A YouGov poll this year found that only 50% of people associate Easter with Jesus. If you are under 24 that drops to under 44%. The most important event of the year is reduced to a double bank holiday, Easter eggs, and sports events. For many on Good Friday, the Cross of Christ is so far in the distance it can no longer be seen. National news media call this weekend the ‘Great Easter getaway’, as over 1 million people travel from Heathrow airport, and 26 million people get away by car.
We have gathered here today on Good Friday, to draw closer to the cross of Christ. To bring it from the distant to up close. Maybe like me, you have been so preoccupied with work and family, and the affairs of life, that you find yourself suddenly - here. How did we get from Christmas to Easter this year? The speed of life dragging, pushing, us through another year. Or falling headlong through a new year, with advent in our rearview mirror. Christmas behind us and suddenly the Cross and Easter right in front of us.
We sing that song, ‘At the foot of the cross’. We want to be close to Christ, to come to his cross daily. Yet so often his Cross is in the distance. This year, have we been at the foot of His cross, captivated by Christ, listening to every word he has for us? Or perhaps you are like me. The cross is something so often in the distance, something to return to, as life so often pulls us away? The calendar brings us back around to the Cross. As you return this morning, where did you start your journey? Was the cross close, is it a long journey you make this morning? In your mind's eye, if the Spirit showed you where the cross is, is it small, is it large, is it close or far? For me the cross is large, on the Horizon, always visible, gigantic in scale, but I find it all too easy to carry on and live as it was not really there.
I think it is afar because it is so strange.
Chocolate eggs, sports and public holidays are far closer and more comforting. The brutal execution of the Son of God, on a rubbish dump, is hard to look forward to, stay close to. It is so ‘alien’ to the aspirations of everyday life.
A few years ago I got close to a rubbish dump in a slum in Kenya. 1.2 million people within 2.5 square miles. Here everyday life is full of HIV, AIDS, income less than $1 a day, rape, assault, illness, and where 1 in 5 children die before age 5. No toilets, no water, no beds, no schools.
That slum looms large in my memory. It was so utterly alien and harrowing. But the rubbish dump for this slum was even more so. I cannot describe it, but I will try. Standing at the foot of what seemed like a mountain of the waste from that place. Dead everything, all rot, and decay. I retched and gagged when I was told part of what I could smell included decomposing cadavers. This place in plain sight was big enough to see from miles around. It was on the edge of the slum, those compressed into living there, seeking as much distance as they could from this necessary place.
As I stood at the foot of this mountain of decay, my mind's eye, engaged in reflection and prayer, imagined the crucifixion placed on top of it. The upright of the cross plunged all the way through the heap of putrescence. Rooted in it, it’s shadow in the noonday sun, making the sign of the cross over it, stretching towards the slum beside it. And at that moment Christ beckoned me to the foot of His cross. Yet to get to there, would be to wade through that detritus. I shivered in the sweltering heat in revulsion at the thought. The Cross of Christ was similarly located next to the rubbish heap of a city. Golgotha, the place of regular executions was next to Gehenna, where rubbish and bodies were dumped outside the city.
When I am tired, weary, overwhelmed, I want to get away. To withdraw to my study, my motorbike and the Kent countryside, a few days rest on holiday. To meet Jesus someplace beautiful, restful, preferably with wifi and fresh coffee. I meet the risen Jesus away over there, while his cross is somewhere else, behind me. In my mind's eye as I escape, and look back to what I want respite from, his cross is there, planted in the centre of all I am overwhelmed by.
So on Good Friday, we remember the cross and move towards it. We draw close to where we do not want to go to. Everything in our lives, everything in this world that we would rather escape. Every fear, every loss, every pain, every anxiety. How can this be good, looking at all the bad, piled up high? If I begin to review the execrable of my life, I fear it will overwhelm me. But worse than this, the cross of Christ is not mine alone, it is His, and it is shared with others. The way to the foot of the cross is piled high with your rubbish and decay as well as mine. Now, I really do want to escape, to get on my motorbike and ride out into the countryside and fresh air.
I read the gospels and wonder why were the disciples not there, at the foot of the cross, the greatest moment in history. Why did they not cling to the cross, stay as close as possible, as Jesus Christ poured out everything he had and all that he was for them? The gospel writers tell us little about the cross, or their thoughts as they stood before it. It’s as if they were so overwhelmed with it, the emotions, blood, sweat, urine, excrement, tears and immensity of it, that all they can report is the bare facts. This is how people who face traumatic events describe things, in clinical detail. An emotional distance kicks in to protect minds and souls that cannot fully enter into a traumatic experience but instead observe at a safe distance.
For at that moment, all the pain and loss, the death and decay of all who are and all who will be, was placed on Him. Everything in my life that makes me wonder where God is, everything in life that separates any person from God, in its ugliness, and decay was translated upon and around him.
No wonder Christ struggling to breathe said ‘God my God why have you forsaken me’?
The cross was not just a once in history thing, 2,000 years ago. It continues to sit in the centre of and around everything that would separate us and others from God.
And yes Easter Sunday is coming. But….
…the way and the door to that Easter Sunday is not by escaping, but by another route. It is by participation. By coming close to all we want to avoid, to wade through the things we are numb to and sometimes can only describe in partial detail. To stop turning away, and instead to turn towards, and climb over the rubbish and decay of our lives and others. To arrive and sit at the foot of the cross and ask “God my god why have you forsaken me too?”
Then to wait with Him as we watch life ebb from his body, as all that takes the life from our lives, ends his. To struggle to hear him whisper with his last tormented breath, ‘It is finished. Then to and sit and stay and wait, and see what happens next.
Good Friday Service Reflection 30th March 2018.