Good Friday at Chapel Royal

21 March 2008 at :00 am

I recently took part in an event the prospect of which filled me with anxiety. I was invited by a Rabbi to take part in a dialogue with himself and an Imam from the Central London Mosque before an audience of students at Oxford University. In fact, I need not have been anxious. Forty or so students turned up; there were no threats, no violence, not even a protest. You might say it was all very Anglican, except that, after two hours of dialogue, instead of indulging in tea and sympathy we repaired to a Lebanese restaurant for supper.

My only real worry came when the Rabbi asked me about my attitude to supercessionism. The word supercessionism means the doctrine that Christianity superceded Judaism. Put another way, it means the belief that, whilst the Jews were once God’s chosen people, now they have been superceded as such by the Church. I was by no means sure that my answer would be acceptable.

However, the object of a dialogue is not to find agreement but patiently and carefully to explore each other’s beliefs. I spoke of what I understood to be the true meaning of the Good Friday Collect in the Book of Common Prayer when it mentions God’s “ancient people the Jews”. This did not mean God’s very old people the Jews, but God’s former people the Jews, as in ‘ancien regime’. I went on to describe the moment when, after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus goes to drive out the money-changers from the temple and those who are selling the sacrificial animals. I did not see this as a call for peace and quiet in God’s house. Rather I said Jesus was making a bold claim that “the blood of bulls and of goats and the ashes of an heifer” avail nothing. Jesus was surely saying that the temple sacrifices have no power at all to achieve reconciliation between God and man, to set us right with God. The only way we can be justified in God’s eyes and achieve righteousness and ultimately holiness is through the sacrifice of the cross, the self-offering to the Father of Christ his Son. I mentioned the reference in the passion narratives to the veil of the temple being “torn in twain” at the moment of the death of Jesus, as a sign that here and now, through Christ’s sacrifice, the way to come to the Father, which had previously been blocked or open only to the High Priest, is opened for everyone.

I did not go on to quote from St John’s Gospel Jesus saying to Thomas, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” Nor again did I mention Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus when he said, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

These reflections bring us close to the core of Christian belief: that the death of Jesus, who was given by our heavenly Father “to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption”, is the “full, perfect and sufficient, sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world” and that the “benefits of his passion” apply to us who believe in him and who dwell in him.

It was while I was pondering the experience the morning after the encounter with Muslim, Jewish and Christian students at Oxford, that two somewhat disturbing memories came into my mind that threatened to undermine the confidence of my answer on supercessionism. They might help us today answer a question which always nags away at me on Good Friday: did Jesus die for the few, for the many or for all? Who benefits from his death: just those who believe and are active in the Christian life; or those who are good and generous and think of themselves as Christians; or those who seek to know and obey God but follow another religion from our own? On the one hand we speak or sing of Jesus as the Saviour of the world; on the other hand, there have been times when the Church has believed and taught that there is nulla salus extra ecclesiam, no salvation outside the Church. Maybe we cannot know the answer and must take refuge in commending to God the dead ‘whose faith is known to God alone’, in a familiar formulary. So here are the disturbing memories.

The first was this. You will perhaps when visiting Venice have strayed towards the end of the Piazza di San Marco furthest from the Basilica and wandered through the South-Western exit from the Piazza, possibly heading in the vague direction of La Fenice, and stumbled across a rather dull church with an extraordinary west front and an amazing dedication. This is the church of San Moïse, Saint Moses, who is not recognised as such in the Book of Common Prayer. But there he is: San Moïse. If Moses might be thought of as a saint, then so might Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his twelve sons. So surely might any Jew, and if a Jew, then why not a Muslim as well?

My second memory was of the words in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell.” Contemporary Christian thinking makes little of this article of belief. However, there have been periods in the Church’s history when its interpretation was clear. Between Jesus’ death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Day, the Apostles’ Creed says, he descended into hell, in other words, he visited the condemned souls of former generations and eras and, by implication, brought them up to share with him in the benefits of the resurrection. This belief has biblical backing in verses, not often discussed, from St Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 27, “behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.”

The Saddlers’ play, the 37th in the York cycle of Mystery Plays, is called the Harrowing of Hell. Towards the end, Jesus says,

“Adam, and my friends all here,
From all your foes come forth, with me.
You shall be set in solace and cheer
Where you shall never sorrows see.
And Michael, my own angel clear,
Receive these souls all unto thee
And lead them now as you shall hear:
To Paradise, with joy and glee.
To my grave return I will,
To rise up from the dead;
And thus I shall fulfil
All things that I have said.”

There is a wonderful depiction of this very event by Duccio dating from 1308. Jesus, holding in his left hand the symbol of his Cross, his foot pinning down a powerless demon, takes Adam by the right hand and leads him and Eve and the patriarchs and King David from hell into life with him. An ancient homily for Holy Saturday tells us that Jesus said to Adam, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”

The Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ open to us the gateway to eternal life. But is it you and I alone who benefit? Whom might we find beside us on the road? Is this free gift of salvation only to those who could not have known Christ because they lived and died before the Incarnation? Or could it extend also to those good men and women who could not have known Christ, even though they lived after him, because they had never benefited from hearing the Good News? Surely, if Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world, it must.

The sure way to salvation is through Jesus Christ. He is the only Saviour. Those who seek the assurance of salvation must first deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. The best way of life is life in Christ as a member of his Body, the Church. I rejoice in the knowledge that in Christ’s death is my promise of life. But still I hope that I shall see some surprising people in heaven. I know I must prepare for heaven by getting to know some of them on earth.

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