That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Tag: Crucifixion

Tetelestai!

Annunciation-Crucifixion

(Saint John the Baptists, Annunciation, Crucifixion, Saint Catherine of Alexandria,               Francesc Comes, circa 1400)

A Sermon Preached on Good Friday, March 25, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 10:1-25; John 18:1-19:42

May I speak in the Name of Christ Crucified. Amen.

“It is finished.”

Those are the dying words of Jesus.

“It is finished.”

Those words are the key to understanding the meaning of this day.

“It is finished.”

Those words make absolutely no sense in the context of the story we have just heard.

Of course, if all Jesus meant was, “This is done with,” or “This is over,” then we might think that “It is finished” makes perfect sense. And after everything Jesus has been through, who could blame him if what he meant by “It is finished,” was really, “I’ve had enough,” or “I can’t take any more,” or even, “I give up”? Any of those might make sense to us.

But that’s not what Jesus said.

When Christ declares, “It is finished,” he isn’t saying anything like, “This is done with,” or “I give up.” The phrase “It is finished” in the English of our Bibles translates a single word from the original Greek of John’s Gospel: Tetelestai. That word doesn’t carry with it any hint of giving up or quitting or throwing in the towel.

Rather, when Jesus says, “Tetelestai,” and bows his head and gives up his spirit, what he is really saying from the Cross is “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. It is completed.”

Tetelestai!“​

Jesus isn’t saying, “I give up.” Jesus is saying, “I have done it.”1

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.”

Those are the last words of an innocent man who refused the violent rescue-attempt proposed by his friends in the garden; refused to answer the false accusations brought against him; refused to plead his case before the governor who could release him; refused to accept the offer of crude anesthetics meant to dull his pain; and refused to come down from the Cross with divine power and might to answer the cruel jeers of the spiteful crowd.

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.” Those are the dying words of a broken man whose body has been whipped and scourged; whose clothes have been stripped away and gambled off; whose friends have deserted him; whose mother stands weeping for him; whose epitaph, nailed above him while he’s still alive, is a mocking political joke: “This is the King of the Jews!”

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.” This is the last utterance of a faithful man who came to earth that others might have life, and have it more abundantly; of a man who healed the sick and raised the dead; of a man who fed the multitude with a few loaves and a couple of fish; of a man who opened the eyes of the blind and who shut the mouths of the learned; of a man who called God his Father, and tax collectors and sinful women and stupid fishermen his friends; a man who, before this death of agony, asked God to glorify his name, and who heard the voice of God declare in reply, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

Here, hanging upon the Cross of shame, this man declares with his dying breath, “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.”

It doesn’t make any sense. Crucifixion was meant to be an utterly meaningless death. The whole point is that it was pointless. The cross was a tool used for erasing the record of a person’s existence. It was a way, not simply to kill a man, but to wipe him from the rolls of the human race.

How can this death be a fulfillment of anything? How can this death accomplish anything? How can this death be anything but an absolute, unmitigated, irredeemable failure?

Unless, of course, dying a death like this is precisely what Jesus came to do.

“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring and prolong his days.”

“And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

“See, God, I have come to do your will.”

What if the crucifixion were not a hateful, horrible interruption of Christ’s life and ministry? What if the crucifixion were his very reason for being born, and the full completion of his three years’ work?

There’s something special about this Good Friday. Something happens this year that will not happen again until the year 2157. Today is March 25. We are exactly nine months from Christmas Day. Were it not Good Friday, the Church would celebrate this day as the Feast of the Annunciation: the moment of the Incarnation.

This is the day when the Angel Gabriel brought word to a lowly Jewish peasant girl that she would become the mother of the Messiah. This is the day when the Word of God took on flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary his mother. This is the day when God came among us as one of us–and this is the day that he died.

This rare coming together of Good Friday and the Annunciation happens only a few times or so every century. It happened during the lifetime of the poet and priest John Donne. Reflecting on this convergence in 1608, Donne wrote that “This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown / Death and conception in mankind is one.”2

“Death and conception in mankind is one.” From the moment we begin to exist, we are vulnerable to death. This is the sad truth of the human condition. No matter how wise we make ourselves; no matter how wealthy we become; no matter how advanced our technological achievements or vast our information networks; no matter how high we build our walls to keep the enemies out or how deep we dig our vaults to hide away our treasures, we cannot escape death.

