Sermon on Great and Holy Friday
What would you now, brethren, from the ministers of the word? The Word Himself is no more!
The Word, co-eternal with the Father and the Spirit, born for our salvation, the Author of every quick and powerful (Heb. 4:12) word, is silent, dead, buried, and sealed up. The more plainly and convincingly “to show man the path of life” (Ps. 16:11) this very Word came down from heaven and put on flesh; but men would not hearken unto the Word, they tear His flesh, and lo, “He is cut off out of the land of the living” (Is. 53:8). Who then shall now give unto us the word of life and salvation?
Let us hasten to confess the mystery of the Word which shall disarm His persecutors, and restore Him to souls ready to receive Him. The Word of God is not bound by death. As a word from the lips of man dies not entirely away at the moment its sound ceases, but rather gathers new strength, and passing through the senses, penetrates the minds and hearts of the hearers; so also the Hypostatical Word of God, the Son of God, in His saving incarnation, whilst dying in the flesh, “fills all things” (Eph 4:10) with His Spirit and might. Thus when Christ waxeth faint and becometh silent on the cross, then is it that heaven and earth raise their voice unto Him, and the dead preach the resurrection of the Crucified, and the very stones cry out. “And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints which slept arose” (Lk 23:45; Mt 27:51-52).
Christians, the incarnate Word keepeth silence only in order to speak unto us with greater power and effect; withdraws, that He may the more inwardly “dwell among us” (Jn 1:14); dies, that He may grant us His inheritance. Assembled by the Church to hold converse with the departed Jesus, listen ye unto the quick and powerful word of the dead (Heb 4:32); listen ye to the testament He has left unto you, “And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as My Father hath appointed unto Me” (Lk 22:29). But lest any untimely dreams of the greatness of that inheritance should turn away our gaze from the Crucified Jesus pictured to us in these solemn days, let us, Christians, the more carefully observe that His immediate heirs found no other treasure after His death than the wood of the Cross upon which He suffered and died, and it was this same Cross which they offered as a pattern for imitation to all who desired to partake in the inheritance of His kingdom. What does this mean? It means, that as “Christ ought to have suffered,” in order “to enter into His glory” (Lk 24:26), which He “hath with His Father,” so also does it behoove the Christian, “through much tribulation, to enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22) which Christ hath bequeathed unto him; it means that as the cross of Christ is the gate of the kingdom of God for all, so is the cross of every Christian the key of the kingdom to every son of the kingdom. This then is the epitome of the sublime preaching of the Cross (I Cor 1:18), so incomprehensible to the mind, so easily accepted by faith, and so powerful through God. Let us offer it as a drop of myrrh upon the sepulcher of the quickening Word.
Even before the incarnate Son of God had taken up and borne His cross, this same cross already belonged unto man. In its origin it was formed of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The first man only intended to taste its fruit, but hardly had he touched it, when the whole weight of the forbidden tree, with all its boughs and branches, fell on the neck of the transgressor of the law of God. Darkness, sorrow, terror, labor, sickness, death, misery, humiliation, the enmity of all nature, in short, all powers of destruction seemed as it were to burst forth from the fatal tree and to make war against him; and the child of wrath would inevitably have been plunged for ever into hell, had not Mercy, in its eternal wisdom, stretched out its hand to him and sustained him in his fall. The Son of God took upon Himself the burden which crushed mankind; He bore His cross, and left to man but to touch it, doubtlessly not because man could aid the Almighty in bearing its weight, but in order that man himself with his remaining light cross might be borne along by the power of the greater One, as a skiff is propelled by the movement of a ship. Thus it is that the cross of wrath has been transformed into a cross of love; the cross which had barred the way into Paradise, becomes a ladder into heaven. The cross, sprung from the dead tree of the knowledge of good and evil, washed in divine Blood, is regenerated into the tree of life. The Son of God takes upon Himself our nature, and “through sufferings, makes perfect” in Himself “the Captain of our salvation; He is in all points tempted, and succours them that are tempted;” moves onward with the cross, and “brings His followers unto glory” (Heb 2:20, 18; 4:15).
Who shall measure this universal cross borne by the Captain of our Salvation? Who shall tell its weight? Who shall number the various multitudes of crosses of which it is formed, like the sea of drops of water? It was not from Jerusalem to Golgotha alone that this cross was borne with the help of Simon the Cyrenian; it was borne from Gethsemane to Jerusalem, and to Gethsemane from Bethlehem itself.
