Friday, 14 April 2017

Good Friday


If we have to contend with temptation, then so had Jesus. In his response to temptation he showed that he is the servant of the Lord, loving God with his whole heart and soul and mind. If we have to contend with powers and principalities that are more than flesh and blood, then so had Jesus. He is the strong man who has driven the demons out and ransacked their houses. He has taken on the prince of devils and disarmed him (Lk 11:22). If we, like Jacob, have to contend with God, ‘wrestling along with God’, then Jesus in Gethsemane and on Calvary has already so contended.

Or is he the one who is not required to contend in this way, with God, because he has come to us from the Father, because he and the Father are one (Jn 10:30)? Jacob called it Peniel, the place where he had seen God face to face. But St John tells us that no one has ever seen God and that it is the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father who has made him known (Jn 1:18). What we have seen, John says, is the glory of the only Son revealed on the cross (Jn 1:14). Because he is the Word of God, the One who knows and has seen, Jesus reveals the Father to us. As the sinless one his struggle is not exactly ours. Not that this removes him from us: rather does it heighten his sensitivity to the effects of sin and evil. 

Jesus is Stripped of his Garments

What glory is there in that shameful death, what beauty to attract us? Humanly speaking the hour seems like defeat for Jesus and victory for the powers ranged against him.  Here is no warrior God arrayed in his panoply, a heavily armoured God to terrify and intimidate. Instead of a mighty warrior smiting and smashing his enemies we see the Son of God powerless and defenceless, like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb and like a lamb led to the slaughter (Is 53:7). He is abandoned and naked, exposed to whatever his enemies choose to do to him.

On that day, says the prophet Amos, the stout of heart among the mighty shall flee naked, a text that Mark may be alluding to when he tells us about a young man who runs off naked at the moment of Jesus’ arrest (Amos 2.16; Mk 14.51). We are told (unnecessarily it seems) that this young man was wearing only a linen cloth. But linen cloths have powerful associations in the scriptures. Half the references to linen in the Bible are found in those chapters of Exodus and Leviticus that describe the clothing of priests. All the references to underclothing in the new Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible are to the linen undergarments worn by priests who are not to come naked into the sanctuary. We are not told that the tunic of Jesus – his undergarment as the Jerusalem Bible translates it – was made of linen but we are told that it was seamless (a reference apparently to the seamless robe of the high priest: Jerusalem Bible, note to Jn 19:23).

Jesus is a priest through the power of an indestructible life and not through physical descent (Heb 7.16). His way was not to stand on his dignity but to empty himself, to take off the robe of his glory, to become a slave who washes the feet of his disciples, to allow himself to be stripped of his garments and nailed to the cross, entering the battle with nothing except his knowledge and love of the Father, entering the sanctuary with nothing except his own blood (Phil 2:6-7; Jn 13:4; Heb 9:12).

It was a naked David who faced Goliath and triumphed. Saul wanted him to wear his armour but David, trying it on, could not move. So he stripped himself of it, took five stones from the river and with just one killed the Philistine champion. Jesus stripped naked and marked with five wounds looks like the defeated one but, just as he has the power the lay down his life, so he has the power to take it up again (Jn 10:18).

The prophet Isaiah, in one of those strange acts required of prophets, walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia (Is 20:2-3). Whether Egypt and Ethiopia were impressed by this threat we are not told but it alerts us to another kind of power. The sword of the Word of God exposes all, judges the secret emotions and thoughts, no created thing can hide from him, everything is uncovered and open to the eyes of the one to whom we must give account of ourselves (Heb 4:12-13). Jesus, we are told, did not trust himself to them, never needed evidence about any man and could tell what a man had in him (Jn 2.24-25). He is the Word that penetrates to the heart, that probes the loins.

