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Charles de Foucauld Holy Week 3

My photo of Charles de Foucauld’s Assekrem hermitage chapel

With Charles de Foucauld canonised by Pope Francis last month, I want to continue to celebrate him – Charles de Foucauld is one of my inspirations. I once preached through Holy Week, using Charles de Foucauld as a lens. Here, from that week, (having already put my Palm Sunday and my Maundy Thursday sermon online) is my Good Friday sermon (somewhat in note form):

+ In the name…

Pause moment – where in readings hear what Spirit saying to us as Church – to me; you; us.

If you are looking for an effective, moving and constructive film representation of the carrying the Cross up Calvary’s hill I suggest look no further than the NZ film that won 11 Oscars. In Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King we see Frodo struggling up Mount Doom, overwhelmed with inner and outer suffering. He is carrying his burden & his shoulder and neck chafed and bleeding under its weight. 

Tolkien, a devout Christian, wanted to express Christian faith in his monumental story. But he didn’t want a light allegory – he disliked allegory. Even though he reworked the story several times can still see Sam as the figure of Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry the cross up calvary & hear Jesus say “I thirst”.

There is another film about the passion of the Christ. I haven’t seen Mel Gibson’s version. But priests, I believe, have a certain tradition/right to talk about things they haven’t seen.

Its rating is R16. I read a great deal about it & became involved conversations including internationally, and by email.

Yes some I know have gone & yes – some of those came & spoke to me about how they were moved by the film – one expressed surprise at his own feelings – that he was so affected by a film about Christ. Some deeply, positively moved. Far more came & spoke to me disturbed, regretting they had gone; wishing they had not gone  & finding that it had affected them in an unhealthy way. Many tell me it is “too violent”. I have not met or heard of anyone who encountered it as a converting experience.

I’m not wanting to influence you about it – I’m not here encouraging you to see it or discourage you from seeing it. If you’ve seen it, I’m not wanting to modify your positive or negative experience with it. I don’t want to examine its anti-Semitism, or its historical inaccuracies. I want for a moment only to reflect on its violence – and for this reflection it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it or not. 

Nearly half of Mel Gibson’s movie is unrelenting scenes of the most graphic violence ever filmed, from the beating by the Jewish Temple guards through the 18 minutes of the scourging by the Roman soldiers to the graphic portrayal of the nailing. 

Let me be clear: crucifixion and the torture that preceded it was a horrific and most violent form of execution.

But there is something questionable when we take the texts intended in the tradition to be read and heard, just as we have today, and we turn them into very explicit, realistic cinematic images. All this coming at a time when the world is torn by primal violence in the name of God and of religion. 

One verse out of the 82 verses of John’s Gospel we have just heard: Then Pilate took Jesus and scourged him. This one line takes up a sixth of the 2 hour film. I will not describe what the man who brought us Braveheart does to the scourging scene. Filmgoers generally end up closing their eyes. What is the reaction of Jesus? Jesus throughout the film yes gasps, but he does not break down. His eyes don’t close. He doesn’t pass out. 

Is there hope in this movie. Yes, at the end of the movie, there is the briefest of resurrection scenes – a glimpse of a resuscitated, cleaned up, recognisable Jesus now with a stigmata. 10 seconds at the end of 2 hours of suffering. 

It is as if Mel Gibson doesn’t need the resurrection. The suffering is the point. This is not the story of the Risen Jesus – this is the story of Survivor Jesus. Jesus Christ – Super stoic. The inflicting of suffering is the action of the film – and the dramatic question is: How much pain can Jesus take? Is it his almost miraculous capacity to suffer that saves the world? Does it even matter who is being crucified? Or is the idea that whoever suffered most in human history – by that very suffering would have been the messiah? Would have saved the world?

As we circle around these types of questions on this Good Friday I believe we can come to understand our own view on life, reality, and God better. 

There is a very common interpretation of Jesus’ suffering called the satisfaction theory or the penal-substitution theory. It essentially goes back a thousand years to St Anselm and has been very popular in the West. In its least subtle form, this approach teaches that God was angry about human sinfulness, but having taken out His anger by punishing poor, suffering Jesus, God has now got rid of his bout of rage and can be nice to the rest of us.

Jesus Christ takes the place, and the punishment, of sinners for their salvation. 

Let me be totally straight with you: I do not accept this particular theory of how we are saved. 

Moreover, to focus only on the physical sufferings that Jesus endured is to miss the helplessness, the submissiveness, the powerlessness that Jesus experienced. This bore fruit for Jesus and for us. 

