Archive for March, 2016

“Death and Conception As One” (March 25, 2016: Good Friday)

Posted in Sermons with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2016 by montgomerybrandt

The following sermon was preached during the Good Friday Liturgy on March 25, 2016 at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Collect: Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 52.13-53.12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10.16-25; John 18.1-19.42

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Today is March 25, another regular day in the quickly passing civil year. Yet liturgically, it is a day on which something rare and very special occurs, having happened only five times in the last 106 years and not to occur again for another 141. What I am specifically referring to is the fact that although today’s primary purpose is to commemorate our Lord’s crucifixion and death at Calvary—known as Good Friday—this major holy day this year occurs on what normally would be the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the commemoration of the archangel Gabriel’s announcement to the Blessed Virgin Mary that “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,” Jesus Christ, God’s Incarnate Word.[1] So what we see liturgically conveyed through the occurrence of Good Friday on Annunciation Day[2] is the full circle of Christ’s appointed purpose: to be, for a time, “made lower than the angels…crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”[3] To put it more simply, through this liturgical rarity, we see through Christ’s death the purpose for His life.

John Donne, the most preeminent figure of English metaphysical poetry, wrote of this rare occurrence’s significance upon its happening 408 years ago:

This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown

Death and conception in mankind is one:

Or ‘twas in Him the same humility

That He would be a man and leave to be:

Or as creation He had made, as God,

With the last judgment but one period,

His imitating Spouse would join in one

Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:

Or as though the last of His pains, deeds, or words,

Would busy a life, she all this day affords;

This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,

And in my life retail it every day.[4]

Expressed through Donne’s poetry is a real conflict of emotions. The death of Christ reflects the purpose of His conception and His conception that of His death. In this there is joy, but also grief. The grief over our Lord’s death is inflamed by the joy of His coming, with that joy, in turn, foreshadowing the grief that is to come. But not only do we see this emotional conflict in the words of Donne, but also in those of Sacred Scripture. From Sacred Scripture, we come to understand this conflict as being very much necessary, for without the joy of the Annunciation we could not face the grief of Good Friday and without recognizing our grief that Jesus is (for the moment) dead, we cannot fully appreciate the archangel’s message of God’s gifting of Himself in the Person of Jesus. In order that we may fully appreciate the salvation that is offered to us this day by God through Christ, we need to recognize and accept the necessity of this conflict.

We encounter this emotional conflict in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him…” This, in turn, harkens back to God’s judgment upon the serpent in Genesis: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”[5] From both Isaiah and God Himself we see the conflict between the joy of Christ’s conception and the grief of His death. There is joy in the fact that despite our sin and us grieving the heart of God, God still loves and wills to save us. Salvation is coming and God, out of His great mercy, will not leave His people helpless.

The grief we face, though, is that to the One through whom our salvation will come and reconciliation with God made complete will come a violent, barbaric, and torturous death. He, Jesus, will be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon Him will be the chastisement that will bring us peace, and with His wounds we will be healed.[6] From Isaiah we hear the grim truth that in order for God’s creation to be redeemed and once again have life in Him, Jesus, whom He will send as the Redeemer, must be crushed. Through the crushing of Jesus, because He will both be from God and will be God, the atonement for sin will be made satisfactory. Through the grief of Christ’s death on the cross will come the joy of redemption and everlasting life.

It is this very emotional conflict that forms the foundation for the Annunciation. From the archangel’s message comes great joy that foreshadows the grief that we today confront. “Behold,” Gabriel says to Mary,

You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[7]

The Blessed Virgin accepts the role of theotokos, “God-bearer,” out of the joy she feels that the One who will be her restoration and that of all the peoples of the earth back to God the Father is finally coming. She remembered the prophet’s words: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”[8] “Let it be”[9] her obedience leads her to say. The fact that God willed her to be the bearer of the world’s Salvation makes her heart leap for joy

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.[10]

Not only for Mary but also for us, the Annunciation reconfirms the truth of God’s love; that He will seek after us at all costs. “Praise we the Lord this day, this day so long foretold, whose promise shone with cheering ray on waiting saints of old.”[11]

The Annunciation’s hidden sadness is, perhaps, best expressed through a late 19th century William Holman Hunt painting titled “The Shadow of Death.” In this painting, Jesus, not yet having commenced His public ministry, has just finished cutting wood in a carpentry shop and is taking a stretch break. The shadow of the young Christ’s outstretched arms fall on a wooden tool spar behind Him, creating a “shadow of death,” foreshadowing His future crucifixion. Gazing up at the shadow is Mary, shielding her eyes from the image with her right arm with the Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh in a box beside her.