That’s the terrible message we read in the silent spread of terrorist networks through the free democracies of the world. That’s the toxic background to the fear-mongering and scapegoating that increasingly characterize our nation’s political life. That’s the source of the brokenness we find in our corrupted institutions and our ineffective systems and our ruined relationships and our endless empty consuming.

And it’s the condition we find at work in our own lives. To be human is to be caught up into the swirling dance of Death and Sin. It is to be dominated by powers beyond our control. It is to be scourged by the whip of our own weaknesses, and to be mocked with the taunts we hurled at others. To be human is to find ourselves hanging upon the Cross of our own hatreds–pierced by the nails of our own pride–stabbed by the spear of our own selfishness. To be human is to wear the thorny crown of our own control–the bloody crown that shows our rejection of God’s will in our lives and our slavery to our own desires and appetites. “Death and conception in mankind is one.”

This day cruelly confronts us with that dark truth.

But in Christ’s declaration of “Tetelestai!”, this day also dares to declare to us another, better truth. For what this “some times and seldom” overlap announces is that the God of all creation has come to pursue us–and he would not stop with simply taking on our nature. His intention was to become fully, completely human, and because “Death and conception in mankind is one”, today we remember that he has pursued us even unto death!

Christ’s purpose was not simply to become a perfect human being aloof and separate from the sins and sorrows and sufferings of our race. But what he begins at the Annunciation when he takes on flesh like ours, he completes in the Crucifixion when he suffers a death like ours.

For the death of agony that Jesus endures on the Cross means that no human agony is now beyond his reach. The death of shame that Christ completes this day means that no shame can now separate us from him. The accursed, ugly, horrible death he died means that God himself has absorbed our curse; God himself has exchanged our ugliness; God himself has faced the horror of death and made it his own.

“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

For what was ours by nature, God took upon himself by grace. What we have deserved for our deeds, Christ has assumed out of his love. What was for us only dissolution and disaster, Jesus has made an achievement and the occasion of our reunion with God. What to us could only be the penalty for disobedience, Christ has redeemed by his perfect obedience.

“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”

And let us, this Good Friday, fix our eyes upon the rough wood of the Cross and say, in unison with our crucified, living Lord, “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. Christ has done it!”

AMEN.

1-I realize that “I have done it,” is not an accurate translation of tetelestai. However, I maintain that it is a theologically and homiletically appropriate rendering.

2-Upon the Annunciation and the Passion Falling upon One Day. 1608

Advertisements

Behold the wood of the Cross, on which was hung the world’s salvation!

A Sermon Preached on Good Friday, April 18, 2014

by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church Greenwich, CT

Texts: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; John 18:1-19:42

Behold the Servant of the Lord! Behold the Man of Sorrows! Behold the Lamb of God!

May I speak in the Name of Christ Crucified. Amen.

On this day, we gather at the foot of the Cross. On this day, we behold the Lord Jesus crucified. “To behold” means more than simply “to see.” Beholding begins with an invitation; an announcement; a revelation. We behold that which has been revealed to us—that which has been given us to behold. And more: when we behold something, we take it to ourselves, we participate in it, we share in it, we grasp it. So what is it that is revealed to us on this day? What do we take and claim and grasp as we go in heart and mind to Calvary? What do we behold when we behold Christ Crucified?

We behold, first, the fullness of Jesus’ humanity. The Nicene Creed tells us that “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Nowhere do we see his fleshly nature so clearly—nowhere do we see his identification with the human condition so completely—as on his Cross. But the bitter irony of this revelation is that the Cross was a tool designed and intended for the awful work of dehumanization. In the practice of crucifixion, we behold all the ingenuity, all the creativity, all the efficiency, and all the efficacy of the mighty, sophisticated, advanced Roman empire applied to the task of destroying a human being.

