Sermon for Good Friday – Solemn Liturgy of the Passion & Veneration of the Cross Friday 18 April 2014
Sermon preached by Bishop John Flack
GOOD FRIDAY LITURGY, 18 APRIL 2014
In Peterborough Cathedral there hangs a huge crucifix, suspended from the roof at the entrance to the Chancel. It was designed in 1970 by the Cathedral Architect, George Pace. At the foot of the Cross is a Latin inscription STAT CRUX DUM VOLVITUR ORBIS. The Cathedral guidebook wrongly translates this as “The Cross stands still while the world turns” but a more accurate translation is “The Cross stands still while the world IS TURNED” making God the force which establishes the Cross and turns the world. This quotation is from the writings of St Bernard of Clairvaux, and the point he is making is that the Cross stands still in the middle of a busy, bustling world – a world that is endlessly on the move. The Cross is a still point in our lives, a focus, always in view, and our God is the cause of it all.
Because the Cross is a still point, we can journey towards it. We do this liturgically in the worship of Holy Week, especially today on Good Friday. We also journey towards the cross when we take part in the devotion known as “The Stations of the Cross” as we journey with Jesus along the road to Calvary. On our journey to the Cross we become PILGRIMS, taking part in a sacred journey to a holy destination.
Particular virtues are required of PILGRIMS. I shall never forget an American Cardinal in Rome speaking to a group of pilgrims from his native New York. He asked them what the difference was between pilgrims and tourists. Then he answered his own question “pilgrims” he said “don’t complain”. We must follow the Cross without complaint if we want to enter the experience of Christ’s Passion.
Over the centuries many people have written about their personal experience of journeying to the Cross. Thomas a Kempis, the 14 cent author of “The Imitation of Christ” wrote that “If you bear the Cross gladly it will bear you” (sadly this became a children’s hymn bowdlerised as “Gladly the cross-eyed bear”) but the notion of the Cross “bearing” us is deeply resonant. John Donne, English poet and priest (at the end of his life Dean of St Pauls Cathedral) wrote to his people “there we leave you in that blessed dependency to hang upon him who hangs on the Cross” echoing Thomas a Kempis. William Penn, founder of the Quakers in the 17 cent, and also the founder of the American state of Pennsylvania, wrote this of his journey to the Cross “no pain, no palm : no thorns no throne : no gall, no glory : no cross, no crown”.
Best of all, our journey to the Cross is wonderfully expressed in the words of the nonconformist hymn-writer Isaac Watts
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died
My richest gain I count but lost
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Watts is such a good hymn-writer because he is subjective – he uses the first person singular “when I survey” “my richest gain” – examining in moving poetry what the Cross means to me and to you, and how it stands still in the middle of our busy lives. So we can gaze on it as we offer our whole lives in response:
Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an offering far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
You should have the words of this hymn somewhere near you throughout this day.
If you are a Christian you cannot ignore the Cross, for it stands between us and God, as William Bright puts it in one of our best known Communion hymns:
For lo, between our sins and their reward
We set the Passion of thy Son, Our Lord.
The Christian life should always be seen through the lens of the Cross.
And thank goodness that this is true, because it is through the Cross that we are promised forgiveness now, a new start in this life and eternal life in the next.
May the Cross of Jesus be a personal and corporate experience for us this Good Friday, so that we don’t forget it for the rest of the year.
One final point. You will have noticed that in my addresses this week I’ve quoted from Pope Francis and Cardinal Newman, both Roman Catholics : from John Donne, Frances Alexander and William Walsham How, all Anglicans: and from the nonconformist Isaac Watts and the Quaker William Penn. The Cross is a great unifying force for Christians of all traditions. May we pray that if all of us follow the Cross we might soon be united under its banner.
One of the first ecumenists was the wild and eccentric curate of Horbury in West Yorkshire, Sabine Baring Gould. He led the first united outdoor Procession of Witness on Good Friday 1866. He wrote a hymn for them to sing:
Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war
With the Cross of Jesus going on before.
Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane
But the Cross of Jesus constant will remain
On this Good Friday, in company with Watts, Newman, Walsham How, Baring Gould and countless others, let us stand before that still Cross, ready to follow Him always with hearts and minds (to quote St Paul) “sorrowful yet always rejoicing”.