a ray of light pierces the darkest storm cloud, God’s glory is made manifest. We read this truth in the flesh of Jesus Christ: beaten, bleeding, broken, dying…drawing all people to himself.

“What is Truth?,” Pilate asks.[ii]These Truths are not self-evident. The world mocks them, hungry only for perspectives and opinions. Thirst for this kind of Truth is an acquired taste. With each sip we are ushered deeper into the bosom of Mystery, “the deep dimension of life where meaning dwells.”[iii]

We cannot gaze at mystery directly, but we can participate in it sacramentally, and we can discern its outline by a kind of loving interrogation. 

So a would-be, participant-interrogator would be right to say: 

I trustthat the body of Jesus was given for me. But how is his body related to my body? and

I trustthat Jesus suffered on my behalf. But how is his suffering connected to my suffering?

and

I trustthat something changed foreverwhen Jesus died. But what does his death mean for me and my death?

To this loving interrogator, perhaps the Jesus we meet in this liturgy might say from the cross:

It is good that you are here in the body. There are some who live their whole lives two feet away from the body I have bestowed and blessed

It is good that you have brought your suffering with you. There are some who would hide their suffering from my gaze, as if I cannot see it, as if it has not already broken my heart.

It is good that you have brought the awareness of your mortality, or the memory of one you love but see no longer, or the way you are dying right now. Such thoughts prepare you for your final letting go into my arms.

On the third day, bring thesethree companions with you to my tomb.

Contemplative liturgy is work for the whole person. Your body, your suffering, and your knowledge of death are wise guides and gatekeepers. Listen to them. Listen: as prayer flows into your ears and over your tongue; as your knees and forehead press marble floors polished smooth by our forebears; as you honor the Cross with outstretched fingers or lips formed into a kiss; as your eyes close in bright sorrow or melt in a baptism of tears; as you leave in silence and the night air, caressing your neck, lifts every tiny hair on end. Listen as the body of Jesus, the suffering of Jesus, and the death of Jesus cry out for Love’s return, the Love that only you can give him.

III. 

To the participant interrogator at the foot of the cross, I offer one more mystery.

We have been misguided. We have inherited a prevalent illusion: that we are primarily individual selves whose personhood ends with the enclosure of our own skin. This is a lonely and exceedingly modern prison, not of God’s design, but the world’s. The Christians of the ancient and medieval world knew with an embodied knowing that we are primarily selves held in a matrix of continuity, a mystical solidarity.[iv]I do not mean merely what we would call interdependence. I mean a subtle, living, and unbreakable medium of which each human life across time and space is one irreproducible icon. Our forebears knew that we are formed from the same essential substance – “the dust of the earth” formed by God’s hand and inbreathed by God’s breath.[v]It is this shared substance – manifest materially as our flesh – which God has taken to himself forever in the Incarnation, the enfleshment, of Jesus Christ. 

In this most primordial, most elemental stuff, the suffering Love of the Savior was poured out. And like a cloth whose uncountable threads are dyed the same rich color, the death-unto-life of our Baptism soaks us through with this Love to the last fiber forever.

IV.

The experience of separation from one another and from God is especially acute in this chapter of the human journey, but it is not new. Jesus’s first followers tasted it in the final hours of his earthly life. As the warp and weft of their common cloth grew taut and began to tear, Jesus looked down from the cross and saw two:

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother.’[vi]

In his suffering Love, Jesus bestows a parting gift that, in the space between these two, becomes a binding agent. Though its full potential remains to be seen in the glory of his risen body, this binding agent is essentially complete. It is a love that keeps the fabric of humanity whole by harkening to an indissoluble bond. Jesus entrusts these two to one another at the moment that all other bonds are coming apart. Perhaps he names and frames as sacred a bond that had already come to be. As Jesus entrusts his own life to his Father in heaven, he entrusts us to one another at this hour. 

This is not the first time a man and a woman have stood beneath a tree. Across the long arc of scriptural history, the image is unambiguous. As Adam and Eve stood beneath the tree in that first garden, so the Mother of God and the Beloved Disciple stand at the foot of the cross. Where the tragic estrangement alien to our nature once took root, the triumphant union God has always intended is planted in its place. Though “wonderfully created,” we shall be “more wonderfully restored” by the seedling that falls into the earth and dies.[vii]That seedling is his precious body. And yours and mine. 

V.

Though it is twisted and winding and often invisible, a thread weaves its way between you and I, the God of Love and the sin and sorrow of the world. The man on the cross is the Weaver, and the cross itself is the Loom. Powerful truths and ineffable mysteries: Our bodies and his. Our suffering and his. Our dying and his. Warp and weft: over, under, and through.


[i]John 19:30.

[ii]John 18:38. 

[iii]Mark McIntosh, Mysteries of Faith, p. 2.

[iv]For insights on this, see Sarah Jane Boss, Mary, pp. 22-25. 

[v]Genesis 2:7.

[vi]John 19:26-27.

[vii]Collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day, Book of Common Prayer

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