Each of us brings a viewpoint, a particular lens through which we see the Christian story. There can be two poles: 

Let me describe the first viewpoint: on this side are those who see the world as primarily evil – any good we see in the world is an illusion – part of our fallen inability to see clearly. When we fall in love – that is an illusion. God stands over against this world and judges it – God is enraged about us. God’s infinite justice and righteousness and holiness are insulted by our depraved wickedness. 

Punishment, torturous punishment is the only satisfactory response of such a God. And Jesus gets the lot of it. Jesus takes the punishment that God should have meted out to us. He takes all of God’s wrath. And God, having exhausted his supply of anger, only has love left for us.  

People who hold to this viewpoint will read every scripture passage, sing every hymn, and endure every human experience in the light of this belief, this interpretation, this image of God.

I firmly, absolutely hold to the opposite pole – to the opposite interpretation. For me, God is love. Full stop. Beginning and end of story. God can only love just like the sun can only shine. God loves Judas as much as God loves Jesus. God is love. Full stop – no ifs, buts, maybes. God is absolutely, head over heals, nuts about me, about you, about every particle and fibre in creation. 

God loves me into being, loves you into being – right at this moment. And God is dying to share that love with me/you. It is we who put up barriers to this love. We who put the clouds in front of the sun that stops the sunshine – nothing to do with the Sun – nothing to do with God. 

We are not punished for our sins. We are punished by our sins. God gives us free will – and we live with the consequences of our actions – God leaves us to those consequences – even as they separate us from God’s love. 

The incarnation, birth, life, teaching, serving, healing, suffering, dying, and rising of Jesus are all part of the great symphony of God’s love drawing us back to God. We are drawn into that symphony. We are the orchestra picking up that great tune sung from the beginning.

The Greek of the New Testament is clear when it says Christ died for us it doesn’t mean instead of us – it means Christ died on behalf of us.

You can work out which perspective, which emphasis Mel Gibson brings to his reading of the Gospels. And which one Tolkien might have brought to his reading of the Gospels. And let us thank God that the book of the film – the Gospels themselves – will still be read long after the films have long been forgotten. All the technical resources employed to achieve a movie’s effects lacks the power of a single line: “Then Pilate handed him over to be crucified.” 

Which perspective do you bring? A God who notes every wrong you do – almost grudgingly loving you because of what Jesus suffered for you? Trying to convert you through feelings of guilt about Jesus’ pain? Or a God who rejoices over you; dances around you; loves you with a passion? Forgives you your faults and weaknesses and failings.

I think we too easily focus too much on our sins; on the bad we do. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t for a minute want to belittle evil or human sinfulness. I just think our response of looking at our sin can lead to becoming trapped and entwined and drawn into further despondency, dejection, and separation. The older and healthier tradition is to look to God – and as we do so to find that our burden is lightened; our temptations to sin are lessened.

Something worse: the focus on our sins, our failures, can mean we try to use God to help us be good. God becomes the means – not the end. We think God can make us strong; We think God can make us good. As if after that we won’t need God. But this is complete confusion. God is the end and purpose of our lives. 

“Who is this coming out of the desert leaning upon her beloved?” Our life is leaning upon God the beloved. Our life is all mercy. At the end of his life, Thomas Merton writes in his journal: “I live a flawed and inconsequential life, believing in God’s love.” Believing in God’s love.

Another monk was asked by a tourist to the monastery – what do you do here all the time? He replied “we fall; we get up…”

At the start of this week, I gave you a task – to pray daily the prayer of abandonment of Charles de Foucauld. And to pray it with sincerity. I hope many of you have figured out by now – it was a bit of a trick task. We try our best & that’s good; but I don’t think it can be done fully. I don’t think we can pray it in total sincerity and complete 100% honesty. And that’s fine.

Today, however, on the cross, Jesus shows he prays the heart of this prayer – with absolute integrity; with total honesty; with complete sincerity – as no one else can – as no one else has. Totally. Listen to Jesus as on the cross he prays this prayer: 

I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures –
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul:
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

Prayer of Abandonment Charles de Foucauld

Last night you heard God say this prayer to you:

I abandon myself into your hands;
… I love you, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,

Today we hear Jesus praying this prayer back to God.

Praying – real prayer – is when you become still enough to hear Jesus praying this prayer alongside you; within you.

And to hear God say this prayer to you. 

Now through the cross we are caught up in a love affair – prayer is a love affair. We are caught up in The Song of Songs – the love song at the heart of reality. 

Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

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