GOOD FRIDAY 2019
IN THE CROSS OF CHRIST I GLORY
John Bowring was one of the most remarkable men of his day. He was one of the greatest linguists who ever lived, able to speak more than 100 different languages. He was also an economist, politician and a prolific writer and poet. In the 1850s he was appointed governor of the colony of Hong Kong.
But the thing he’s best remembered for is a hymn he wrote after witnessing the after-effects of a cyclone that devastated Macau. The one thing still standing amidst the ruins was the huge bronze cross that had stood atop the cathedral. The words of the hymn he wrote, based on St Paul’s words: ‘far be it from me to glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,’ are inscribed on his tombstone and still sung throughout the world each Easter. The words are: ‘In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time.’
The image of the Cross is the great symbol of Christianity. Why it should be so is, in some ways, rather strange; because the cross, in its day, symbolised something so horrible that writers of that time rarely spoke of it. The revulsion that people felt for it was probably why the early Christians did not use the Cross as their symbol; rather they used the sign of the fish, which, in Greek, is the word ichthus, speltusing the first letters of the phrase: Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour.
It was only later, after the use of crucifixion had ceased, that the image of the Cross became the universal symbol of Christianity. It did so for 2 reasons: 1st. to show in Jesus’ suffering just how far God would go to bring about our reconciliation; 2nd. In the symbol of an empty cross to declare Jesus’ resurrection and that he has triumphed over death,and so shall we if His Spirit is in us.
Throughout the ages, the image that most people have had of God is either that of a vengeful judge, a capricious tyrant, or an impersonal force that is so far removed from us as to not even know we exist.
But what Jesus taught is that God is a loving father whose love knows no bounds. And the supreme demonstration of that love is that, in a way infinitely beyond our ability to really understand, God sent his son to suffer the very essence of what damnation is – total alienation from God – so that the way might be opened for us to return to him. The symbol of that love, ever since, has been the Cross.
For many the idea that God’s wrath is averted by the sacrifice of his own son seems illogical at best and barbaric at worst. Yet the Bible says that Jesus suffered on our behalf: ‘he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.’
In this way Jesus’ death on the Cross was the fulfilment of the Old Testament’s sacrificial system whereby the guilt of those offering the sacrifice was symbolically transferred to the animal. Jesus thus became the perfect sacrifice; ‘the righteous for the unrighteous that he might bring us to God.’
Yet many still ask why God had to exact a penalty anyway; why couldn’t He just pardon us like we petition foreign heads of state to pardon young Australians caught smuggling drugs.
There is a depth of meaning in Christ’s death that defies all our attempts to define it – particularly in the words: ‘He who knew no sin was made to be sin for us.’ But whatever interpretations we may give to the meaning of Jesus’ death on the Cross – and there are quite a number – there is one great truth that stands over and above them all: Jesus, in his life and death, was showing us that there is no limit to the love of God, and no matter what the human race might try to do to Him, He will never stop loving them – even when those, like the religious leaders of Israel, who were supposed to be His supreme representatives on earth, turn against Him and subject Him to the most horrible form of execution ever devised in the evil mind of man.
Leslie Weatherhead captured the power of it in a story he told about a small boy whose parents were at their wits end because he was uncontrollable and nothing they did seemed to change his behaviour. Eventually they bought him a puppy to see if that might help.
One day, while trying to teach the puppy to do some tricks, the boy flew into a rage and kicked it hard in the mouth. The little dog, with blood pouring from the wound, then tried to perform the trick before creeping over to him and licking his face.
The boy broke into tears and rushed inside, threw his arms around his mother and sobbed out his shame. Where threats and cajoling had failed, the power of suffering love had finally broken through.
But no human illustration can fully explain the mystery of the Cross, except to highlight the truth that it is the ultimate expression of the power of suffering love, and has changed the hearts of even the most hardened of people, so thatno matter what they might once have thought of the Cross, now they glory in it.
On that first Good Friday the Bible records that for 3 hours darkness covered the scene at Calvary where Jesus hung on the Cross. Then at about 3 pm, Jesus, having hung in torment for 6 hours, cried out, ‘My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?’
Most of us have wondered at some time why he said that. After all, he was the one who had predicted his own death and had said that these things had to be in order to fulfil God’s plan. So why did he seem to lose sight of this just at the moment when he was actually fulfilling it?
Well, one thing life has taught me is that when people are hurting badly, they don’t usually react theologically. In the calm atmosphere of a Bible study group it is easy to pontificate on the meaning of suffering and what the appropriate response should be. But in the midst of the fire and the anguish, people only know their pain.
Speaking of Jesus, the Bible says, ‘Surely he has born our griefs and carried our sorrows. . .’As he hung on the Cross, he plumbed the deepest extremities of human suffering. Throughout his life he’d shared the experiences common to us all. In his earliest years he’d been a refugee, hunted and forced to flee to a foreign land by a brutal dictator. As a young boy he returned to his native land to grow up part of an oppressed race. While still quite young he became the family breadwinner and knew what it was to work hard for little gain. Then, at the age of 30, he became a travelling preacher, with no income, no home and many hardships. Finally, he became the victim of a kangaroo court, beatings, a terrible flogging and a slow, agonizing death; abandoned even by his friends – absolutely alone. Finally, the greatest torment of all; the sense of being abandoned even by God.
Referring to this the Book of Hebrews says: ‘Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested…’ meaning that no matter what our pain may be, no matter what loss we may have suffered, Jesus knows how we feel because he has been there too; which is why the Bible says he is able to help those who suffer. And no matter who we are or what we may go through, if we have faith in him, we, like multitudes before us, will find in him a friend who sticks closer than a brother and promises to be with us always.
St Augustine said: ‘He became what we are so that we might become what he is.’ Another reason why in the Cross of Christ we glory.
And so it is that this Good Friday, as we look out on a society that appears increasingly to have abandoned whatever vestiges of Christian faith it previously had, we here affirm once again that we are ‘not ashamed of the gospel – The message of the Cross of Christ -for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes’. And no matter what the enemies of Christ may do or say, the image of the Cross stands fast, ‘towering o’er the wrecks of time.’
Watching the scenes from Notre Dame these past few days, and seeing those images of the cross still standing and shining amidst the rubble, reminded me of that other powerful illustration of this on that day we now refer to as 9/11 - the 11thof September 2001. One of the most striking images of Ground Zero– the site of the World Trade Towers destroyed that day – is that of The Ground Zero Cross.
Frank Silecchia, a rescue worker, was the first to see it. He found a Catholic Priest, Father Brian Jordan, who was there as an emergency services chaplain, and said: ‘Father, do you want to see God’s house; look over there.’
The priest and a group of rescue workers followed Frank to a six metre cross made of two steel supporting beams, the only thing standing upright in the midst of the rubble. There, amidst the ruins of what had been the symbol of economic power, stood the cross, the symbol of faith.
It is now part of the National Memorial to 9/11; and stands as a reminder that though empires rise and fall, the one symbol that will stand for ever is the Cross by which we are reconciled to God, and in which we will for ever glory.