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.
As many of you know, or may have discovered thanks to the suddenly eased traffic, this week is spring break at Cal. It’s the first time since I’ve come to St. Mark’s that class has not been in session, and I’m struck by the very noticeable quiet of it all. This isn’t the first time I’ve been in a university community during spring break, but for some reason I’m particularly struck by it this year. It’s certainly not silent: buses continue their routes, HVAC units continue their hum, the construction project up the street carries on, and planes fly overhead like they always do. But the human bustle is much reduced: I notice far fewer random bits of conversation and general hilarity rising above the fray, while the groups of pedestrians walking past my office are gone, leaving only solitary, somewhat harried graduate students. The coffee shops are empty, and for the first time, I don’t have to wait in line when it comes time for lunch. It’s not an easy kind of silence, like summer break, but the gathering of a breath, a waiting kind of silence, for the press and stress of the last weeks of the year suddenly to descend.
For whatever reason, this silence has impressed itself on me this week, and has put me in mind of Good Friday all week long. There on the cross as Jesus hangs from noon until three, a darkness covers the whole land. The sun goes out, I imagine the birds have stopped singing, and the onlookers, frightened out of their mocking, have gone home. They leave only a dry hill with three dying men. The wind blows in the grass, and all creation waits for the last breath.
I post the texts of my sermons to a WordPress blog, which I’ve named, “Between Noon and Three.” The title is a phrase I’ve borrowed from W.H. Auden, who uses it repeatedly in a number of the poems in his series on the Divine Hours, the traditional offices of prayer throughout the day. Today here we are, literally “between noon and three” as we meditate on the last hours of Jesus’ earthly life, the period of time he hung upon the cross.
One of the things I like about Auden’s poem cycle is that every one of them seems to take place on Good Friday: it is a day that does not pass away, that remains forever. But despite the way the crucifixion pervades the poems as well as the poet’s consciousness, the narrator never quite manages to figure out what to make of it. To Auden, Jesus’ death is the sort of thing that seems inevitable and long-planned, as if the whole arc of human history has been leading up to the murder of God; and at the same time it seems the sort of thing that comes upon us from who knows where. Suddenly the deed is done and we’re left struggling to figure out just what it is that’s happened, let alone what it means.
Auden describes, near the end of the cycle, his dream that one day he might finally discover “Just what happened today between noon and three.” The Church locates the salvation of the world in these three hours, although it has never explicitly defined how, or satisfactorily explained why. Why this solution, of all solutions? To answer, we have to take stock of the silence which prevails from noon until three, silence that defies easy explanation or understanding, silence that seems eternal and yet stings as a sudden wound.
Like the silence here in Berkeley these last few days, but in a much more profound way, this silence at the cross is not an absence or a void, but a watchfulness, a waiting, a regard even, where God and creation are intensely aware of one another. Our collect for today reflects the same stillness, the same awareness: “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.” We pray God simply to behold us; for God only to just look at us. It’s as much as we can muster on Good Friday. And the silence of the Cross is the surest sign we can point to that God is answering our prayer. “Just look at us,” we pray. And on the cross God does.
There is a dialogue here in the silence, a kind of speech that’s exchanged within this mutual regard, this mutual beholding. Dare we say that there is love here, somewhere, in the sight of God and in our own sight, as we behold one another? That, at any rate, is the conviction of the Church: that somehow, mysteriously, as Jesus is exposed to all the world and death itself; as we stand exposed to God for all our beauty, all our shabbiness, and all our sin, we are reconciled to one another. The silence enables us to know one another more profoundly than before: God is known to humanity in infinite compassion; and humanity is lifted up into the nearer presence of God.
It’s not really so hard to believe. Years ago, in one of my adult confirmation classes, there was a mother who had a son in college. His school was in the same town, and he would come home frequently, for laundry and all the rest. But she was missing him, and lamenting the fact that they didn’t talk much anymore. What would become of their relationship? She felt he was slipping away and that she was, too; that they were fast becoming strangers to one another. This caused her a lot of grief and worry.
One day she appeared in tears, having just received a diagnosis of breast cancer. But it wasn’t the cancer that had caused her tears. She had managed to corner her son because she wanted to share the news; she was afraid how he’d react, but instead he just looked at her: really looked, and she felt as if he’d actually seen her for the first time in a long time. He didn’t say much except “I love you, Mom.” But that look was all she needed. Her tears were from bittersweet happiness, from learning afresh that she really was seen and known and cared for, despite a terrifying diagnosis. She didn’t worry after that: about her health certainly, but not about her son.
This kind of love is what the silence of Good Friday enables. This is what we assemble together here today to remember, to encounter, and to venerate: to see, and hear, and say, and touch, what we cannot understand or communicate by words alone. We are here today to pray God “To just look at us,” and in the looking, to be known and reconciled and loved.
This is why Good Friday and the moment of Christ’s death is a moment that does not pass away but remains forever. The silence of mutual beholding, between God and creation, is the still point in a turning world, the seed of hope and an everlasting comfort. It is the moment where love reigns supreme despite all the forces of death arrayed against it.
Whenever we are tempted to think all is lost, or to throw up our hands in the face of chaos, or to despair at so much wickedness in the world and in our hearts: the cross is there, its silence is there, speaking loudly and clearly of God’s gracious beholding, calling us to new life in a Love that does not pass away.