The whole life of Jesus was one cross, and no one put forth his hand to this burden except to make it more burdensome. “He hath trodden the winepress” of the wrath of God “alone, and of the people there was none with Him” (Is 63:3).
Divinity unites with humanity, eternity with time, perfection with that which is limited, the uncreated with its own creation, the self-existing with nothingness; what an immeasurable, what an incomprehensible cross is formed of this union!
The God-Man, Whose descent upon earth is glorified by the heavens, reveals Himself here in the most helpless age of humanity; in the smallest town of the smallest kingdom of the earth, there is no home, no cradle for Him, and, except His humble parents, none but a few shepherds take any interest in His birth.
They number unto the Eternal One eight days of this new life, and then subject Him to the bloody law of circumcision.
The Lord of the temple is “brought into the temple to be presented unto the Lord;” and He Who came to redeem the world, is redeemed “by a pair of turtle doves” (Lk 2:22, 24).
Whilst He was yet without power of speech, the sword of the preaching of the cross is already being sharpened in the lips of Simeon, and pierces through the soul of His mother (Lk 2:34, 36).
A few men of a strange tribe come to salute Him with the title of King of the Jews; but even this faint glory excited against Him the enmity of the Jewish king, makes Him the innocent cause of bloodshed, and obliges Him to withdraw Himself from among the people of God into a land of idolatry.
The boundless Wisdom of God “increaseth in wisdom, and in favour with God and man” (Lk 2:52), according as it increases in stature. For thirty years the Lord of Heaven and the King of Glory shrouds Himself from heaven and earth in deep obedience unto two mortals whom He has vouchsafed to call His parents.
And what did not Jesus suffer afterwards from the very day of His entering on the solemn ministry of the salvation of mankind? The Holy One of God coming to sanctify mankind, in company with sinners, seeking purification, bows His head beneath the hand of man, and receives baptism; baptism indeed, my brethren, that is to say, immersion, not so much in the water, as in the fulness of the cross. [In Russian, the word baptism, krestchenie, is derived from the word cross, krest; so that to be baptised is equivalent to being crossed.]
He Who “searcheth the heart,” and trieth the reins (Jer 27:10), is Himself delivered up to temptation. The bread of heaven is given up to earthly hunger; He before Whom “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth” (Phil 2:10), suffers the prince of hell to claim worship of Him (Mt 4:9).
The Mediator between God and man reveals Himself unto men, but they either do not recognize Him, or will not recognize Him; His doctrine is counted blasphemy (Mt 9:3), His works unlawful (Jn 9:16), His miracles those of Beelzebub (Mt 12:24), if He works miracles and does good on the Sabbath day, He is called a transgressor of the Sabbath; if He converts sinners and receives the repentant, He is upbraided as “the friend of sinners” (Mt 11:19). There “they take counsel how they might entangle Him in His talk” (Mt 22:15); here “they lead Him unto the brow of a hill, that they may cast Him down headlong (Lk 9:29); at another place “they take up stones to cast at Him” (Jn 8:5); nowhere do they give Him “where to lay His head” (Mt 8:20); He raised up the dead, and His jealous enemies take counsel how to kill Him (Jn 9:43, 44, 46, 53). At the gates of Jerusalem the people salute Him as a King, and all the earthly authorities rise up to condemn Him as a malefactor. In the chosen circle of His friends He discovers an ungrateful traitor, and the first instrument of His death; the best of them are an “offence” unto Him, for at the very time He goes forth on the work of God, “they savour not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” (Mt 26:23).
Wilt Thou not rest, Thou divine Cross-bearer, even for one moment from the yoke, ever pressing more heavily on Thy shoulders? Wilt Thou not rest, if not to renew Thy strength for new labours, at least in condescension to the infirmities of Thy followers? Yea, on coming nigh unto Golgotha, Thou wilt rest on Mount Tabor. Go up then unto the mountain of glory; let Thy face be lighted up by heavenly light—let Thy raiment become white and glistening—let the law and the prophets come to acknowledge in Thee their fulfilment—let the voice of Thy Father’s goodwill be heard! But do not you perceive, my hearers, how the Cross follows Jesus even to Mount Tabor, and how the preaching of the Cross is inseparable from the preaching of the glorification? Even there, amidst such great glory, of what do Moses and Elias speak unto Jesus? They speak of His Cross and Death: “And they spake of His decease” (Lk 9:31).
