Good Friday Sermon 2008

Good Friday Sermon 2008
preached at
St Dunstan-in-the-West

Good Friday, 21 March 2008

“We have confidence to enter the sanctuary, by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Hebrews 10: 19-22

One of the challenges for us on Good Friday is to tread faithfully and attentively the fine line between the extreme demands of the rubrics. At once this is day of austerity and “near desolation” and it is a Celebration. Indeed, as we complete our observance of these holy days today (at SDW we do not have services over the weekend), all the more should it be a genuine occasion of joy, thanksgiving and praise. It must not be a reduction of these saving mysteries into a sentimental show of misplaced grief and sadness; sober, serious and meaningful as this liturgy should be.

I want to use it as the occasion to explore one of the phenomena surrounding Our Lord’s death on the cross, which our Evangelist for today, St John, does not record, but his three counterparts do. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews also bases his entire meditation on the significance of the renewed Temple cult, and all the great themes of priesthood and sacrifice coalesce in the portion of the Epistle for today. The nature, identity and ambivalent iconography of the Jerusalem Temple are intimately bound up with Jesus’s death. I have long been fascinated by this subject and a recent study, by a visitor who came to this church 2 years ago, Margaret Barker, has inspired these reflections, in a work entitled, Christian Themes in Temple Worship, recently published

I am going to pass over the thousand years of history of the Temple prior to the time of Jesus, for lack of time; suffice it to say it is rich and complex, beginning with the Tent and culminating in the construction of Herod’s Temple, which was not quite finished in Jesus’s life time, and was of course to be destroyed once and for all by the Romans in 70 AD.

The Jerusalem Temple site is one of the most photographed sites in the world. The magnificent Dome of the Rock, with Al Aqsa Mosque to its left, as viewed from the Mt of Olives, gives an idea of the view Jesus would have had when he surveyed the City. The precincts of the Temple covered much the same area. The Temple Mount, in the midst, was the highest point of the walled city and above it, where stands the golden dome today, there was the altar of sacrifice at the heart of the Temple.

We know from the historical account of Josephus, writing at the time of the Gospel writers that there were many in the first century AD who were at odds with the Jerusalem Temple. Not least were the Essenes, the community which we know tantalising amounts about from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Their community life over 150 years either side of the birth of Jesus was modelled on a revised understanding of how the Temple should be. All their writings emphasise the degeneracy of what took place in Jerusalem, and the purity of their worship in contrast.

Before we explore the significance of that, let us just be clear about what was particular about the Temple’s worship. For most Jews, weekly worship was in the local synagogue, where the Law was read and preached, by the Rabbis. The Rabbis were not always predisposed to the Temple either. Their Sabbath services were at the time of the sacrifices in the Temple, but they were services of the word. The Temple was where sacrifice took place, morning and evening; and specific sacrifices for individuals for thanksgiving and reparation. Most notably, once a year on the Day of Atonement Yom Kippur, at their New Year, in the early autumn, was the most elaborate and remarkable act of worship the Jewish Temple enacted. Various events took place together: the enthronement of the Lord, several Psalms can be read as dramatic presentations of this, the sacrifice of the goat for the sins of the people, then driving the scapegoat out into the wilderness, and the promise of blessing and atoning forgiveness of the people by the High Priest. All the descriptions, in Leviticus 16 and outside the Old Testament emphasise the solemnity of this occasion. This is where Margaret’s research becomes so helpful. While the imagery of Passover is integral to Christ’s death and resurrection, the Temple liturgy of Atonement is key to the fullest understanding of it.

The sacrifice on the Day of Atonement took place at the one altar of sacrifice, outside in the temple courtyard. . It was enacted by the High Priest alone, unusually. This was visible to men of Israel who were admitted as far as in front of the altar. The altar platform itself before the Holy Place, was limited to the priests and Levites. Behind the altar was the entrance to the temple itself, screened by a great curtain. It was a magnificent piece of woven fabric. It was made by the daughters of priestly families about the time of the birth of Jesus. In the Gospel of James, an apocryphal Gospel, but one known in the early Church, we are told Mary was weaving her section of the cloth for this veil when the angel came to her. The iconography of the Annunciation always has her with a spindle and a ball of red wool.

