Tenebrae, lament and tears

tenebraeThis evening our wee church will be having what has become an annual Tenebrae Service (‘Service of Shadows’)

I’ve found it a very moving and powerful way of reflecting on the passion of Christ and am grateful to those who got us started some years ago. It’s structured around a liturgy of music, Scripture, silence and a gradual extinguishing of lighted candles after each reading. It ends in darkness when the lit Christ candle is carried out of the room and people leave in silence.

The scripture readings focus on the betrayal, arrest, suffering and death of Jesus, and on the cross as the climatic fulfilment of God’s redemptive purposes.

There are few places within low-church Protestant and evangelical spirituality for silent reflection together on the suffering love of the Messiah. Perhaps this is one reason why Tenebrae makes such an impact each year.

There are perhaps even fewer places for lament, and perhaps even tears, in the songs we sing, in the busy Sunday services we have, and in the activist lives we lead.

What place does lament, and perhaps tears, have for you at Easter?

Tears perhaps of gratitude & wonder at the self-giving character of God?

Or perhaps tears of repentance?

Or perhaps tears for the sacrificial suffering of the innocent One?  “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9)

Or perhaps tears at the brutal apparent finality of the enemy that is death?

Or tears at the brokenness, violence and systemic injustice of the world we live in?

But when that Christ candle leaves the room in darkness, it is not extinguished ….

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Sundays in Mark (68) Jesus forsaken

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

We’ve reached one of the most famous and most debated and most preached couple of verses in the Gospel of Mark.

At noon, the brightest part of the day, the sun darkens for three hours. The darkness is a sign of the immense spiritual and eschatological signficance of what is unfolding on the cross.

Darkness was associated with the original Passover, a sign of God’s judgement and of death. Does Jesus’ cry of desolation in the midst of the darkness reveal his experience of God’s judgement and of death? And in doing so his cry reveals the unfathomable depth of the passion of the Christ?

Jesus’ cry echoes the words of Psalm 22:1, yet are spoken in Aramaic. I’ve heard all sorts of interpretations of these verses.

– Jesus loses hope and dies a failure on the cross. Like Albert Schweitzer’s idea of Jesus as a radical but failed apocalyptic Messiah.

– Jesus didn’t really feel forsaken, his cry is more an affirmation of faith in his Father looking beyond death to the resurrection.

But the words in Psalm 22 are of a desperate cry for help for the righteous sufferer. Mark has made clear the impending horror of the cross and Jesus’ full awareness of what lay ahead. He has come to give his life ‘a ransom for many’. His death will be substitionary, representative and involves bearing other’s judgement for sin t0 effect liberation, freedom and forgiveness.

I think we need to be cautious about how far we can press these verses to speak to the depth of trinitarian relationships between Father and Son being ‘severed’. But Jesus endures and experiences the curse and judgement of death (Deut21:23) which separates him in some awful way from the presence of his Father. The sinless one dies a death that is not his to endure.

He dies your death and mine.

And in doing so, his desolation is real. His pain is real. His death is real.

And it is in that very historical reality that Christian hope is rooted.   

The Death of Jesus

33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

A wondrous paradox

The good news begins on Easter Sunday – or better, the good news is revealed to the disciples on Easter Sunday. The good news was always ‘there’ in that it is the good news of the goodness and love of God acting to put all things beautifully right in the most astonishing and unpredictable way imaginable. The entire biblical narrative up to this point is all part of the good news of God’s redemptive and healing purposes for a broken creation and broken lives.

But before the resurrection that astonishing good news remained hidden, obscure, partially understood and glimpsed only a few. A crucified and raised Messiah was definitely not part of Jewish expectation.

Without resurrection there is of course no gospel. The resurrection of Jesus changes everything. It reveals what was previously hidden. It vindicates the Lord of Glory. It makes clear the astonishing secret mystery of the redemptive plan of the Triune God. It utterly changes the disciples’ interpretation of the cross from a place of finality, death and hopelessness, to a place of new beginnings, life and future hope.

1 Cor 2:6-8 “We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory”.

The resurrection evidences the victory of God won at the cross over all powers opposed to his good purposes for his creation. Death, sin, Satan, the powers – all are dealt a crushing blow. And with that victory, Jesus is exalted to his rightful place by the power of God …

“which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” (Eph 1:2-23)

So this Easter Sunday is a day of celebration and thanksgiving, of worship and adoration of the triune God. A God who does the unexpected. A God who delights in wondrous paradoxes. A paradox of the God-man, Jesus Christ, born in obscurity; a paradox of a humble rejected servant-king; a paradox of victory won in apparent defeat …. and a continuing paradox that Christians are called to live in the tension between the certainty of that utter victory, the everyday reality of sin, failure and injustice, and the hope of the age to come.

So, what do you make of the wondrous paradox of this Easter Sunday?

Cross words

The first ‘Good Friday’ was a day of death, despair and desolation.

Easter Saturday shows us life with the cross as the final word – a life of grief, hopelessness and guilt.

And this is why Easter speaks right into the angst and struggle of our lives. Jesus said he came not for the ‘healthy’ but for the ‘sick’. Not for the proudly self-sufficient but for those who recognise their need. And Easter shows us how God himself enters that guilt, hopelessness and despair in order to embrace it and overcome it.

Few saw the connection more clearly between the cross and its power to face head on the brokenness of humanity than Martin Luther. Here’s a quote for today from a chapter by Mark Thompson on ‘Luther on Despair’ in the book The Consolations of Theology

Martin Luther was a man who knew despair from the inside and knew it in a remarkably intense way. He did not try to explain it away or dress it up or pretend it wasn’t real. Yet he realised that true theology, a proper understanding of God and his purposes, provides the only genuine and effective counter to despair. The living God is not the impersonal executor of cosmic justice. Rather, the intensity of his involvement with us in the midst of our selfishness and preversity is seen in the gift of his Son.

I love those last two lines.

What are your thoughts on this Good Friday?