April 14, 2017
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
In a museum in Sansepulcro, Italy is a painting by Piero della Francesa of the resurrected Christ. In 1925 Aldous Huxley traveled to see it and called it “the best painting in the world.”
And because he wrote those words, in World War II a British artillery officer and art lover, defied orders to completely destroy the town, and saved the painting. After it was painted, it was hidden away under plaster for hundreds of years until it was discovered perfectly preserved.
In the painting the Resurrected Christ stands with one foot on the edge of his marble tomb. He has the sculpted body of an athlete, marred only by the wounds on his hands and side which are still raw.
His face something different – dark eyes stare straight out of the painting; his face is somber and grim.
In Wallace Stegner’s novel “Crossing to Safety” two women visit the museum and find themselves standing in front of the painting.
The narrator in the story describes the painting: “That gloomy, stricken face permitted no forgetful high spirits. It was not the face of a god reclaiming his suspended immortality, but the face of a man who until a moment ago had been thoroughly and horribly dead, and still had the smell of death in his clothes and the terror of death in his mind.”
The two women gazing at the painting have two very different reactions.
One didn’t like the painting at all.
According to the narrator she is “still developing her sundial theory of art, which would count no hours but the sunny ones.”
But the other woman had experienced great suffering and evil in her own life; she gazed at the painting for a long while.
The narrator tells us, “She studied it soberly, with something like recognition or acknowledgement in her eyes, as if those who have been dead understand things that will never be understood by those who have only lived.”
I like that idea of the “sundial approach” because sometimes that feels like what we do with our religious observance. A sundial approach to faith – only the sunny, light-filled hours count, as we fill our Advents full of lights and carols and eggnog, as we take a joyous leap from Palm Sunday right into the arms of Easter.
Episcopal priest and author Fleming Rutledge writes about visiting Christian bookstores with greeting cards and calendars with Bible verses and beautiful soothing peaceful scenes, and she writes, “One would never know that the central fact of the Christian narrative is a scene of unspeakable ugliness.”
Today we set aside the sundial, and sit awhile in the dark hours, remembering the “unspeakable ugliness,” acknowledging the truth that there are times when it feels like the darkness will overwhelm us, when our grief and anxiety and fear are too much bear.
We sit with the weight of the world on our shoulders, and the weight of our sin on our hearts.
We listen to this miserable story of Jesus’ arrest and trial and torture and crucifixion all over again and it does not get easier to hear.
Today we do not turn our eyes away from injustice, from betrayal, from pain, from death.
Today we sit in the presence of suffering for a little while, our own suffering, the suffering of those we love, and the great suffering of the world.
We sit with the pain of broken relationships and broken trust, we sit with the deep sorrow of watching a loved one pass away, we sit holding our fears and our anxiety out before us where we can see them.
We sit with the diagnosis we barely understand.
We sit with the silent disabilities of our lives.
We sit with the anxiety of our unknown futures.
Today we say out loud that there is evil in the world and sometimes it feels like evil wins.
Today we let our hearts be torn apart for the innocent killed in Syria by chemical weapons, for every victim of violence and terrorism, for every person living on the street who needs mental health care and a roof over their heads, for every person who has experienced injustice at the hands of our justice system, for everyone who cannot find their way out of addiction.
Today we remember that hatred of many kinds has left scars and wounds in our community and in our nation.
And even as we name the great darkness and evil in the world, we also sit here and turn our gaze inward.
Fleming Rutledge writes that “A great many people go through life without ever facing their own potential for hurting others, for greed and [dishonesty], for selfishness and indifference to suffering, for cooperating with systems of evil. They will not be in worship on Good Friday.”
In Jesus on cross we see reflected not only the great pain of the world, but the depth of our own sin.
But Good Friday does not leave us alone in the dark without hope.
As we read this story all over again we see hints of hope that were there all along.
In John’s account of Jesus’ life, Jesus, knowing that his time has come, returns to a familiar garden. As death nears, Jesus goes to a place of life.
And we who love God’s story, God’s long narrative arc in the Bible, we know that God has been known to draw near to us in a garden.
John tells us that in the place of Jesus’ crucifixion there too is a garden, and they bury him there in a new tomb in that garden. John tells us that Mary Magdelene goes to the garden on the morning of the third day, and finds a man walking in the garden and she thinks he is the gardener.
God had planned for life all along.
Life and love will always win.
Never was death going to win, never was the darkness going to win, because life in Jesus Christ is stronger than death, and the light of Jesus Christ in stronger than any darkness we will ever know.
We were turned out of the garden, Jesus invites us back in.
Today on Good Friday the story of our separation from God and our redemption plays out once again, and Christ does for us what we could not do for ourselves – we are invited out of the darkness and back in to hope and peace and love and joy.