This afternoon we stand at the foot of the cross. In a little while each of us has the opportunity to approach the cross and to kiss the feet of Christ, as he hangs in death.
This is the reality of today, Good Friday, the day on which we come face to face with suffering and with death. It is, of course, the suffering and death of Jesus that we contemplate. But we do well to have in mind our own, too: the suffering that marks our own lives and the death that we shall certainly experience.
The first reading we heard, from the Prophet Isaiah, explores the destructiveness of suffering. ‘Disfigured’, ‘without majesty, without beauty’, ‘no looks to attract our eyes’, ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’. These are the phrases we heard. They resonate with our experience of those we know who have been struck with great suffering either in years of strength or in the time of old age. The inner paradoxes of our fallen human nature, the juxtaposition of our nobility with the great suffering that can strike us are vividly portrayed in this reading.
Today these words are applied to Jesus who, although the eternal Son of God, embraces human suffering and makes it his own. But we also learn that he does so in a particular way: exactly because he is true God and true man. He who is totally innocent bears this suffering on our behalf.
Today, as we stand at the foot of the cross, we see him not only accepting this suffering but also being overwhelmed by it, crushed and falling, like every human being, into the pit of death.
Suffering and death in our lives are like the rock in the desert which confronted the People of God on their journey to the Promised Land at a time when they were parched with thirst and rebellious in heart. Suffering is like a rock which slowly crushes the life out of us. Death is seen as the ultimate, impenetrable rock beyond which nothing can be glimpsed.
Yet the promise of God, enacted in that desert, is that he will strike this rock and, from its barrenness bring forth a stream of living water.
As we stand at the foot of the cross we know, in faith, that this is so. Out of this suffering and death of Jesus a victory is being born. Out of this rock, life-giving water will indeed pour forth. For Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, will strike the rock of suffering and death with the rod of his cross. Then, we know, this death is split open, destroyed, giving way to new, everlasting life.
This is the greatness of this Good Friday. We know the corrosive power of suffering. We may witness it within our own family or circle of friends: prolonged suffering and increasing incapacity can sap our energy and our belief. We know, too, how totally death can destroy human hope. Everything we have achieved, the success of work, the bonds of love and friendship, appear to be pointless in the face of death for death delivers only oblivion. In human terms, everything is lost.
Yet here, in the shadow of the cross, a new light is cast. If Jesus suffers in this way out of love, in innocence, then there is some new purpose to be found. His suffering is a gift acceptable to his loving Father, a gift of love which, in being given, unlocks for others the freely flowing tenderness mercy and compassion which we need so profoundly. I can join my suffering to his. The rock-face of suffering is broken open. Suffering faithfully born in union with Christ becomes part of the mysterious movement of love across the face of the earth, touching the hearts of so many.
Here, in the shadow of the cross, a new light is also cast on the reality of death. No longer does it bring final oblivion, but rather it is the final door through which we must pass. In uttering the words ‘It is accomplished’ Jesus heralds in a new era. In his dying he casts death aside. In his rising from the dead he breaks open the rock of death until it becomes a triumphal arch through which all can pass who cling to him. This is our faith. This is our sure hope. This is the goodness of this Good Friday.
Today, then, let us hold steady before the cross of Christ. Here we can look death in the eye and embrace our dying Saviour who alone delivers us from its cold embrace.
Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the Saviour of the world. Come let us adore him.
+ Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster