Homily for Good Friday, Year A (RCL) • Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver
Cathedral Church of All Saints • Milwaukee • Noon
The Love that Died, and Never Dies
Jesus says to the Rich Young Ruler: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” In the † Name of the crucified God, Jesus, Son of Mary. Amen.
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks. Good. This is not the word we expect. We use it as a synonym for “nice,” or maybe something that’s just slightly better than neutral. But it’s quite clear when Jesus uses the word, it means nothing of the sort. We call this day, Good Friday. While most of us have known nothing different, it is unusual among global Christians. In fact, no one is quite certain how this title became fixed to this day in the English-speaking world. In the Latin books, it is called the “Day of Preparation;” in the Greek Liturgy, “Holy and Great Friday;” the Germans speak of “Sorrowful Friday.”1
“When the Rich Young Ruler asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus replies, “No one is good but God alone.”2 But “Good” seems rather paltry, doesn’t it, to describe Jesus, the Word through whom all things were made, Son of God and Son of Mary, “God incarnate, Man Divine,” He who is both Priest and Victim? And yet we have it from the lips of Jesus Himself. And so, for the Church, “good” is an altogether fitting word to describe the day that Jesus made His own, and crowned it with glory on the tree. “Good,” let us understand, is not a synonym for “pleasant” but is something altogether more resplendent. When we speak of Good Friday, we speak of the day whose beauty and perfection “cannot be touched or reduced by evil.” To call God “good” is pray with Jesus in His Prayer, “hallowed be thy Name.” To call this day, “Good,” is to gather up the whole of the Christian faith in a single Word. There is only one thing that could bring about the death of the God-Man.
This day is good — it has become hallowed and glorified — because on this day, in Simone Weil’s wonderful phrase, “God’s Quest for Man has come to its inevitable conclusion.” He went in quest of man, not to conquer him, but to destroy that liar and deceiver who has thrust himself on to the throne in our souls. The destruction of that liar took place when Jesus is lifted up and Satan is thrown down under His feet; the very feet, in fact, that Satan nailed to the tree. But the application, the transfer, of that destruction into your soul and my soul — that is what “being a Christian” is all about. That’s the ball game, right there: The bulk of the Christian life is the slow process of realizing that because “I do not do what I want” to do, but instead “do the very thing I hate.” The only option is for God to act, for God to live in us, for it to be no longer I, but Christ who lives and acts and speaks in me.
There are many of you who are here really love God, you want your lives to mean something for him. You want to have a prayer life that’s more than just reciting prayers and knowing when to stand or kneel or make the sign of the cross. You want something that could actually be called a relationship with God. You want what the prophets — Jeremiah, and Ezekiel and Zechariah — all tell us that God wants with us: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”3
Last night, the Gospel passage that describes the foot washing begins like this: “When Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”4 The call today is clear: enter into this love. But I think many of us wonder why this doesn’t push deeper into our souls. Often, familiarity breeds…ambivalence. Part of the problem is that we work with a very skewed and weak conception of love. We use the word in so many ways: We love a movie; we love our new coffee maker; we love a particular wine. When I use the same word to speak of my relationship to my son, or of my marriage to my wife, can I mean anything remotely similar? Do I mean that I like family, except with more intensity than the movie or the wine? Love must mean something more than this. The secret lies in one of Jesus’ Last Words.
Consummatum. “It is finished.” These are the final words of Jesus as recorded by St. John. Listen to that one, single Latin word again: consummatum. It is consummated. Martin Luther remarks, “In this word, ‘It is finished,’ will I comfort myself. I am forced to confess that all my finishing of the will of God is imperfect, piecemeal work.”5 A nineteenth century English bishop goes on to explain that, “It is far from unlikely that such a word, spoken on such an occasion, by such a person, at such a moment, just before death, contains depths which no one has ever completely fathomed. No one single meaning, we may be sure, exhausts the whole phrase. It is rich and full and replete with deep truths:
- Here our God, as Daniel had foretold, has “finished transgression, made an end of sin, made reconciliation for iniquity and brought in everlasting righteousness.”6
- Here, our Lord has finished the work of keeping God’s holy Law “to the uttermost, as our
- Head and representative, and Satan had found nothing in Him.”7
- Here, the prophesies of the Old Covenant are perfectly fulfilled: as the Seed of the woman, he bruised the serpent’s head,8 dying “for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous… being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.”9
- Here, the sufferings, the Passion of the Son of God, has come to fulfillment and thus come to an end. He had “finished his course;” “the storm was over,” “the worst was passed;” “the cup of suffering was at last drained to the very dregs.”10
- There is nothing else that could ever be done.