Another curtain marked the limiting point of the Holy of Holies. The great hall of the Temple, where any priest was allowed to go, represented the second to the sixth days of creation, the material world. The Holy of Holies was the first day. The cloth depicted figuratively the sum of creation: earth, air, and water and fire; all the elements. But beyond the veil was the time before time and the time after time. Philo of Alexandria explains “the veil marked the changing world from the unchanging world, and separated mortality and corruption from eternal life and in-corruption.” The fabric for this veil was the same as what was worn by the High Priest as he enacted the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement at the altar. In the world, he was of the world, part of its complex tapestry, a mirror, as the veil was. When he took the blood of the atonement sacrifice through the veil, he divested, and under his magnificent garment were simple linen clothes. This is where things become a little mind blowing and if I have been lulling you to sleep, you may want to just check you have got this bit. Here the High Priest became divine, wearing not the tapestry of creation, but the garb of the angels. Isaiah chapter 6 has the famous vision of the enthroned Lord calling Isaiah. On the Day of Atonement, as the choir chanted the enthronement Psalms, the High Priest participated in the enthronement, not as witness but as active participant.

Isaiah heard in the Temple the angel voices singing Holy! Holy! Holy!

In today’s liturgy the choir sings the Greek and English Agios o Theos, agois iscyros, agois athanatos. St Maximus the Confessor in 8 th c says: “By the thrice holy hymn there comes about the union with the holy angels and the elevation to the same honour, as well as the ceaseless and harmonious persistency in the glorification of God.” This is a fascinating throw back to the origins of Christian worship, held within the Byzantine tradition most authentically, but remembered today in the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday particularly in the West.

Now in the Holy of Holies, the High Priest then sprinkles the throne. The atonement sacrifice has been offered. God then does what only God does, he acts as creator. The high priest returns to ‘the world’ to proclaim that healing and forgiveness is assured and the creation is renewed. Much is made in Margaret’s book of the role of liturgical music to effect this remarkable epiphany. There is not time to go into this in detail, but if there is any doubt of the power of music to invoke God’s clemency, it is expunged in her fascinating account.

The High Priest, dressed once more in the vestment of the fabric of the veil (as a part of creation; incarnate, one might say), he returns to the place of sacrifice. He sprinkles the blood of the sacrifice in various places in the temple to symbolise healing the creation, and so he cleanses the polluted place. The sins of Israel are atoned for, because the creative power of God to renew has been invoked, as the King shines from his throne in holiness.

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews knew the Temple liturgy inside out, but he subverts it.

“We have confidence to enter the sanctuary, by the blood of Jesus, (not a holocaust) by a new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is through his flesh, (not liturgical vesture of varying kinds) and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

Christ, by his death takes on not the robe of the veil, not even the robe of the angels, but his own flesh and sprinkles the ark and then the altar with his blood.

The rending of the veil is invested with such meaning. Yes. Jesus came to destroy the Temple. He said so after he turned over the table of the money changers. The High Priest, at Jesus’ trial goes straight to the point and asks Jesus if he is the Messiah, in Mark’s account. In Mark Christ is not silent at that point. For the secret Jesus has been keeping is out; the High Priest of the old order is redundant. It is no wonder the High Pries tears his garment. This is not blasphemy; this is the end to his order. The High Priest would have known that his detractors at Qumran and in the Synagogues nursed an abiding hope that the Messiah’s main task would be to destroy the Temple, and institute a new legitimate priesthood.

What about the water Hebrews refers to?

St John does not refer to the Temple veil being rent in twain. But after Jesus dies, he is pierced and from his side flow blood and water. This may well be a medical reality after such a death, but John uses material realities to make spiritual points. Ezekiel, the great prophet of the Temple foresees a new sanctuary. From it will flow the sweet waters renewing creation, spelling peace and the restoration of all things. In John, by figurative language, Atonement is writ large. The veil is gone. The old Temple has served its purpose. All that it promised and has been acted out in the Temple by an earthly High Priest, has been undertaken by Our Lord himself in substance of his own flesh. Death leads only to the life which had been yearned for from the beginning of the atoning ritual.

Our Orthodox brethren yet again, have preserved this in their liturgy, comparing the tomb Christ to the Holy of Holies. The rite of St John Chrysostom says: “Truly thy tomb O Christ has been shown to be brighter than any Royal Chamber, as bringing life, and more beautiful than paradise. It is the foundation of our resurrection.”

What is left by way of enquiry but Praise, joy and thanksgiving then? Amen.

William Gulliford