That was what crucifixion was intended to do. A crucified person ceased to be a person through the process of crucifixion. He was stripped naked and exposed, shamed and humiliated before the face of the world. The crowds that gathered to witness the proceedings gleefully added their taunts and mockeries, heaping scorn upon the hapless head of the pierced victim. The death was slow—agonizingly slow—and made the crucified man his own executioner: it was the hanging weight of the crucified body that would, over the course of many hours (and sometimes many days) constrict the rib-cage, making breathing increasingly difficult, and at last impossible.

And then, after death, the power of crucifixion continued. Ordinarily, crucified bodies would not be removed for burial. They would be left to rot in place, exposed to the elements and the animals—denied even the dignity of a grave. This was a punishment reserved for the very lowest of the low—a punishment for the most degraded and depraved of criminals; a punishment for slaves; a punishment for nobodies. It was a punishment that expunged the record of the crucified’s existence—a punishment that removed him from the rolls of the human race.

All of this, then, is what we behold in the Crucified Christ. We behold Jesus, who cared all his life for the lowly and the least, sharing fully and completely in the depths of their suffering. We behold Jesus, who restored the blind to sight, and raised the lame to walk, and cleansed the lepers, and raised the dead, and preached Good News to the poor, taking unto himself all the whips and scorns of human brokenness, sharing completely with the outcasts, the imperfect, the unacceptable, and the unclean. “He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Christ on the Cross enters into the deepest suffering of the human race. He reveals himself to be present with all those who are despised and rejected; all women and men of sorrows; all who are acquainted with grief.

The significance of this identification—of this complete union with the suffering of human beings—cannot be overlooked. For while the Romans invented and perfected that method of dehumanization called crucifixion, yet the deep drive to dehumanize did not begin or end with the servants of Caesar.

We behold that drive at work all through the long annals of our weary world. We behold the drive to dehumanize this year as we remember the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide: one hundred days of terror in 1994 when perhaps as many as a million Rwandans were slaughtered by their countrymen before the gaze of a largely indifferent world. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the senseless killing of innocents caught in the crossfire of the Syrian Civil War. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the murder of three people at a Jewish Center in Kansas. We behold the drive to dehumanize in our own degraded political discourse, in a system that makes those with opposing viewpoints into evil enemies, and that seeks power and profit over the public good. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the cruel taunts of schoolyard bullies and the careless words of workplace tyrants. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the abuse of spouses and the neglect of children. We behold it on the front page of the New York TImes and we behold it in the silent brokenness of our own hearts.

The forces of dehumanization continue their dark and demonic work, and no member of our race stands beyond their reach. By his crucifixion, Jesus enters into this darkness, this suffering. All of this pain, all of this sorrow, Jesus bear in his body on the Cross. Can we grasp how great a wonder this is? Do we dare behold the glory revealed here? As one hymn puts it, “O mysterious condescending! O abandonment sublime! Very God himself is bearing all the sufferings of time!”

And yet, there is more here to behold. There are greater wonders still to be revealed. For this complete identification with those who are made to suffer is not all we behold when we look upon the crucified Lord. The Cross reveals him to us in the fullness of his humanity, and that fullness goes beyond his identification with the victims of dehumanization. It reaches even to the victimizers.

Hear again these words from Chapter 53 of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” What Isaiah is telling us is not simply that Christ on the Cross reveals to us God’s love and care for the lowly and the sorrowful—all the victims of sin. But Christ on the Cross also reveals to us God’s willing self-offering for the guilty and the guileful, the warped and the wicked, the erring and the evil, the delinquent and the damned—for all the perpetrators of sin.

But who are the guilty? Who are “the perpetrators of sin”? When you hear that phrase, does your mind immediately conjure up the image of a certain person or group? Mine does. I think of the people I’ve read about in the paper—the people who are obviously guilty, who deserve punishment, who have done wicked things. I think of people I know who can’t seem to get it together, who can’t seem to straighten their lives out, who can’t seem to pick themselves up. I think of folks who are different from me, folks I disagree with, folks who have hurt me or hindered me, folks I don’t like or don’t understand. When I hear that phrase “perpetrators of sin,” I immediately—immediately!—begin to label and to judge, to place some people within that guilty group, all the while numbering myself and my friends among the ranks of the righteous.