For a long time Jesus bore His Cross, as though He felt not its weight; but at length He was delivered up unto it as to “a lion, that should break all His bones” (Is 38:13). Let us enter after Him with Peter and the sons of Zebedee into the garden of Gethsemane, and let us pierce with watchful eyes through the darkness of His last night upon earth. He no longer conceals the Cross that has broken down His soul: “My soul,” says He, “is exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death” (Mt 36:38). And even the prayerful converse with His consubstantial Father does not free Him from the burden of His agony, but keeps Him under its weight: “O, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (Mt 26:39). He Who “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb 1:3), is now in need of “strengthening from an angel” (Lk 22:43).
Perhaps, to some of us, the mortal agony of Jesus appears to be unworthy of the Holy One. Be it known to such, that this agony was not the result of human impatience, but of divine justice. Could “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8) fly from His altar of sacrifice? He, “Whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world” (Jn 10:36)—He, Who had from eternity taken upon Himself the office of Mediator between man and God, could He be shaken in His work, by the thought only of suffering? If He could feel any impatience it was but the impatience to accomplish our salvation and to bless us. “But I have a baptism to be baptized with,” saith He, “and how am I straitened till it be accomplished” (Lk 12:50). And therefore, if He is exceeding sorrowful, it is on account of our grief, and not His own; if we see Him “despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows” (Is 53:3-4); the cup which His Father tenders unto Him in the cup of all the iniquities wrought by us, and all of all the punishments prepared unto us, which would have overwhelmed the whole world, if He alone had not taken, held, and drained it. It was made up, firstly, of Adam’s disobedience, and then of the corruption of the old world (Gen 6:22; 2 Pet 2:5): of the pride and iniquity of Babylon, of the hardness of heart and impertinence of Egypt, of the treacheries of Jerusalem, “that killed the prophets and stoned them that were sent unto her” (Mt 23:37), of the malice of the synagogue, of the superstition of paganism, of the folly of the worldly-wise, and, finally, (inasmuch as the Redeemer took upon Himself also the future sins of the world) it was made up of the scandals of Christianity itself, of the division of the one flock of the One Shepherd, of the audacious doctrines of the false teachers, of the lessening of faith and love, in the very kingdom of faith and love, and of the revival of atheism in the bosom of piety itself. Let us add thereunto all that we find in us and around us deserving of the abomination and wrath of God; as well as that which we strive to hide from our conscience, under the artful designation of weakness: the thoughtless and unlawful pleasures of youth, the hardheartedness of old age, forgetfulness of Providence in happiness, murmuring in misfortune, vanity in good deeds, love of gain in our industry, slowness in reform, manifold relapsings even after rising, carelessness and indolence, those followers of luxury, the willfulness of our age, priding itself in its dreams of civilization: all these streams of iniquity flowed into one cup of woe and suffering for Jesus: all hell was precipitated upon the heavenly soul, and is it then to be wondered at, that it “was exceeding sorrowful even unto death?”
Words fail, my brethren, to follow the Great Sufferer from Gethsemane to Jerusalem, and thence to Golgotha; from His inner Cross to His outer one. But the mystical rites celebrated this day by the Church have already traced unto you this road and this last Cross. It is so painful, that the sun could not look down upon it, and so burdensome that the earth shook under it. For one, without spot or blemish, to endure all possible sufferings, both inward and outward, the heaviest and the most shameful, and to endure all this instead of receiving reward for blessings conferred; for the Most Holy to suffer from the most lawless, the Creator from His creatures, to suffer for beings unworthy, ungrateful, and for the very authors of that suffering, to suffer for the glory of God, and to be forsaken of God: oh, what an unfathomable abyss of sufferings! “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken” (Mk 25:34) Thy Beloved One? Yeah, O Lord! Thou hast forsaken Him, for a little while, that Thou shouldest not forsake us for eternity—us, who have forsaken Thee. From this day “He reigneth, He is clothed with majesty; the Lord is clothed with strength, wherewith He hath girded Himself: the world also is established, that it cannot be moved” (Ps 93:1). Lifted up from the earth, on the Cross, He spreadeth it abroad throughout the earth and “will draw all men unto Him, unto heaven” (Jn 22:32).
But, however great and divine the all-attracting might of Jesus Christ, He cannot “draw us, that we should run after Him” (Song of Songs 1:4), otherwise than by implanting His Cross in us, and uniting our cross with His own. “If any man,” saith He, “will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Lk 9: 23). For although He has, of His sacred Blood and Cross, wrought the purification from sin and the redemption of the whole world from the curse, and opened unto us the entrance into the Holy of Holies, yet, inasmuch as none can enter therein but the priest and the offering, we must surrender ourselves as a sacrifice into the hands of this “Great Priest, after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 109(110):4); and since the curse is the fruit of sin, and the root of sin is planted in our free-will, so must we also freely surrender our will unto the agency of the Cross of Christ in us, in order that we may appropriate the purification and redemption, the righteousness and blessing of Christ. It is for this reason that they who truly understand “the power of God” hid “in the preaching of the cross,” so often teach us by their example and their word, “to be crucified with Christ, to be crucified unto the world, to crucify the flesh with the affections and lusts; not to live to ourselves, and to fill up that which is behind of the affliction of Christ in our flesh” (Rom 6:6; Gal 5:24, 6:14, Rom 14:7; Col 1:2).
The more steadfastly and patiently we bear the burden of our cross, the more abundantly are the gifts of God, obtained by the Cross of Christ, granted unto us: “for as the sufferings of Christ abound in us,” so our consolation also “aboundeth by Christ” (2 Cor 1:5). The sinner, who after steadfastly bearing his cross, at last crucifies himself upon it, submitting himself with perfect obedience unto all the demands of purifying justice, in the presence of the crucified Savior, will soon, like the malefactor, hear His gladdening voice: “To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.”
To suffer in the presence of Christ, and in like manner as He suffered, is to have a foretaste of Paradise.
Like as the visible material Cross is the royal standard of the visible kingdom of Christ, so is our secret cross the seal and distinguishing mark of the true and chosen servants of the invisible kingdom of God. It is a precious pledge of the love of God—it is the rod of the Father, not so much chastening and breaking the spirit, as “restoring” and “comforting” it (Ps 2:9, 23:3-4);—it is the purifying fire of faith, the companion of hope, the mortifier of sensuality, the conqueror of passion, the inciter to prayer, the protector of chastity, the parent of humility, the teacher of wisdom, the guardian of the son of the kingdom. Where were all the great angels, the guides and guardians of the Church, the Josephs, the Moses’s, the Daniels, the Pauls, brought up? In the school of the Cross. Where was it that the Church most blissfully grew, flourished, and bore fruit unto holiness? It was at the time when the field of the Lord was incessantly ploughed by the Cross, and watered with the blood of martyrs. Who, it was asked of S. John, in his vision, who are they who surround the glorious throne of the Lamb? “What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence come they?” and when he could not recognize them in their divine glory, then was he told that it was they who were sealed with the Cross: “these are they which come out of great tribulations” (Rev 7:13-14).
Who are they then who would “make the cross of Christ of none effect” (1 Cor 1:17), and fancy they can “know Him and the power of His Resurrection,” without “the fellowship of His sufferings” (Philip 3:10)? If Christ alone is the life and the way (Jn 14:16) unto life, how can they attain unto the life of Christ without walking in His way? Can such effeminate members be in union with that body, which the Head, crowned with thorns, “fitly joineth and compacteth together for itself” (Eph 4:15-16)?
Can the members be at rest and unconcerned when the Head is stricken, smitten, and afflicted? Can they forget themselves in noisy revellings, when their Head is encompassed by deadly pains? Can they drink of the full cup of worldly pleasures whilst their Head thirsteth and drinketh vinegar? Can they be proud when their Head is bowed low? Will they not, even for a moment, be pained on account of their own sins and transgressions, when their Head suffereth and dieth for the sins of others? Can they give to the world and the flesh when their Head giveth up His spirit unto God?
O man, thou who art drawn unto heaven by the grace of thy Lord, yet wallowest in flesh in the world! Behold thy likeness in the man, who sinks in the waters and yet strives against drowning; he incessantly repeats the figure of the cross in the efforts of his limbs, and thereby overcomes the hostile waves. Raise thine eyes on the bird which would leave the earth and soar on high: it spreadeth its wings in the form of the cross, and flies away. Seek thou also in the cross the means to raise thyself above the world, and ascend unto God. “The preaching of the cross is to them that are saved the power of God.” Amen.