Sermon on 3rd April 2015
Day: Good Friday
Date: 3 April 2015
Place: Lancaster Priory
Theme:‘Going it Alone’
Film: ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2’ by David Yates (2011)
Readings: Isa. 52:13-53:end; Heb. 10:16-25 or Heb. 4:14-16; 5:7-9; Jn. 18:1-19:37
‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced’ (Jn 19:37).
We began this week with the first film of a trilogy, and we reflected that the journey of Christ through Holy Week is an epic one. And now we arrive at a kind of ‘false ending’: the moment towards which the plot has been inexorably leading us. Notice that this does not preclude an enormous ‘plot-twist’ still to come on Sunday morning. But we are not there yet!
One thing about endings is that they allow us to make sense of perplexing elements in the story so far. Characters we thought of as cowards might show some backbone (as Nicodemus does in coming out as a follower of Jesus, Jn 19:39), and people we had previously dismissed as evil might turn out to be more complex than we thought. This is certainly the case with Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series. At the end of ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, Draco kills a major character in the story: Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts school. We later learn that Severus Snape, a teacher who has been consistently unpleasant towards Harry, deliberately and secretly killed Dumbledore to save another young man, Draco Malfoy, from the guilt of murder. Snape did this with Dumbledore’s agreement because he has secretly been on the side of the good all along.
On Wednesday, I argued that perhaps Judas’s story is not over yet, and that it is a bit too soon to condemn him as a traitor before we know what kind of redemption is in store for him (as there was for Peter, cf. his denial at Jn 18:15-18 and 25-27). I have been suggesting that each of the disciples in John’s gospel represents a possible model for our discipleship. And if this is so, then we should not dismiss even the parts of ourselves that we hate to bring into the light, because they too can be redeemed.
There is a scene near the end of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2’ in which Harry’s friends are defending Hogwarts against an army of Death-Eaters and Dementors. They are fighting violence with violence, much as Peter does when he strikes out at Malchus with a sword in today’s gospel reading (Jn 18:10). But Jesus refuses violence when he says to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’ (Jn 18:11). And to Pilate: ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here’ (Jn 19:36).
And Harry Potter, like Jesus, refuses this kind of violence. Instead, Harry walks out of school alone, heading towards the Forbidden Forest. And here we approach the very heart of the Harry Potter story and one of its deepest parallels with the gospels. When I first read this part of the story (on a train!) I wept uncontrollably, because I recognised it as a meditation on the agony of Jesus in Gethsemane, which we referred to on Tuesday night.
This is the moment at which Harry must confront Voldemort (“he who must not be named”) for one last time. Harry and his friends have been looking for seven ‘Horcruxes’, objects into which Voldemort has secreted a part of his soul in a bid to guarantee immortality for himself. Voldemort cannot be defeated until all seven Horcruxes have been destroyed. But Harry has realised something that Voldemort has not. Harry himself is the last of the Horcruxes. So if Voldemort succeeds in killing Harry, as he shows every sign of wanting to do, then he will actually be killing himself. So Harry knows that he has to die in order to save his friends, along with many people whom he does even know as ‘friends’ yet (people like Snape and Draco Malfoy). Similarly, Jesus expresses his desire ‘to fulfil the word that he had spoken, “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me”’ (Jn 18:9).
But because Harry’s friends have not yet understood what he will have to do, and because they are otherwise occupied battling against Dementors and Death-Eaters, Harry must make this final journey alone. There is a moment like this in today’s gospel reading, too: ‘So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha’ (Jn 19:16-17).
Harry Potter’s lonely journey takes him deep into the Forbidden Forest, where he meets Voldemort and some more Death-Eaters. There is trial-like quality to this scene, reminiscent of the trials of Jesus before Caiaphas and Pilate. As with the trial of Jesus, so also with the trial of Harry Potter. In both cases, their opponents speak the truth, although they do not recognise it as such at the time: ‘Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people’ (Jn 18:14). And Voldemort’s Death-Eaters agree that Harry must die.
And here we arrive at one of the most filmic moments in Holy Week. Pilate addresses the people with the words: ‘Ecce homo’, ‘behold the man’ (Jn 19:5, cf. 19:14). And John later adds a reference to the prophecy: ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced’ (Jn 19:37). We are invited to look upon the crucified one, and today we will have the opportunity to do this for ourselves, as we venerate an image of Jesus on the cross. This is the kind of ‘seeing’ which invites our participation… which ultimately turns us into disciples of Jesus (like Mary and John, to whom we will return shortly).
We must look on Jesus because there is a sense in which we are the ones who have ‘pierced’ him. On Wednesday we saw that we, like all human beings, are both betrayer and betrayed. Similarly today, we see that we are both torturer and tortured. But on the cross, Jesus does not distinguish between these roles. Instead, he accepts all of them upon himself. In solidarity with those who suffer, and in acceptance and forgiveness of the times when we cause suffering to others like ourselves. This is the moment when Jesus is ‘lifted up’ (as he predicted); the death that has all along been the purpose of his mission. And, like Harry Potter, Jesus goes to his death for the sake of other people. For our sake, as Isaiah says.
This is the moment of ‘glory’ to which Jesus has been referring all week. It is in his death that he is revealed to be a ‘king’, though not a king of the kind that Pilate would recognise: ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’ (Jn 18:37), Jesus says. I do not think it is an accident that when Harry Potter dies, he finds himself at ‘King’s Cross’: the ‘cross’ of a ‘king’. ‘Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”’ (Jn 19:19).
If the lonely walk of Harry Potter to the Forbidden Forest and the sight of Jesus whipped and beaten, with a crown of thorns on his head and carrying his own cross are together a meditation on a lonely death (Jn 19:17), yet this is still not the end of the story. Harry Potter finds himself surrounded by the ghosts of his loved ones who have died, including Dumbledore (in something like what we might call ‘the Communion of Saints’). And Jesus has his blessed mother and St John near him — and looking upon him — when he dies. This moment has been captured in countless paintings and sculptures over the years. It was once found on the rood screen of every Church in this country, and it is even hinted at in the Priory Icon where Mary and John appear on each side of the Lord. We also have a very affecting version of this moment in our Stations of the Cross (Station XII), which invites us to look upon them looking upon Jesus.
Why has this image proved so popular as a ‘still’ from the epic movie of Holy Week? I think it is because this is the moment in which we find ourselves drawn into the story. Jesus ‘said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother”’ (Jn 19:26-27). This is the moment when the Church is born, when a new family is formed. It is a family born ‘not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God’ (Jn 1:13). Or rather, a family with no blood ties except for the blood of Christ. It is in this moment that we are ‘drawn’ — in the company of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist — into the very life of God, by participation in the death of his Son.
‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced’ (Jn 19:37).
This by way of epilogue: In the film, Harry Potter does not linger at King’s Cross. His story is over soon after this, ending with an up-beat epilogue set some time in the future. But on this day of the year, we Christians have no such luxury. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus collect the body of Jesus and lay it in a tomb. The scene is dark and sombre. We are reminded of the moment when Jesus was anointed for burial (on Monday evening, by Mary, whose brother Lazarus Jesus raised from the dead). With this hint, and the note of many ‘scriptures’ already ‘fulfilled’, we must now leave Jesus in the grave and await the ‘ending’ (of Saturday night and Sunday morning) that is really a beginning.
NB. references to Jesus ‘handed over’ (Jn 18:35; Jn 19: 11 and 16): cf. Wednesday night. Jesus is committed to truth, not convention (Jn 18:22-23 and Jn 18:37-38): cf. Thursday night.