Background: This past weekend our local paper carried the story of a large congregation which withdrew support for several local service agencies, citing the participation of certain groups in their social programs as unacceptable to them. They stopped support for the local rescue mission, because three Muslim students were allowed to volunteer on Christmas day to serve meals at the mission (as Jews have done for years so Christians could be with their families), and withdrew from other agencies because of Catholic participation. The following day the pastor acknowledge dthis as a mistake, asked his congregation for forgiveness, and pledged to resume support for some of the agencies.
Last Sunday’s Charlotte Observer quoted the distinguished English poet W. H. Auden as saying that Good Friday (like Auschwitz) is such a horrible reality that it cannot be a subject for poetry.
Auden’s opinion is understandable, but hardly accurate.
An equally distinguished English poet, T. S. Eliot, did in fact write about Good Friday in the third part of his classic Four Quartets.
In East Coker, written amid the horrors of World War II and the bombing of London, Eliot pictured God as a “wounded surgeon” plying the steel that is meant to heal, and sees the whole earth as a hospital where our spiritual health is being restored. The healing process involves the experience of a spiritual death, the “chill (which) ascends from feet to knees”, and makes us “quake in frigid purgatorial fires of which the flame is roses …”
Eliot himself described the dying and healing pictured in East Coker as “the heart of the matter”, and the blood and flesh of Jesus’ death, offered on the cross and depicted in the Holy Communion, as the key to our recovery … roses emerging out of the fire.
The dripping flesh our only drink
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood –
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
“We call this Friday good.”
And how can such a bloody passion be called good? Because, says Eliot, using the language of poetry rather than theology, the event of Jesus’ death exposes the illusions of our own goodness (that placid belief that underneath “we are sound”), and reveals to us “beneath the bleeding hands … the sharp compassion of the healer’s art.”
Human evil and divine mercy both are seen in the cross in all the horror of the one and the wonder of the other. There, the Scripture testifies, God took the worst thing ever done by us – the rejection of his gift of love and life – and turned it into the best thing ever done for us – the securing and offer of freedom from the guilt and power of our sin.
The cross is a great reversal. I thought of this reversal when I read that the pastor of one of our large churches had reversed a decision to withdraw support from several social agencies because of the involvement of other religious groups in these aid programs. He asked forgiveness for a decision which made the church appear “holier than thou.”
I am thankful for this pastor’s courage; admitting a mistake is never easy. How much healthier our world will be when as a nation or a church, or as members of a family, we can admit when we are wrong, and ask and give forgiveness.
It is the “Amazing Grace” of the cross, sung in the old hymn, that opens the door to penitence, a change of heart, and new beginning.
But the symbol of the cross – the “wounded surgeon’s” scalpel – has to probe even deeper into our lives if we are truly to be healed.
As a friend of mine once said, to become a Christian you have to admit at least once in your life that you are wrong! But for some people that’s the last time they ever admit it. “Some ‘conversions’” he said, “are just a switch of hostilities”! So we may change sides but not get changed hearts!
I think this is often because we as Christians have too shallow and narrow an idea of salvation. The gospel is not just “Accept Jesus and have your sins forgiven so you can go to heaven.” It is that, thank God! But it is much more. The good news is not only that Jesus died for our sins but that he wants to live in us to change us profoundly into people who are learning to love as God has loved us! And that process is long and painful!
The steel, as Eliot put it, must go deeper still to “question the distempered part.”
The incident of the local church has caused a stir, brought some change, and may pass. But Good Friday should raise the ongoing question: what distempered part of me – of our own church or community – of our own hearts – needs to be changed?
On the morning of September 11 an event took place in New York City that did not make any headlines amid the horror of that day.
A prayer breakfast was held at the United Nations, addressed by the distinguished theologian Miraslov Wolf of Yale Divinity School. Wolf was on a train going back to New Haven when he heard the news of the attack.
It is more than ironic … truly symbolic … that Wolf came to the United States from his native Croatia, where he had taught for years amid the hatred and hostility of the Balkans, where Catholic and Orthodox, Christians and Muslims, were caught up in the war of religion against religion, culture versus culture.
Wolf was invited to speak to the U.N. prayer breakfast as author of his widely acclaimed book Exclusion or Embrace – a powerful and passionate call for followers of Christ to be reconcilers in a broken world.
Two and a half years later we who say we follow Christ are being asked again whether the cross is a sign of exclusion or embrace.
And if – aware once again of how Jesus’ cross reveals our own most grievous sin, and receiving again God’s free offer of grace – we truly accept the call to be reconciling ambassadors for Christ, then with all of our shortcomings we can
in spite of that, call this Friday good!