Our champion, then, is naked, vulnerable and powerless, and yet he prevails. Armed only with his knowledge and love of the Father, Jesus stands against the powers of this world and against the spiritual army of evil in the heavenly places. The campaign of Jesus takes him to crucifixion on Golgotha where he engages directly with the last enemy, death, and appears to suffer defeat. The devil has taken the bait, as some of the Fathers of the Church put it, not realising that hidden within is the double-edged sword, the divine Word, the devil’s undoing because he is the father of lies and Jesus is the Word of truth.

The Anglo-Saxon poem, The Dream of the Rood, has the cross of Jesus speak as follows about the one it bears:
The young hero stripped himself – he, God Almighty –
Strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows,
Bold before many, when he would loose mankind.
I shook when that Man clasped me. I dared, still, not bow to earth,
Fall to earth’s fields, but had to stand fast.
Rood was I reared. I lifted a mighty King,
Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend.
In the seed that has been sown a new and glorious life is already germinating. So he goes to the spirits in prison to preach to them (1 Pet 3:19). He visits the kingdom of the dead. One of Job’s friends reminded him that Hades and Abaddon had always been naked and uncovered to the sight of God (Job 26;6) but that place is now touched by God’s re-creating power. From among the dead Jesus rises in the glory of the resurrection to be given the name that is above all other names in heaven, on earth or under the earth (Phil 2:9-11).

The love and obedience of Jesus, revealed in his submission to death, are vindicated by his exaltation to the right hand of the Father. The place of abandonment and sorrow has become the place of reconciliation and glory. Jesus, the tested one, comes through (Is 28:16; 48:10; Heb 2:18; 4:15) so that the cross of the Lord has become the tree of life for us. And there is even greater good news in all this because the victory achieved by Christ on our behalf becomes, by his grace, our victory also. ‘Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor 15:57). ‘Those who prove victorious I will allow to share my throne, just as I was victorious myself and took my place with my Father on his throne’ (Rev 3:21). 

Prophet, Priest, King 

If Christ is our champion, our leader and guide in the spiritual struggle, it is in the first place as our great high priest that he is this champion, the priest who is his own sacrificial offering. He is a priest like Melchisedech, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, not through physical descent but by the power of an indestructible life (7:16). Our high priest has gone through to the highest heaven (4:14) and has entered the sanctuary once and for all, taking nothing with him but his own blood. By virtue of that one single offering he has won an eternal redemption (9:12) and achieved the eternal perfection of all whom he is sanctifying (10:14).

What makes his priesthood even more a matter of rejoicing for us is that he is one of us. The one who sanctifies and the ones who are sanctified are of the same stock (2:11). It was essential that he should become completely like us so that he could be a compassionate and trustworthy high priest of God’s religion (2:17). We rejoice then that we do not have a high priest incapable of feeling our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way that we are though he is without sin (4:15; 2:18). He is not only an example for us but also a source of grace and mercy reaching to our inner selves and changing our way of living. In offering himself as the perfect sacrifice to God through the eternal Spirit, Christ purifies our inner self from dead actions so that we do our service to the living God (9:14). 

He is the leader who takes us to our salvation (2:10) but this leadership meant his identifying with us before we could be identified with him. He, before any of the rest of us, was made perfect through suffering (2:10) and, although he was Son, learnt to obey through suffering (5:9). During his life on earth he offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him out of death, and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard (5:7). The reference is to his agony in Gethsemane, perhaps also to his desolation on the cross. There, above all, he submitted with such reverence, and was so obedient to the Father’s will, that his prayer was heard. The Father’s will was for us to be made holy by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all (10:10). His death takes away all the power of the devil and sets free all who had been held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death (2:14).

It follows that his power to save is utterly certain, since he is living forever to intercede for all who come to God through him (7:25). He is our judge, testing our work (1 Cor 3:13), and this too is great good news. Who else would we want as the judge of our lives? And how can we now fear any spiritual warfare to which we are called when we have such a champion to intercede for us and to stand with us? 

