Accepting Mercy

Accepting Mercy

Good Friday. Fr Peter Harries preaches on the liturgy of Good Friday.

The liturgy of the church on Good Friday has four parts. First we read the passion of Jesus in John’s Gospel. Next we intercede for the Church and the world. Then we venerate the Cross. Finally we receive Holy Communion.

On Good Friday we always read John’s account of the Passion. We don’t read Luke and hear about the repentant thief. We don’t read Matthew and hear about the death of Judas Iscariot. We don’t read Mark and hear about the young man running away naked from Gethsemane.

But we do hear that when Jesus is confronted by Judas and the soldiers at Gethsemane, he says ‘I am he’. We do hear at the trial before Pilate that Jesus is indeed a king. We do hear of the soldier piercing Jesus’s side with a spear, and that blood and water pour out.

At Gethsemane Jesus says ‘I am he’. At a mundane level Jesus is identifying himself to the soldiers. But remember, the name Jesus means ‘Saviour’. And also remember that the form ‘I am…’ hints at Jesus being divine, because God identified himself to Moses in the burning bush in this same format. So at a profound level Jesus at the very moment of his betrayal is asserting to those who wish to destroy him that he is the divine Saviour. Jesus on trial before Pilate, when asked if he is a king replies ‘You say I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’. Jesus is the king of the world.

This is the time for showing the great contrast between truth and falsehood. This is the time for recognizing who Jesus truly is. The soldiers fall away from the divine Saviour. Pilate perceives dimly that Jesus really is, somehow, a king, but unable to accept this logic, weakly hands him over to be crucified as a threat to the current political setup.

Peter is caught up in this moment of revelation. Initially it just does not match his previous expectations. His world, his hopes, all collapse. Peter flees, but then regaining some courage, tries to be near Jesus during his trial, to help in some unknown way. On the Cross, the soldier’s spear pierces Jesus’s side. The flowing blood and water – though the medics will tell us that the clear fluid was not actually water – point to the new Christian community, the Church, formed by divine mercy. Blood and water – Jesus’s redeeming blood and the redeeming water of our own baptism, by both of which we are saved.

Matthew told us the story of the death of Judas Iscariot, that Judas unlike Peter cannot accept the possibility of divine mercy. This encourages us that we can be like Peter, like the other ten apostles, and choose to welcome divine mercy. Mark’s story of the young man fleeing naked from Gethsemane reminds us that we, like that young man, have often fled from truth and love, and that we have given in to fear and lack of integrity in our lives. Yet we can imitate Peter, we can ask for and receive divine mercy. Luke’s story of the repentant thief reminds us that whatever our past, we can ask in confidence for the ever-abundant mercy of God.

Our response to listening once again this Good Friday to the story of divine mercy, the story of Jesus’s passion and death, should be to confirm and deepen our choice of truth, of love, of beauty, of justice. This we do in three ways today: first, we pray solemnly for the world and all its many needs, and for those who govern us that they may rule well; we pray for the Church, for the Pope and our bishop that they may lead us in our choice of truth well; we pray especially for those being baptized this Eastertide, those making this choice of truth and salvation publicly now for the first time.

Secondly, we venerate a cross which symbolized how Jesus suffered and died for us. Our suffering and our pain are bound up in the whole divine drama of the salvation of the world.

Finally we receive the Body of Jesus, broken for us and our salvation as Holy Communion, and so once again are mystically united not only with Jesus’s suffering and death, but also his promise of resurrection and new life. We receive God’s strength to carry on living in hope.

Readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12|Hebrews 4:14-16,5:7-9|John 18:1-19:42

fr. Peter Harries is chaplain to the University College London Hospitals NHS Trust.