The reading set today from St John's Gospel is all too familiar to us. Even as we hear the first verses, we already know how it is going to end, we know the steps in the sequence, and perhaps also you can't help but notice how heavily symbolised and formal John's version of the arrest and execution of Jesus sounds. Everything in the sequence of events is made to serve the Gospel writer's main purpose – to show that this terrible event and this gruesome fate is foreknown by Jesus and is part of God's plan. Everything moves towards that end with a sense of inevitability, even a sort of artificial theatricality as – for example – the one who betrays him fulfils his preordained role according to Jesus' advance knowledge, and even the soldiers who come to arrest Jesus fall down in awe before him. The Roman governor, Pilate, who successfully ruled the most difficult province in the ancient Empire with an iron fist for 12 years is somewhat incredibly portrayed in St John's account as a weak and vacillating man. The whole story shows a Jesus who – in contrast to Mark's grittier and more terrifying version - is serenely in control of everything that happens.
And we read it, as St John intends, also aware that the appalling events of this day lead, ultimately, to the vindication and power of Easter Day.
And yet – the death of Jesus, which stands like the eye of the storm at the centre of our faith, is a real death. The suffering that leads up to it is as real and as agonising as any of the multiple forms of torture devised by human ingenuity before or since, every bit as agonising as stomach cancer or third degree burns, the stench of terror and the dull depression of grief that pervades this story is as real and as human as any of the experiences that we ourselves live through – and that is where its power lies. This death sanctifies our own deaths, the deaths of those we love and the death that we all must one day endure. This grief and this physical agony makes holy the agony and grief and guilt that interweaves our human experience and from which we try unsuccessfully to shield ourselves. The vulnerability of Jesus' human flesh that we witness today being lacerated and broken reminds us uncomfortably of the frailty and the ultimate mortality of our own bodies – the silent distress of the mother of Jesus bears home to us the memory or the anticipation of bereavement. We emerge from today's service, into the bright autumn sunshine, aware that the grief that has been touched is personal to us, aware that something in us has been made holy, sanctified if still unavoidable, the cost of created existence.
We Christians fall too easily into the temptation to slip past Good Friday, to prematurely proclaim the resurrection and close our eyes to block out the scene of suffering and death that reminds us all too uncomfortably of our own. Yet if we do that, if we leave the place of human suffering and death in the too-hard basket, we fail to acknowledge or accept the grace of healing for our own long-avoided or fearfully anticipated losses. So our burden today is to bracket out the resurrection and grieve with the women at the foot of the cross, to sit in that unimaginable and yet inevitable place we recognise with a jolt of fear – that place where the death is most intimate and personal – our own.
One of the most avoided messages of Good Friday, I think, is this. That death is not the enemy, but the way of all life. As evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould puts it, death is the engine of life. Or as the Celtic saint and mystic Columba expresses it, death is the place of my resurrection. It is the path given to, and freely embraced by Jesus and the path that we ourselves must follow with open eyes, if we are to truly live.
Some decades ago, researcher Elizabeth Kübler-Ross wrote about what she described as the stages of death and dying – the path followed by terminal patients and those who love and care for them. It was, I suppose, a modern, medicalised version of the Ars Moriendi – the medieval art of dying that flowered in the shadow of the Black Death and instructed those near death on how to pray and what to expect. Kübler -Ross, like all stage theorists, has been heavily critiqued in the decades since her research. We understand a bit better now, the fact that the 'stages' are flexible and blurry and even optional. But it occurs to me, today, to seek an understanding of the story of the final hours of Jesus' life through the lens of the cycle of grief.
The first stage, Kübler -Ross informs us, is denial. 'This isn't happening. Not to me'. It's a temporary defence, at best, until the body instructs us otherwise. Peter demonstrates it beautifully, the 'rock' of our faith that turns out to be a bit shaky. 'No. Don't know him. Jesus who?' Of course this is a situation of chaos and danger, Peter fears he stands on the edge of exposure and possible arrest, but perhaps his behaviour is also rooted in a deeper denial as his innermost psyche descends into chaos. We humans do this - when we are unable to comprehend or accept what is happening we become immobilised, we split off or disassociate from the reality of what is happening. The structure of our reality has collapsed, and we need to wait for it to be reassembled, to make a new kind of sense. The Gospel counsels the wisdom and the gentle discipline of time.
In the medieval Ars Moriendi, the first illustration shows what is called the Temptation - the dying one lies surrounded by fear-inspiring demons and powerful earthly temptations. It is a good interpretation of the chaos and temptation to retreat into fantasy as the fearful experience overwhelms all we know and trust. Perhaps we even get a glimpse of this in what is traditionally called Jesus' cry of dereliction on the cross, the despairing: 'My God, why have you abandoned me?' Surrounded by chaos and pain, filled with loneliness and fear, we find ourselves denying that God is present.
The second stage, Kübler-Ross informs us, is fear. 'Why me? It's not fair!' 'Father … take this cup away from me!' Whose fault is it – having recognised that we can no longer deny the reality of what is happening, we look around for someone to blame, to lash out at, to be jealous of, even those who are surrounding us with loving care. We see this best, perhaps, in Mark's Gospel which shows – not a Jesus who knows and serenely accepts everything that is to happen like some sort of divine robot – but a vulnerable young man, a young rabbi filled with dreams of the future, fearful and struggling in the face of looming horror. Jesus struggles in the garden with his own emotions and the contradictions between his desires and hopes and the crushing reality that he knows is closing in on him. 'Surely there is another way?'
The second woodcut in the Ars Moriendi shows the dying person receiving the consolation and encouragement of loving friends who do not conceal but help interpret the reality of suffering and death. Jesus, in the garden, receives the consolation of prayer or as St Luke more poetically expresses it, is comforted by angels. And we see here the shift from desolation to consolation, the shift from 'Not me! Take this away!', to 'Let your will be done in my life'.
The third stage is bargaining. Judas, of course, represents our bargaining selves beautifully. "What are you willing to give me if I hand him over?" In our own hard places, we instinctively bargain. 'I'll turn over a new leaf. I'll come to church every week.' We negotiate for a delay or a postponement. Judas makes a bargain, 30 silver coins, a month's wages for a human life. In our modern society we are no strangers to this, this bargaining with the lives of others, it is after all the dismal logic that pervades our military and our politics and even the commercial decisions of big business. Acceptable risk is always the risk that other people face, especially the poor and powerless – but of course it has real and suicidal consequences for ourselves as well.
In contrast, of course, Jesus doesn't bargain, not even for his own life. This is the ultimate challenge for any of us who aspire to be his followers. To be prepared to be people who pour out our own lives, instead of people who try to get somebody else to do it for us. What would that sort of generosity mean, for us?
The fourth stage is depression. The patient begins to understand the reality, the certainty of death, to retreat into silence or sleep, to spend time weeping, to disconnect from loved ones. This is actually important work, and attempts to cheer up a patient going through this stage are futile and even counter-productive. The disciples show us this reaction, in the garden. 'Couldn't you even stay awake and watch with me for an hour?' How much easier it is to just switch off, to go to sleep, to make it go away for an hour. Yet – even as perhaps we recognise this reaction in our own behaviour sometimes – we contrast this with the behaviour of Jesus who continues to struggle and to pray, and remains awake on our behalf. Thank God for that!
Finally – acceptance. Yet, as Kübler-Ross describes it, and as Jesus demonstrates it, this is not a passive resignation but an active laying down of all that we are into the hands of the one who made us in love. We see it in the Garden, 'Not my will, but yours' – and on the cross – 'into your hands I lay my spirit'. It is the moment of grace, the moment at which we can surrender ourselves to the ultimate reality which is God's loving care. To rest in God and allow the Spirit to breathe in us, to just be, and to be at home.
To allow all that we are, our living and our dying, to be gathered into the loving remembrance of God. And to trust.