But there is one thing that none of these descriptions has yet touched, and it is the basic sense of the word “consummate.” We use this phrase to speak of a couple’s wedding night, when in the bridal chamber their love is consummated, is “brought to its full fruition.” We even speak as though in that moment love is made. But such an act cannot create love if it did not yet exist. No, in fact, it may deepen love; it may even bring forth the fruit of offspring that incarnates the oneness of a Bridegroom and his Bride. But love must pre-date the act; and only then does such an act make love grow. When St. Paul speaks to the sacramental character of marriage whereby it participates in the profound mystery that is Christ the glorious Bridegroom and His Bride, the Church,11 the example he gives does not point us to the nuptial chamber. No, the act by which a husband participates in the Mystery of the love of Jesus is by giving himself up for the Bride.12 Love is finally consummated when the lover makes himself nothing.
Do you see how vulnerable God makes himself so that we can truly love Him? Not only did he empty Himself and take the form of a servant.13 But “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”14 Love, as opposed to law or obligation, means that the lovers make themselves vulnerable. The love of Jesus, which we cannot separated from His holiness, is shown “precisely as mingling with the sinners whom Jesus drew into his vicinity; as mingling to the point where he himself was made “to be sin” and bore the curse of the law in execution as a criminal”15 — a complete and absolute communion and community with we who are lost. “He has drawn sin to himself, made it his lot, and so revealed what true “holiness” is: not separation, but union; not judgment, but redeeming love…Is there not revealed in the unholy holiness of the Church, as opposed to man’s expectation of purity, God’s true holiness, which is love, love that does not keep its distance in a sort of aristocratic, untouchable purity but mixes with the dirt of the world, in order to thus overcome it?”16
The Church speaks with incredible precision: this is not the hour, first, of his torture: this is the hour of His Passion. When he cries out, “It is consummated,” there is NO failure, NO resignation in His voice. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is, in that moment, brim full with divine joy, joy that comes only through love. The Bridegroom was doing what bridegrooms are meant to do: give themselves up for their beloved. You are that beloved; you are the object of his Passion. There, as the Son of Man of lifted up,17 and we see Him in all His mangled glory, His joy is made complete and love is perfected, for there is nothing else than can be done. Here too, your joy may be made complete.
“Thou inclinest thy head, O crucified Love,” writes St Augustine,
“even in death as if to greet me;
thou openest thine arms as if to embrace me.
In that embrace I am willing to live,
yet fein would die.18
In Name that is above every Name, to whom all things in heaven, in earth and under the earth do bow and obey, † Jesus the Savior, our Friend and Brother. Amen.
2 Luke 18:19
3 Jeremiah 24:7; 31:33; 32:38; Ezekiel 11:20; 37:23; 37:27; Zechariah 8:8. These are cited in II Corinthians 6:16 and Hebrews 8:10.
4 John 13:1
5 Quoted in J.C. Ryle, John, volume three (Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), 363.
6 Ryle, John, 362
7 Ryle, John, 362
8 Ryle, John, 363.
9 I Peter 3:18
10 Ryle, John, 363
11 Ephesians 5:31-32
12 Ephesian 5:25-26
13 Philippians 2:5
14 John 13:1
15 Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (Ignatius: San Francisco), 342.
16 Ratzinger, Christianity, 342-343.
17 John 13:31
18 From a prayer attributed to St. Augustine.
The Rev. Matthew S.C. Olver, a priest of the Diocese of Dallas, is a doctoral student in theology at Marquette University. This sermon is published with his permission.
Image by edouardo, via morgueFile