An Eastertide mystagogy on the Liturgy of Good Friday.
[NB: Homily by Matthew Dallman.]
Our Eastertide mystagogy continues. This morning, Good Friday. The meaning of the Atonement. The meaning of our Lord’s death on the hard wood of the cross.
I think of two images. One is Mary holding the newborn baby Jesus (such as in the two icons here in the Church). The other is Mary holding the newly dead body of Jesus (such as in Michelangelo’s Pietà). We encountered the first back at the end of December. We encountered the second during the Holy Triduum and Good Friday. I think of these two images because the interplay between the two encounters can interpret the Atonement.
Why? Because of Mary. It is Mary, what we know of her experience and what we think her experience might reasonably have been, who interprets the Atonement in the fullest, most grounded sense. If we extend just a bit on both ends of these two images — just before holding the baby Jesus back to the Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel, and just after holding the body of her dead Son to the coming of the Holy Spirit in flaming tongues at Pentecost — here then we have the entirety of the Incarnation, and Mary was present through all of it. Mary’s presence. Mary’s prayer.
What comes to mind is music we heard on Good Friday:
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they pierced him in the side?
Mary was. Mary was there. And so to look with Mary’s eyes, hear with Mary’s ears, feel with Mary’s touch, and to ponder with Mary’s heart — is to be mystagogical, is to invite her journey with Christ to animate our journey, to teach our journey. It is another way of asking Holy Mary, Mother of God, to pray for us.
Mary is the model, the exemplar, the pattern for being a disciple of Christ. Holding the newborn Jesus. Holding the newly dead Jesus. We are invited to do the same. To hold the newborn Jesus in our hearts. To hold the newly dead Jesus in our hearts. With the same delicate tenderness of Mary.
To ponder Mary is to ponder how she acted with such devout tenderness. Imagine how Mary must have looked at the world, her mindset. Remember that moment early in the life of her Son, with Simeon in Jerusalem. Simeon, righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, beholding, blessing the baby Jesus. And then saying to Mary that a sword will pierce through her own soul also.
A sword will pierce through her own soul also. Mary lived her whole life in that mystery. Ponder that. Her whole life was mystagogical — spent discerning how this liturgical mystery was the source of meaning, that a sword would pierce through her own soul, also. Does it mean she’ll die by a sword? Or something else. And then that word “also”, does it mean a sword will kill her son? A real sword? A symbolic sword? But only just her son, or the souls of other people, too?
Simeon’s words must have been very disorienting for Mary. Perhaps it was difficult for her, a person like you and me, to find balance in life amid this strange mystery — the mystery of her son’s identity and vocation. When she and Joseph find Jesus at age 12 in the temple, maybe at that point she had forgotten or wanted to deny the divine possibilities of her son’s identity; thereby her son reproves her, for “where else would I be but in my Father’s house?”
And then later, at the Wedding at Cana, maybe the pendulum swung to the other side, amid this lack of beverage she called on him as a kind of divine magician. Fix this crisis! And he then reproved her, “woman, what have you to do with me? my hour has not yet come!”
A sword will pierce through her own soul also. This is a very strange and mysterious statement if you ponder it. And it leads directly to the foot of the Cross.
We are invited to live in the same way, in this life of discernment, pondering mysteries in our heart. And so when we discern, we are being like Mary. When we look through Mary’s eyes, hear with Mary’s ears, feel with Mary’s touch, and ponder with Mary’s heart, the meaning of the Atonement takes on a whole new dimension. To interpret the Atonement, through Mary’s eyes and with her heart, is to see each moment, each episode in the life of Christ in light of the mystery of this soul-piercing sword.
Like Mary, we live our lives with something of a sense of how it all will end. But there is a lot we don’t know day to day. Like Mary, we too struggle with balancing the faith into which we are immersed and plunged with our own sense of reality and the demands of everyday life? Coming to some kind of balance about the true nature of reality, this trinitarian nature of reality, this reality of God as invisible spirit that is at the heart of everything in creation, and all people — coming to balance about this day to day is a life’s work, and work that lasts beyond this life.
But at each moment, we are invited to the truth, and invited to accept, to surrender, in the faith shared with the whole Church gathered before the Altar, to the strangeness, the unfairness, the profound mystery of this death of Christ on the hardwood of the cross. To the strangeness, and the profound mystery of the altar, where we are invited to have our soul healed by The Word, eating his body and drinking his blood.
Perhaps we tremble at that thought, of eating body and drinking blood. Perhaps Mary trembled at the revelation of the person in her womb. She surely trembled when she realized she left behind her 12-year-old boy in Jerusalem. We can imagine she trembled at hearing in her son’s adult voice speaking to the disciples and the gathered masses with an authority beyond that of the prophets, beyond that of the priests, an authority that, at the time, and even now, can sound very strange. And undoubtedly she trembled at the sight, the sound, the smell, the touch of her bleeding, mangled, dead son, holding him in her arms, just as she held him as a little baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, with the light of new life.
If you there when they crucified my Lord, and we were, then maybe sometimes, and even this holy day, and at this holy altar we will soon approach just as we approached the cross on Good Friday, giving our heart to God by means of the beautiful red flowers we laid at the Cross, maybe we can tremble.
May we all come to the altar, the table of our Lord, trembling through the eyes of Mary, trembling with the ears of Mary, trembling in the heart of Mary, trembling in the mystery; for by this mystery, with this mystery, and in this mystery — somehow lies everlasting life.