Although joy is the dominant expression in the Annunciation story, surely, in the back of Mary’s mind, there was grief over what was to come to Her son. Salvation will come through no one else apart from her Son; there will be no other name under heaven given among men by which salvation will be granted.[12] But it will come at such a high cost, one that can never be repaid. Mary’s Son Jesus will be despised, rejected, acquainted with grief, and given no esteem.[13] He will be mocked, shamefully treated, and spit upon. He will be flogged; He will be killed.[14] The Virgin Mother will feel the emotional horror that any loving parent would feel in seeing their child abused to no end, yet will not be able to do anything to stop it. How strong and courageous blessed Mary is, for by joyfully accepting the vocation of being the Mother of God’s Incarnate Word, she also willingly takes on the grief that will come in seeing her Son rebuked, afflicted, and killed.

And here we are—on a day where Christ’s death and conception meet, one feast literally pointing to the other. A mother, from whom, the archangel proclaimed, would come into the world its Light and Salvation, weeps in agony over her Son’s death. Jesus, the Savior of the world, hanging dead on the cross, has done that which the archangel proclaimed to a young Jewish virgin woman three decades earlier. There is grief in this day, but there is also joy. There is grief in that our Lord is dead. Savagely He has been taken from us. The powers of darkness have crushed Him. He was despised, mocked, rejected, flogged, and killed when He did not deserve to be. For and because of us, Jesus, our Friend, our Mentor, and our Lord is gone.

But there is actual joy that can be found in this. How is that even remotely possible? Let us, again, remember the words of the archangel Gabriel: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Again: “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”   How can there be no end to Jesus’ kingdom if He is dead? Is there something else to come? Yes, there is! God said that Jesus’ kingdom would never end; it will be forever. We can take heart in this because God, time and time again, has proven Himself true and to be truthful. So with God being the crucial factor in all of this, there must be something else coming that will, in some way, keep Christ’s kingdom going. Let us then rejoice and be glad, for through Christ’s death on the cross, reconciliation with God has come.[15] Jesus’ death has ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven us back to His Father and our Father. Christ has died, but it is not the end.

For my final point, I would like to honor the Rector’s request to specifically address our young confirmands as they prepare to make their public profession of faith during our Bishop’s upcoming visit on the Third Sunday after Pentecost. My young friends, despite the fact that our Lord Jesus has just died, Christians refer to this day as good. Jesus has just experienced the most graphic form of violence, degradation, suffering, and humiliation, but it all was also good. It is good in that though it appears that the forces of darkness have won, it is actually Jesus who has won. By dying, Jesus has forever destroyed death. Death has not stopped Him, for as Saint Paul proclaims

I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time…Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.[16]

So I repeat to you my earlier statement—Christ has died, but it is not the end. He will rise in triumph and death’s power will forever be defeated. That is why it is Good Friday. By His death Jesus has destroyed death and through His rising to life again will win for us everlasting life.[17]

Anglican theologian Paul Zahl once said that you cannot get to the resurrection without first experiencing the darkness. This is what Jesus shows us through His Passion. By willingly confronting the darkness, Jesus rose victorious against it. Jesus, the Light, “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”[18] Good Friday reminds us to hold fast to Jesus in faith. No matter what darkness we may be going or will go through in this life, Jesus can and will help us through it because He Himself felt and overcame it. If Jesus can go through what He went through and come out as good as He did in the end, surely, through His mercy and help, we can confront our own darkness and get to the light. So, as the old hymn says, when the storms of life are raging, stand by Jesus. He will know your experience and walk with you as He is walking with you now in your journey of faith.

On today, March 25, 2016, we hear of glad tidings of great joy, seeing it fulfilled in a barbaric, yet majestic sight. We hear of Christ coming and see Him hanging dead. “He shall come, He is gone.”[19] The Christ who came to die will rise and never die again. Grief and death are here for the moment; weeping will only endure for the night. But joy and everlasting life are hastily approaching!

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy: Come let us adore Him. Amen.

[1] Luke 1.31

[2] According to rules stipulated in the current edition of The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, because the Solemnity of the Annunciation, a major feast of our Lord, is on a fixed day that this year occurs during Holy Week, it is to be transferred to the week following the Second Sunday of Easter. Therefore, for 2016, the Solemnity of the Annunciation will be commemorated on Monday, April 4.

[3] Hebrews 2.10

[4] John Donne, “Upon the Annunciation and the Passion Falling Upon One Day” (1608).

[5] Genesis 3.15

[6] Isaiah 53.5

[7] Luke 1.31-33

[8] Isaiah 7.14

[9] Luke 1.38

[10] Luke 1.46-48

[11] Anonymous, Hymns for the Festival and Saints’ Days of the Church of England (1846).

[12] Acts 4.12

[13] Isaiah 53.3

[14] Luke 18.32-33

[15] Romans 5.11

[16] I Corinthians 15.3-8

[17] Eucharistic Proper Preface for Easter, The Book of Common Prayer (1979).

[18] John 1.8

[19] Donne, “Upon the Annunciation and the Passion Falling Upon One Day.”