The Armour of Light  

So we are to take our part in a struggle that is already in principle resolved. We have been delivered from the dominion of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of the beloved Son (Col 1:13) and yet we are to complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body the Church (Col 1:24). We are to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light (Rom 13:12). If we are to stand against the wiles of the devil we must put on the whole armour of God (Eph 6:11,13). 

So how do we dress for this battle? What is our protection and weaponry? If we are following Christ and engaged in his battle then we will not put our trust in the impressive regalia of priests or the intimidating armour of soldiers. Ephesians 6 describes as follows the armour in which the Christian must dress for the spiritual warfare: 

… stand your ground, with truth buckled round your waist, and integrity for a breast plate, wearing for shoes on your feet the eagerness to spread the gospel of peace and always carrying the shield of faith so that you can use it to put out the burning arrows of the evil one … accept salvation from God to be your helmet and receive the word of God from the Spirit to use as a sword (Eph 6:14-17; see also 1 Thess 5:8). 

The armour which the Old Testament says is worn by God (Is 11:4-5; 59:16-18; Wis 5:17-23) is worn now also by Christians. The warrior God of the Old Testament has called to his side those who belong to Christ and in the power of their belonging to Christ they become participants in the battle and not just beneficiaries of its outcome. The sword that is the Word of God, alive and active, cutting more finely than any double-edged sword (Heb 4:12), is placed by the Spirit in the hands of the Christian (Eph 6:17). This is not about war in the ordinary sense. These weapons of truth, integrity, eagerness for the gospel, faith, salvation and the Word of God build a spiritual kingdom not an earthly one. The armies of heaven are clothed in fine linen which is the righteous deeds of the saints (Rev 19:8, 14). The work of acquiring these virtues and gifts (insofar as their acquisition is within our control) is considered in the longest section of Scupoli’s Spiritual Combat (chapters 7-43). 

Spirituality False and True 

The grace of Christ lifts us beyond natural spirituality and mysticism to a theological life. It is important to remember that there is a natural level of spirituality and mysticism that is not yet the deepest level on which the Christian lives. In writing about the years immediately preceding the conversion to Christianity of the Emperor Constantine, E.R.Dodds makes a helpful distinction between the daemonic and the divine worlds (Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, chapters 2 and 3). The first is the level on which much contemporary spirituality operates: religious experiences that can be generated from our own resources relating to what is often now called ‘the divine’. In speaking of the human being’s relation to the divine world Dodds means what Christians will refer to as the theological level, that level of ‘experience beneath experience’ where the theological gifts of faith, hope and charity are to be located (1 Cor 13:13).

It is through these gifts (also called theological virtues) that we live already the life of the kingdom Christ has won for us. Through faith and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the cosmos is transformed and humanity transfigured. Through hope and prayer the ordinary Christian foot soldier is ready for the long road and can live with courage and perseverance. Through charity and the corporal works of mercy the one who follows Christ is living an ecstatic life, empowered by love to emerge from the shell of his ego to reach out to the neighbour in need.

The spiritual warfare in which we are involved may grow intense at times. Its forms will be myriad and confusing. Recalling the seven deadly sins is enough to remind us of the many ways in which we can be seduced and distracted, of the many fronts on which battle needs to be waged: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. Without Jesus we are naked and defenceless, as he was on the cross, easy meat for the devil, who is going around like a roaring lion looking for someone to eat. More than likely we will be wounded in these struggles, perhaps seriously, but we pray that those wounds will be rendered glorious and that through God’s wonderful providence even our sins will be transformed to become witnesses to His grace.

The cross of the Lord is become the tree of life for us. The word of the cross is folly and scandal to those who do not believe but to those who do believe it is the trophy of victory. In the cross we see the wise strategy and indestructible power of God. This is how Paul puts it in his most famous passage about spiritual warfare:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:35,37-39).

This is Chapter Four of Spiritual Warfare by Vivian Boland OP (Catholic Truth Society, London, 2007)

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