The following is my Good Friday sermon for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Alexandria, Virginia, a town across the river from Washington, D.C., the seat of politics and power.
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In the name of the Great God, the One who creates, redeems, and sustains the world.
Around Good Friday 1373, an English woman laid a-bed, stricken by the plague, and facing what she thought would be her own death. Much of her life is a mystery. We know not if she was single or married, but if she had been married before that fateful season, the illness that sickened her took her husband and children. We know she did not die, but recovered by early May. Her birth name is unknown, but her adopted name, Julian of Norwich, has come down to us, and she is remembered as one of the greatest of all English mystics.
In her long-ago fevered haze, Julian received a series of visions of Jesus, which she wrote down in a book entitled Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, the first English-language book to be written by a woman. She became known throughout the land as a spiritual authority, and many made pilgrimage to Norwich seeking her spiritual insight and counsel.
The Eighth Revelation, the heart of the book, concerns the Passion and the Cross, focusing on Jesus’ pain and suffering. “Is any pain like this?” she wondered, “…Of all pains that lead to salvation this is the most pain, to see thy Love suffer. How might any pain be more to me than to see Him that is all my life, all my bliss, and all my joy, suffer?”
Recounting the vision, she ruminated on Jesus’ mother Mary’s suffering, the one who suffered more than any other in his death; then expanding the circle to include “all His disciples and all His true lovers suffer pain” at this death. In this community of pain, forged by the suffering of Jesus, Julian articulated one of her great theological insights: “Here saw I a great ONEING betwixt Christ and us: for when He was in pain, we were in pain.” To Julian, the Cross was about ONEING—the complete unity of God with us and us with God; and not only us as humans, but as she relates from the vision, the ONEING of “all creatures that suffer pain, suffer with Him…and the firmament, the earth, failed in sorrow” and the planets, all the elements, and even the stars despaired at Christ’s dying. The cosmic circle of grief, emanating from Jesus’ Passion, reveals that Jesus not only suffered for us; but he suffered with us—his death occurred for the sake of “Kinship and Love” with all this was, is, and will be.
On many a Good Friday, I have sat in a darkened church, listening to readings and music, all focused on the first preposition of the Passion’s equation: Jesus suffered for us, for sinners, for the world, for me. But only rarely have I heard spiritual reflection on the second preposition: Jesus suffered with us, with sinners, with the world, with me.
In my regular life, I am a writer. I choose prepositions carefully. There is a huge difference between for and with. For is a preposition of distance, a word that indicates exchange or favor, it implies function or purpose. I do something for you; you do something for me. Notice: someone does something on behalf of or in another’s place. For is a contract. Jesus suffered for us—means that Jesus did something on our behalf, he acted on behalf of a purpose, in place of someone else. “For” always separates the actor and recipient, distancing a sacrificial Jesus from those for whom he died. At the Cross, Jesus is the subject; we are objects.
By way of contrast, with is a preposition of relationship, implying accompaniment, or moving in the same direction. Rather than something done for you, with makes you a participant in the action or transaction. With is the preposition of empathy, of sympathy, of being on the same side, of close association. “No, you needn’t go for me; I’ll go with you.” With is about joining in, being together.
For or with? Contract or relationship? Exchange or participation? Quid pro quo or friendship?
Here, in our neighborhood, in the suburbs of Washington, DC, we live in a world that glories in the for: you work for a political party or a policy or a cause, you write or sign legal contracts, you exchange votes, you trade favors; if you aren’t for something, well, then, you are against it. We inhabit the land of quid pro quo.
If we are honest, with is a hard preposition in our neighborhood. Are you only with those who share your party or cause? Can the spoken word be trusted as much as the signed contract? Do you expect something in exchange for your name, time, or expertise? Is everything a matter of political compromise, of cutting deals? We willingly betray others for our side, for our story, for our advantage. Want a friend? Get a dog. We hide parts of ourselves from our neighbors, withhold the sorts of secrets that weave regular relationships for fear someone will use something against us. We judge others on what they can do for us. Indeed, in Washington, we are for many things. But we are skeptical of with—indeed, much of what we do in the world makes us ridicule, doubt, and even fear with. In Washington, it is safer to remain at a distance, to stay away from with.
When we come to the Cross on Good Friday, we see the for. We understand the exchange, that God died for me, so I get baptized or confirmed or serve the church. Jesus sacrificed his life so that I might exchange Hell for Heaven. People sacrifice and die for something nearly every day, and it is particularly sobering–as in the case of soldiers—when someone sacrifices or dies for my freedom or safety. Indeed, thinking that Jesus died for salvation may give pause, cause us to raise a prayer of thanks, feel sadness or relief; but ultimately, the idea that someone dies for something is theologically and spiritually uncomplicated.
But with is complicated, even frightening. Good Friday plunges us into with. Have you sacrificed with others? Have you walked the way of death with someone? Felt the power of the suffering love? Do you know, in every fiber of your being, the ONEING of God in Julian’s visions? Do you feel Jesus dying with his Mother, his friends, with us, with all creatures, with the firmament, with the planets and the elements? Can you embrace the truth that, at Calvary, Jesus’ Mother, friends, US, all creatures, the firmament, the planets and all elements died there with him, too?
The Cross isn’t a contract between God and sinners; the Cross is God’s definitive expression of kinship and love—that everything, everywhere, through all time, is connected in and through pain and suffering. We are with Jesus on the Cross, not at a distance from it, standing by, watching safely from afar; those are our hands and feet nailed, our blood dripping, our voices crying out “We thirst.” And Jesus on the Cross, naked and mocked, is with us all on every broken-heartened, betrayal-laden, blood-soaked day of human history. That is God’s Passion; that is Jesus’ Cross. And, in the tortured Christ, we find the hope to endure, a love for others and creation, the power to enact God’s dream of love and justice for the whole world. We are with God. God is with us. This is why the Cross should cause us to tremble, tremble. We tremble at the fearsome with of God.
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“On a Theme from Julian’s Chapter XX” by Denise Levertov
|Six hours outstretched in the sun, yes,|
hot wood, the nails, blood trickling
into the eyes, yes —
but the thieves on their neighbor crosses
survived till after the soldiers
had come to fracture their legs, or longer.
Why single out the agony? What’s
a mere six hours?
Torture then, torture now,
the same, the pain’s the same,
immemorial branding iron,
Hasn’t a child
dazed in the hospital ward they reserve
for the most abused, known worse?
The air we’re breathing,
these very clouds, ephemeral billows
languid upon the sky’s
moody ocean, we share
with women and men who’ve held out
days and weeks on the rack —
and in the ancient dust of the world
of the long tormented,
But Julian’s lucid spirit leapt
within the mesh of the web, Himself