Death is a dividing line, a before and after. And in some families the death brings not only the passing and absence of the individual, but it also breaks open family bonds. Fault lines and rifts that ran between parent and child, brother and sister, are exposed, and the cracks are widened. But in other families, death is a time when families draw together, when the differences seem small in comparison to what is shared and valued and cherished, and so funerals can be a time when ties of blood and relationship are renewed. And often, there is some of each – separation and renewal, a reconfiguring of family relationships.
This happened at Jesus’ death. Those who he had gathered around him over the course of three years of mission and travel and ministry, the ones he had called his brothers and sisters because they did the will of God, the hand-picked family with whom he had celebrated his last Passover meal, all forsook him and fled at his arrest in the Garden – all the disciples cut and ran. Peter tip-toed around the edges of the commotion at the high priest’s house, but he still denied knowing Jesus. And Judas…Judas went and hanged himself after his betrayal. The incredible fear and stress and confusion of Jesus’ arrest and torture and death took their toll on the very center of the new community that Jesus was calling into being. They were divided, scattered, rent asunder.
And that’s what sin does: it divides us, separates us, breaks us apart – from God, from one another, from our true and best selves. That is always so – in our hearts and in human society, and on any given day and in any particular year we can see all-too-clearly the effects of human sin that produces the ugly and destructive fruit of violence, of hatred, of greed and broken relationships. The most recent example on the world stage is, of course, the bombings in Brussels where cowardice, hatred, alienation, and despair formed a toxic mix that literally exploded into the crowds going about their morning travel and routines, causing death, injury, chaos, and fear. It all leads to greater separation, greater isolation, an escalation of forces not easily controlled.
Jesus took all of that to the Cross with him – not only the age-old sin of humanity, and the brutality of the Roman occupying force in Jerusalem, but also our sin - here and now. Those things that we do, those things that we fail to do, the violence and fear and hatefulness of our own age – all were nailed to the Cross, even when we have a very difficult time seeing that. Jesus took all those forces of evil that do their damnedest to separate us from God and from each other with him to the tomb. And because we are Christians, we know the end of the story…or rather, the new beginning of the story: that God in Christ took on sin and death and won.
But even in the agony of Crucifixion, Jesus did not forget his followers, those who were to be the newly-configured People of God, the new family. There were a very small few who managed to follow him to Golgatha – his mother, and Mary Magdalene, and his aunt, and the Beloved Disciple. Jesus gave Mary into the disciple’s care – tradition tells us he was John – and he declared them now to be mother and son to each other.
For Mary it must have been especially bitter to witness the death of her son, the one to whom she said “Yes” when the Angel Gabriel first spoke to her: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus…he will be called Son of God.” Those words must have been echoing in her soul as she watched her son say “It is finished” and breathe his last – the whole scope of his life in those two phrases.
Through one of those chances of the calendar this Good Friday is March 25th, the date that is usually reserved for the Feast of the Annunciation. This convergence only happened three times in the past century, and only twice in this century, and it won’t happen again for more than a hundred years. The image of Jesus’ beginning and end being marked on the same day speaks to the fullness of God’s purposes. It was often assumed in the ancient world that a person died on the date of their conception, making full the circle of life. This year we see starkly that Jesus’ life has indeed come full circle – his mother there at his very beginning, and at his earthly end.
Death pulled the disciples’ all apart from each other, but Jesus’ resurrection would draw them back together, would give them strength, and courage, and new life, and (ultimately) the power of the Spirit to take Jesus’ mission and message to the ends of the earth. The new family of God’s People, of which Mary and the Beloved Disciple were a building block, grew to include you and me, and all those who have followed Jesus down through the ages, and those who will yet know and follow him, and find in him wholeness and salvation, the Risen and life-giving Lord. We are the family of God, the Body of Christ, the Lord’s own People. Let us hold fast to Jesus and to each other, especially in the midst of the world’s sorrow and suffering and death.
Let us pray.
O Jesus, mirror of truth, symbol of unity, link of charity, call to mind the torn flesh of your body, reddened by your spilled blood. In memory of your rent body, O Savior, teach us to live in unity and godly love with all for whom you suffered and bled. Amen.
~ St. Brigit
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
March 25, 2016