Friday, 22 April 2011

Good Friday: Sleeping and Waking

As you can imagine I spend a lot of time in this building – leading worship, preparing, tidying up, just sitting and thinking. You’d think I would know it really well, but there is always something new to spot, and I noticed something recently which had somehow passed me by before. It was a detail in our East Window here, something which the artist who made it clearly intended to be significant.

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The window tells the story of Holy Week – the Garden of Gethsemane, the crucifixion, the burial and the resurrection. But it is far more than a simple storyboard – the detail I noticed confirms that. It is in this bottom layer of the picture. In the bottom left panel you have the three sleeping disciples. Jesus has asked them to stay awake and watch with him on the night before he dies, but they just can’t. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, says the Gospel.

In the bottom right panel, though, you have three other figures – neatly mirroring them – who are also either asleep or just waking. These are the guards who’ve been set to watch the tomb. The artist shows them being woken, with a shock, as Jesus bursts from it. The artist is telling us something about sleeping and waking here.

There’s an implied criticism in both these panels. The disciples shouldn’t have slept. All Jesus wanted was a bit of company – someone to be there with him and for him at this moment of great anguish. The guards certainly shouldn’t have slept, and I’m sure they would have been in trouble for doing so.

Yet the reality is that everyone is asleep, says this window, oblivious to the great events that are unfolding around them, missing it all somehow. The Gospel reading we’ve just heard confirms that. No one really seems to have a clue what is going on, or if they do they aren’t awake enough to care, and the result is that Jesus is cast into that apparently final “sleep” of death. We see his burial in the middle panel.

There is an appalling carelessness and thoughtlessness about this story. The chief priests are asleep not only to Jesus’ suffering, but also to Judas’ last minute repentance. When he tries to return their blood money they just shrug. “What is it to us?” they say.

Pilate makes a half-hearted attempt to do justice, but in the end decides he can’t be bothered, and literally washes his hands of the whole business. The soldiers abuse Jesus, the crowds mock him without any thought that he might actually be the king, the messiah, the names they taunt him with. They don’t even have their eyes open enough to see that he is a human being like themselves; if they did, they could never treat him as they do. To them he is no more than a worthless victim.

And the disciples? Where are they? Apart from the women, who watch from a distance, they are nowhere to be found. They are keeping their heads down – I bet some of them really are asleep, trying to blot the whole thing out.

Everyone is oblivious, asleep – literally, emotionally or spiritually.
“Wake up!” we want to say to all these sleep-walkers. “Wake up and see what is happening among you!” But they can’t hear us and perhaps that’s just as well, because they might turn round to us and ask whether we would have done any better, whether we do do any better, in fact, because there is no shortage of people suffering the effects of casual cruelty, thoughtlessness and carelessness today; anonymous martyrs in conflicts not of their own making, people whose longing for justice puts them in the firing line, and those whose plight is simply overlooked because we are too busy to notice them.

This story of the death of this innocent man makes us aware of our failure to act, our failure to notice, our tendency to close our eyes and sleep when reality gets too troublesome. However we dress it up in fine music and dignified words, this is a squalid story of a humiliating death, which should make us all feel ashamed and at least a bit grubby, not just for what happened then, but for what happens now as well.

And yet Christians call this day Good Friday, not Bad Friday. We proclaim that on this day, somehow, everything changes for those who are prepared to let it. Christians have come up with many different ways of explaining that, using many different images, speculating on the metaphysical mechanics of the crucifixion, but in the end all that we can say for certain is that this death matters; it transforms those who witness it. Even those careless soldiers say at the end, “this man was God’s son”, and countless others through the centuries have found themselves changed as they encounter this overwhelming act of love and commitment. We see a man refusing to turn back from the inevitable consequence of the message he preaches, allowing himself to be pinned down, helpless, allowing himself to be overcome by the utter powerlessness of death, trusting that somehow his Father God is in this, and that though he sleeps in death, God’s eyes will never close for a moment. Jesus may not know what God will do, but he knows he is safe in his hands, which willl be working for good, even when he can do nothing himself.

Our stained glass artist tells us this too. He has painted the hand of God high up in the window above the cross – you have to look to find it, but it is there, a reminder that he is still at work, reaching down into the half-asleep, chaotic, deathly muddle of the world.

The liberating power of the cross is its proclamation that God is not defeated by our uselessness. Christian faith does not begin with well-meaning activism. It does not start with what we do for God, for others and ourselves. It starts with what God does for us, forgiving us, healing us, helping us when we are powerless to act for ourselves. It starts when we are fast asleep and helpless.

And oddly, when we learn to trust that truth, we often find that is the moment when we begin to wake up; to wake to God, to wake to ourselves, to wake to the needs of those around us, so that we can live with the fullness of life for which we were made.


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