Sermon on Holy Wednesday 2020
The Revd Canon Chris Newlands, Vicar of Lancaster
HOLY WEEK 2020: THE VIRGIN MARY AND ST JOHN AT THE FOOT OF THE CROSS
The closed Altarpiece shows the scene of the Crucifixion of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
It is one of the most vivid and challenging interpretations of the crucifixion ever committed to canvas. Two thirds of the image contains nothing but the black background. The figures below, depicted largely in shades of red and white stand out all the more for the lack of detail in the background (although a Roman fort is just discernible behind Mary Magdalene). The central figure of Jesus we will look at more closely on Good Friday, but to prepare ourselves for that image, let us look first at those who are also included in that scene. Tomorrow we will look at John the Baptist, anachronistically but symbolically present, but today we look at the heartrending portrayal of The Blessed Virgin Mary, supported by St John, the Beloved Disciple.
We saw yesterday the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation and with the Infant Christ, her face first shocked at the appearance of the archangel – then joyful as she held the infant Jesus. Now we see her at the moment of her most profound grief, witnessing her Son, whom she knew to be innocent of any crime, put to death as a common criminal, and dying in agony (which the artist even manages to exaggerate, if such a thing were possible?)
The scene is set after Jesus has died on the cross – and Mary has lost any of the reserve she may have had when she saw her son crucified. She is now completely lost in her inconsolable grief, and seems to have fainted into the arms of John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. Moments before, among the last words of Jesus, spoken from the cross, he had addressed them.
To his mother he said, “Woman, behold thy son!” and to the Beloved Disciple he said “Behold thy mother!” (And from that hour the disciple took her to his own house.) Her face is pale, and strained beneath the weight of sorrow, but she is still dignified, though very much dependent on the support of John, who is holding her up – she is wearing a simple white garment over her head – almost like the shroud in which Jesus’ body will soon be wrapped. Her hands are clasped in fervent prayer, as she seeks to understand God’s will in all the horror she has just witnessed, and put her trust in God alone. This is indeed the moment when she truly came to understand the words of Simeon in the Temple, when she and her husband Joseph had presented Jesus in the Temple. He had said “and a sword will pierce your own heart also.” This is that moment as she feels that sharp pain of loss.
John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and who loved him – is even more distraught than Mary. Although he is “being strong” to bear the weight of Mary, his own heart is breaking for his friend whom he has seen die on the cross. Yet according to Jesus’ last words, he is now taking the responsibility of care for Jesus’ mother as his own mother. With his left hand he holds Mary’s arms, and his right arm is wrapped around her to prevent her from falling to the ground. But his face displays the grief which is racking his soul.
This is the image of the grief of bereavement for all time.
An ancient Christian Hymn seeks to capture this moment – it is known as the Stabat Mater, and there are some most beautiful settings of these words – we have often heard the setting by Pergolesi sung at our Good Friday service. In this setting the beautiful lines are interrupted by the strings “stabbing” at certain notes, suggesting the sword piercing the heart of Mary.
At the Cross her station keeping, stood the mournful Mother weeping, close to her Son to the last.
The hymn addresses the Virgin Mary, and asks that Christians may take a share in her grief:
Virgin of all virgins blest! Listen to my fond request: let me share thy grief divine;
She was seen as representing all of humanity at the foot of the cross, and her grief at the death of her Son, is a grief we share for the sin of humanity for which Jesus was content to die to take from us the judgement for sin; and by doing so, to open for us the gateway to eternal life.
And in these extraordinary times, we cannot be unaware of the grief of families who have lost loved ones to this virus which seems to be attacking the whole world without discrimination of age or wealth, position or status. Only now, people are not even allowed the privilege of accompanying their loved ones in their final hours, or even attending their funerals.
As priests we often have the very great privilege of being with people before they die, administering the last rites, or saying prayers – whatever they would like us to do. And there are, of course, times when we just sit silently with the family as a person passes from this life to the life eternal through the narrow gate of death.
I cannot begin to imagine the grief and distress it is causing families to know that they are unable to be close to their loved ones in their final moments on earth, or even to say their last farewells. Of course the head knows that these rules are for their own protection because this virus is so pervasive in passing from person to person – but the heart nonetheless breaks at the enforced separation.
But as we remember Mary at the foot of the cross, struggling to understand God’s will in all the horror she has just witnessed, we saw her put her trust in God alone, who is faithful – and some lines from the Book of Lamentations I have been saying at Morning Prayer every day in Passiontide seem appropriate here – “The Lord will not reject for ever; though he causes grief, he will have compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.
So, just as Mary and John moved from the desolation of Good Friday to awaiting the promised joy of Easter Day, those who believe can take great consolation in the Christian hope which Christ Jesus came to bring us.