And by that mental process, through that inner sense of judgment and self-righteousness, Behold! I recognize the drive to dehumanize at work in me. I see my own power to deny and degrade the image of God in others. I see my own cavernous capacity for cruelty. I see my own willingness to draw boundaries, to exclude, to despise, and to reject. “He was wounded for our transgressions.” And who were the perpetrators? “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee.”

On the Cross, Christ bears the pain of the sinned against, and the penalty due the sinner. On the Cross, Christ embraces both our brokenness and our ability to break; our pain and our power to cause pain; our sorrow and our sin. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to see revealed—and to claim—the fullness of his humanity, and ours. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to see in one body all the pain and all the sin of the human race: both the sins that you and I have suffered, and the sins that you and I have committed.

And it is to behold one thing more. For the Cross does not reveal the humanity of Christ only: it reveals his divinity as well. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to glimpse and know, and receive, and claim the self-giving love of Almighty God. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to behold God’s love not for the righteous, but for sinners. Paul the Apostle said it in this way: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against him.” “He made him to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This is the Lord’s doing, beloved, and it is marvelous in our eyes!

This instrument of torture, this mark of our misery, this banner of our brokenness, this sign of Sin’s power, this declaration of Death’s grip, has become an announcement of the Love of God! It has become the symbol of our triumph. For by this Cross, God has come to find his lost creation. By this Cross, the Good Shepherd has come to seek his straying and wandering sheep. By this Cross, the King of Glory has come to claim his power and reign. By this Cross, the Creator of the world has come to renew his dead and dying creation. By this Cross, “for our atonement, while we nothing heeded, God interceded.”

I said at the beginning of this sermon that beholding means more than seeing. As you gaze upon this Cross today, may you indeed behold the form of Christ Crucified. May you behold here the fullness of his humanity and yours: the brokenness of this world and the brokenness of your own heart. But even more, may you behold here the love of God that will not let you go. May you behold here the love that comes to seek you, even you, in the depths of your sorrow and in the darkness of your sins. On this Good Friday, may you behold and be held by those arms of love stretched out on the hard wood of the Cross, drawing all the world to himself.

AMEN.

A Funeral Sermon for Christmastide

This sermon was preached at the funeral of a parishioner who died suddenly on Christmas Day. I have removed all references specific to the deceased, and share it as a theological reflection on a painful juxtaposition: a death in Christmastide. 

A Sermon Preached at a Funeral on the Eleventh Day of Christmas, January 4, 2013

by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; Romans 8:14-19, 34-35, 37-39; John 6:37-40

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

It is a hard thing to lose someone we love—someone who loved us. It is always hard—hard at any age, at any time of life. But to lose someone suddenly, unexpectedly, and too soon: the pain cuts deeper, and the sense of loss is more pronounced. The front cover of our bulletin today says “A worship service to give thanks for and celebrate the life of N.N.” That’s what our funeral bulletins always say. But it’s not quite right, is it? Yes, the time will come when we give thanks. The time will come when we can celebrate N.‘s life. But now—while the shock and pain of his passing are still so fresh—we may well find that grief overwhelms thanksgiving, and mourning hobbles any sense of celebration.

Dear people, I say all this at the outset not to be depressing or morose, but because I know that we face enormous cultural pressure to keep a stiff upper lip, to “remember the good times”, to hold all thoughts of sorrow and sadness at bay. But for so many gathered here today, the reality of grief is present and potent. It may not always look the same or feel the same for every person. Sometimes grief is raw and overpowering, stealing upon us suddenly and unexpectedly at the smell of a favorite food, or perhaps when a favorite song comes on the radio. Sometimes, grief leaves us numb—unable, it would seem, to feel anything; uncertain where to turn, or what to do. Sometimes, grief makes us angry: angry at N. for dying when he did; angry at the powers that made his last years such a struggle; angry at God for so afflicting him, and so afflicting us.

