The Rev’d Kathryn Greene-McCreight
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
April 19, 2019
A headline in The New York Times, April 10, 2019:
“Astronomers at last have captured an image of the darkest entities in the cosmos, an image of a violent phenomenon that has mystified them for more than half a century. The image doesn’t show the black hole itself; black holes are black because no light can escape them.”
The cross of Good Friday is like, and yet unlike, that black hole. Both are violent phenomena. Both mystify. Both take prisoner all the light that surrounds them. Both are Darkness Visible.
Yet Good Friday’s Cross is different from the black hole: the Cross of Christ transforms all the light it imprisons, and shoots it back into the world as new light, as Easter fire.
Five days after the NYT, another headline in the NYT read: “Fire Mauls Beloved Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris”. This article included a photo of a golden cross, still shining in its place at the east end of the Cathedral, gleaming out over the charred rubble. The altar beneath it remained intact under the shelter of the cross’s wings.
Good Friday’s cross is like, and yet unlike, this cross standing watch over the altar at Notre Dame: the Cross of Christ protects through the flames. Both defy death. Both shine with the light by which we see Light.
The Cross of Good Friday is more like the cross of Notre Dame than it is like that black hole. But this is Good Friday, and the Empty Tomb is yet to come.
Good Friday marks the hinge of the three scenes of the one saving event: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. And so today our gaze is transfixed by Jesus’ Cross.
While we might want to turn quickly away to the joy of the Resurrection, the light of the Easter Fire doesn’t make the Cross any less of a black hole, any less of a Cathedral’s destruction. We have to look intently at this cross, and not avert our eyes.
In the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome stands Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of this Darkness Visible, where Mary holds her dead son. It is a traditional scene in the history of art: the descent from the Cross. The sculpture is known by the Italian word for pity, or compassion. The Pieta.
It is a simple, traditional image, but unique in the way it presents the moment after Jesus’s body is removed from the Cross. Mary tries to hold her adult son on her lap. His body spills across hers. She holds Jesus, her left hand, palm upturned, extended slightly outward from her body, and away from his. Literally dead weight, Jesus is sliding off of her. She lets him go, releasing him.
Now consider this image: Mary, the new mother, holds Jesus the lively infant. In our own Lady Shrine is one of these traditional scenes. There Mary holds the baby Jesus close, lest he squiggle away, as babies often do. Mary cradles him in her arms and nurses him, as mothers often do. This new mother will nurture her son Jesus, rear him, and prepare him for adult life. And she prepares herself to give him up, to let him go, to let him slide off her body.
It is true of any parent, of course, that we must let go. We rear our children in order to hand them on to the world. But Mary’s task is gut-wrenchingly unique, because she raises her child for slaughter. She knows what is to come. She knows that the black hole of his cross will indeed swallow her son, the Light of the world.
How does she bear this? Mary knows in advance, as she has known all along. Mary knows the promises to God’s people, Israel. And the angel Gabriel has told her that her son yet to be born will embody and fulfill those promises. At first Mary questions how this can be, but she trusts the angel’s word: “nothing will be impossible with God.” (Lk 1:37). Mary’s response to the angel is assent: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” (Lk 1:38)
Mary knows, looking forward. But we know only looking backwards, through Mary’s song, through Scripture. We know what comes of this death only because we have seen the Easter life shining through the witness of prophets and apostles.
We see the cross, therefore, as the cross at Notre Dame’s east end. Unlike that black hole, the cross of Jesus brings resurrection, New Creation, the reconciliation of all creation to God. We know this because Mary knew, and because she let go of her son.
Without Mary’s assent, even to that black hole of the cross that captures all light, we would not know the Light of life.
Tradition has it that Mary stands at the foot of the cross. The disciple John flanks her on the other side. You can see this on our rood screen. Mary is there at the cross, with the Disciple whom Jesus loved. But notice: Mary is not among the other women who visit the tomb. This is important. The other Mary’s go to the tomb, expecting to prepare Jesus’s lifeless body for burial. Those Mary’s do not know what Mary the Mother of Jesus does know.
The mother of the Pieta does not go to the tomb, because she knows it is empty. She knows that Darkness cannot ultimately overcome Light. But this is not simply because darkness is not dark, nor the black hole not black, nor the fire not scorching.
Today on Good Friday, we must not glide over Mary’s grief. Her tears are not play-acting. She truly mourns. She is indeed the Lady of Sorrows. She knows that her son will be laid in the tomb. And she knows why.
She knows that death has yet to be conquered, and this will come only through Jesus’ entering into it and coming out the other side victorious.
And so she stands at the foot of the cross. She peers into that swirling black hole that truly does threaten to imprison all light in its abyss. She watches the ravaging flames lick up the cathedral built in her name. She witnesses the violence of the cross murdering the fruit of her own body.
She stares it down and does not flinch.
In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.