Today is all about crucifixion. For the second time this week, our gospel reading ends with Christ’s body in the tomb. God is dead. It is as if the light of the world has gone out.
So the Church is all in black. The crosses are veiled. Even the light above the tabernacle, the light that indicates the presence of consecrated bread and wine that has become Christ’s body and blood, even that light is extinguished.
Good Friday is one of only two days in the entire Christian year when we are not allowed to celebrate the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ’s resurrected presence among us. The other is tomorrow, Holy Saturday, when all we can do is keep vigil.
And yet we call this bleakest of all days “Good Friday.” And so it is. Because on this day, Christ’s death makes possible the life of the world.
This is the great mystery at the heart of our faith, at the very heart of God.
Over and over again, Christ has tried to prepare his disciples for this night. Most recently in terms of what we have heard in Church, Jesus had said, “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus went on to talk about being lifted up, and John comments, “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die” (John 12:24, 32-33).
I love the image of Christ as a seed planted in the earth at his death, a seed from which new life can come.
The events we remember today are horrible to contemplate. But good comes from them as the divine seed is cracked open and begins to put out roots. And the roots grow strong. And come Easter morning, new life emerges, a new plant breaks the surface of the earth and blossoms into a beautiful flower.
We can keep going with this analogy.
New life growing out of a strong root system is where we are headed. But as gardeners know, brutal pruning often has to come first.
Our last house in Northampton had huge rhododendron plants stretching across the front of the porch and out into the yard. But before we moved in, somebody cut down the plants by the porch. They cut the plants all the way to the ground. We assumed they were dead.
I love rhododendron, so I was not happy about the cutting. I took some comfort in the remaining rhododendron plant in our yard. Unfortunately, it was a scrawny little thing.
But we had underestimated the plants by the porch. Their root system had survived the cutting. The next spring, we had tiny rhododendron sprouts in front of our porch. The year after that, we had official rhododendron plants. The year after that, last year, the increasingly impressive rhododendron plants in front of the porch were covered with beautiful flowers.
Meanwhile, the unpruned rhododendron plant in our yard struggled along, growing slowly and putting out puny flowers.
By last spring, we had learned our lesson. The boys and I wanted the plant in the yard to thrive like the plants by the porch, so we decided to prune it. And because teen-aged boys were involved, we decided to prune with a machete. We hacked that poor plant to pieces in a truly brutal pruning process.
I think the crucifixion was something like that, a brutal pruning. But a pruning with one important difference. Jesus, the one who got pruned, did not need the pruning himself. Jesus was healthy and bearing good fruit. We are the ones like the scrawny rhododendron plant. We are the ones who needed pruning, not him. Jesus was pruned for us.
Shortly after Jesus entered Jerusalem, which we heard about last week, Jesus saw a fig tree that was not producing fruit. Jesus cursed the tree, and it withered (Mark 11:12-14, 20).
We are that fig tree. Apart from Christ, we cannot produce fruit. Apart from Christ, we do not even have the strength to survive a pruning. We deserve to be cursed and cut down.
But instead of cursing us, Jesus saves us.
At his crucifixion, Jesus was brutally pruned in our place. Like a seed, Jesus was buried in the ground, where he established a new and healthy root system. And Jesus grafts us onto the root he established. As Jesus says, he is the vine, and we are his branches (John 15:5).
We were a scrawny, dying, fruitless tree. But Jesus gives us new roots so that we can live and flourish and produce the fruits of the kingdom.
On Good Friday, we cannot yet see new life. On Good Friday, we cannot even see a healthy root system. On Good Friday, all we can see is the remnant of a bush that has been hacked apart, a crucified and dead body.
But already on Good Friday, new life is germinating.
Last Tuesday, the clergy of the diocese gathered for a morning retreat and to renew our ordination vows. One of the retreat leaders offered a perfect image for Good Friday. He had just seen a forsythia bush buried in snow but blossoming. He was so struck by the sight that he took a picture of it, which he showed me afterwards.
He did some research to try to understand how the bush could blossom in the snow. Apparently, the trigger for plants to blossom is not anything we can see. It is not surface light or warmth. According to this man, plants blossom when their roots get warm.
Presumably in the case of the forsythia bush, its roots were near a pipe of some kind. The pipe warmed the roots, and the bush blossomed.
Jesus died to establish that kind of root for us, a root so full of life-giving warmth that it enables us to blossom even when we could not otherwise blossom, even when everything around us seems barren and lifeless.
Good Friday is a winter kind of day. But to the degree we are rooted in Christ, our roots will always be warm and healthy, even in the coldest and darkest winter.
The story of our rhododendron has a sad ending. We had to move. Smith College cut down everything in the yard and then tore our old house down. They are building dorms where our rhododendron used to be.
But who knows? Maybe that story is not over. After all, those plants had strong roots. Maybe they will come back once again. Maybe they will be like the forsythia plant that blossomed in the snow.
That, at any rate, is possible for us. After all, we who were dead to God have been made alive again in Christ Jesus.
Whatever happens to that plant, on this day, we give thanks to Jesus Christ for allowing himself to be pruned for us. We give thanks to Christ for giving us new and life-giving roots. And we pray that we may bear fruit worthy of his sacrifice.
In the name of our crucified Lord, amen.