I (KNS) gave this meditation for Good Friday at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Oxford, North Carolina. It owes much to my reading of Volume IV of Barth’s Church Dogmatics (The Doctrine of Reconciliation), which I did this semester under Douglas Campbell.
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,
sing the last, the dread affray;
o’er the cross, the victor’s trophy,
sound the high triumphal lay,
how, the pains of death enduring,
earth’s Redeemer won the day.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Those of you who were here last night heard me say that on Maundy Thursday we stand at the end of the world, looking towards the the turning point of history. And now we have arrived at that place. This day, this hour, is the pivot of the universe; this is the still point around which everything is turned upside-down. Now our Judge is judged in our place; now our prophet, priest, and King is lifted up from the earth, and he is drawing the whole world to himself. Now, the God who spoke the word of creation speaks one decisive word to sin, death, and the devil: “No.”
To be frank, it’s a word that leaves me without many words of my own. In theory, I could stand up here all day and pontificate about Jesus’ suffering and the significance of the Atonement. It’s one of my specialties as a theologian, so you’d think I might have a lot to say. But one thing I think I’ve learned in all my work is this: the word God speaks today is the end of all our words. This is a time for silence and stillness, not for speech.
Preparing for today’s service, I’ve been very much reminded of “Burnt Norton,” the first part of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
[Elevation]* without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.
Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure.
Perhaps what Eliot is gesturing towards here is none other than the Good News on this Good Friday; and yes, there is good news, because we know how the story ends. This end of the world is also the beginning of a new creation. This stillness reveals the intimate dance that is the Triune God. And the “No” that echoes today in the desolate silence of this bare church divides what has been from what will be. It wasn’t God’s first word to humanity, and it isn’t his last either. In the meantime, we wait, but not as those without hope.
Today God says No to everything that separates us from him.
But only because God also says Yes to everything that reconciles us to him.
It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.
* In the original Eliot uses the German Erhebung, but I translated it for homiletic purposes.