Beloved, I name all these things—and there are many, many other ways in which grief and mourning reveal themselves in our lives—in order that you may be honest with yourselves and with one another. Do not turn away from the reality of your pain, even—perhaps especially—if you feel nothing right now. Do not be forced onto someone else’s timetable for healing, or society’s published schedule for closure. Grief must run its course. For it is a hard thing to lose someone we love—someone who loved us. And what comfort we can find this day can come only when we face death head on.

The readings from the Bible that we have heard this morning recognize this fact. The promise of Isaiah—that “On this mountain, the Lord will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the pall that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever”—is meaningful only if we face death for what it is: a veil spread over us all—a reproach common to our human family. The balm of Isaiah—that “the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth”—is soothing only if we give ourselves space to grieve: time to cry our tears, to gnash our teeth against the death’s near-approach.

Or consider Paul’s great assurance in the Epistle to the Romans—his powerful assertion that “I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to revealed to us.” Those words would be an empty boast, if not for the fact that Paul himself knew what it was to endure terrible suffering; Paul himself knew what it was to struggle against powers stronger than he was; Paul himself knew what it was to lose friends, to see relationships broken, to stare into the face of death itself.

Even the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel—the promise that “I will raise them up on the last day,”—would not make any sense or have any meaning if Jesus treated death as a mere illusion: something to “get over”, something to scurry past as fast as possible, something to sweep under the rug. Beloved, the truth is that Holy Scripture this morning invites us to grieve. It invites us to sit in our numbness for a while. It invites us to be angry, to shake our fists at the heavens, to demand answers of the Almighty.

So let us come with our whispered questions and our shouted questions; let us come with our angry questions and our weeping questions. We come asking why some should be made to suffer and struggle against forces too great for themselves. We come asking why some should be made to face terrible disease, and why others should be made to bear the weight and cost of that enormous burden. We come asking why some are left here to mourn, while others are taken before their time.

We come, we put our questions to the heavens, and we strain our ears to hear the answer we feared would come: silence.

But then—when we have exhausted ourselves in questioning and wondering and weeping—out of the silence, the tiny cry of a helpless child rises to meet us. Dear people, tomorrow is the last day of Christmas. Tomorrow is the Twelfth Day of the Feast that began on December 25—the very day that N. departed this mortal life. What we celebrate for these Twelve Days is not the trappings or the tinsel—not the gifts or the garland. What we celebrate for twelve long days in the deep, dark, cold of winter, is that God has come among us as one of us. The sound of the baby Jesus keening in the manger is the assurance of God’s presence with us in our grief.

We do not hear answers to the bitter questions that trouble and torment us. What we hear, instead—in this season of Christmas and all our lives long—is the sound of God himself weeping with us in our sorrows. We are not given justifications and explanations written in the stars above. What we see, instead, is the same steady, unwavering star that led the Wise Men to kneel at the edge of a cradle. Beloved, what we receive is not an assurance that God will this moment end all our suffering; that God will this instant heal our afflictions; that God will immediately mend all our brokenness; that this life will be easy; that things will make sense. What we receive, instead, is Jesus hanging upon the Cross.

There, on the Cross of Calvary, he shares our deepest suffering. There, he shows himself to be with us through our most bitter afflictions. There, he takes upon himself all of our brokenness—whatever form it assumes; however it harms us, however it burdens those we love. On the Cross of Calvary, the promise of this Christmas season is made complete: though life troubles us and death grieves us, our Lord Jesus is with us in the very depths, never to leave us nor forsake us, certain to “lose nothing of all that [the Father] has given [him].” And in the bright light of the empty tomb on Easter morning, the God who came to dwell with us, to share in our sorrows and to stand in our pain, at last puts an end to sorrow and pain, Sin and Death, forever.

In Christ’s triumph, therefore, we commend N. to the care and keeping of God our Father. Free forever from every force that would bind and subdue him, may he share forever in the eternal victory of the One who is the Resurrection and the Life: even Jesus Christ our Lord. And may we, and all of those who are left to mourn and to grieve, cast our cares upon him—may we “hang upon him who hangs upon the Cross,” that he may “raise [us] up on the Last Day.”

AMEN.