Sermon given at the Solemn Liturgy on Good Friday 2023

We must see man and God.

The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle MBE Dean of Westminster

Friday, 7th April 2023 at 3.00 PM

There is a story, from nineteenth-century France, about a young officer who made a bet. The bet requires the soldier to go to confession in a Paris church and make an absurd confession. He has to describe all the sins he can think of. In detail. He gets into the confessional and does it. He is pleased with himself, with the effort and the style of it, with the mockery he made of our little audits of sinfulness. There was a lengthy silence in the confessional and then the priest said, ‘Now, my son, I want you to back into the church in front of the big crucifix. I want you to look at the crucifix and say “You did that for me, and I don’t give a damn”. I want you to go on saying that for as long as you can.’ The soldier goes where he is told. He looks at the crucifix. He cannot say the words. He leaves. And the story tells us that he became a monk.

He has to look at the cross and see the man hanging there. He has to really see the man on the cross.

Another story, of my own: I had gone to an exhibition of religious art. It was art that kept delivering a gut punch. The agony of Christ, the bloodshed, the thorns, his innocence, his suffering, the prayers we should pray, the debates about what we should believe. This was religion, a lot of it fifteenth and sixteenth-century religion, someone else’s religion. Then, because I was staring at the leaflet I was holding, I nearly walked into Jesus. He was seated, a statue, life-size, almost naked. Christ on the Cold Stone. Christ waiting, the very moment before he was to be crucified. Not religion, not proposition, just Christ demanding to be seen in the shadow of the cross.

You have to see, you must see the man, Jesus.

Today, we would do well to stop looking, stop thinking it through and just see the man dying on the cross.

We do not often do that. We do not see. There is good reason not to gaze at the cross. John Donne, famously, wrote a poem all about not seeing. It is called Good Friday 1613 Riding Westwards. The crucifixion happened in the east, so John Donne was riding away, had his back to the cross. And he is almost glad that he does not have to see

That spectacle of too much weight for mee.

So, we look away. And when we were not looking away—well then, I think we look through the cross. We look out the other side and find an explanation. It might perhaps be an attempt explain the text, a digging deep into what St John described to get at the meaning. I have done that often enough. I could talk, as I have talked before about Christ’s dying words—‘It is finished’ a deliberate reminder that God looked at creation when it was ‘finished’. St John, writing about the crucifixion, tells us that the cross is a new creation. But already we are not really looking at the man hanging there.

Or we explain the theology of the cross. The cross as sacrifice, the cross as atonement, the cross as ransom. We look and look and explain and again we stop seeing the dying man. Interestingly, when Thomas Aquinas wrote about the cross in a deeply learned theological work, he thought deeply about all the explanations, and yet he kept gently reminding us that ‘the man’ Jesus did this. A human being Aquinas kept seeing a human being hanging there.

So, we look away, or look through. Or perhaps we glance at the cross and walk off shaking our head. Edwin Muir in The Killing, describes those who ‘watched’ or who ‘came to stare’ and yet never did see.

Did a God
Indeed in dying / cross my life that day /
By chance, / he on his road and I on mine?

That is the cross as something else, somewhere else, not the place to stay and see, just a brief moment of intersection—he on his road and I on mine.

St John wants us to see. He really wants us to see. Almost the first words Christ speaks, in John, are ‘Come and see’. Jesus tells Nathanael he will see greater things, he tells his followers that it is the will of the Father that we see the Son, Thomas famously demands to see and, at the empty tomb, the beloved disciple saw and believed. See. Do you see? Come and see.

Today, see the man, see Jesus on the cross. It is fundamentally important that we do not turn this day into an action, a thought or turn our gaze inwards, talking to ourselves. The great truth of our salvation is that it done for us not by us. It is done by the man hanging from the nails. It is fundamentally important that we do not turn the crucifixion into an explanation. Today the man Jesus dies. We have to see that.

Ecce Homo, says Pilate, ‘Behold the man’. The crowd refuse, they start to shout, ‘Away with him, crucify him’. Away with him, do not make us see, just do something. Crucify him. He died because they would not see. The temptation is always there to stop seeing.

Our hope, our only hope of glory, lies in the ludicrous possibility that God has shown himself to us in the one thing that we might recognise and really see—as one of us, as a human being, the one thing we can know and feel. Salvation hinges on God made man. The God we struggle to describe becomes human. ‘In the beginning was the Word… and the Word was made flesh’. God made man; God seen. We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son. We have to see that or, frankly, we see nothing.

On Good Friday we must see the man on the cross. We must see a man dying. Not religion, just a human being dying. It is precisely that which we should see. Jesus, the one person who has been fully human, perfectly human, properly human. Jesus the only one of us who lived a human life and risked himself utterly in his commitment to being human. Not guarded, not defended, the one person willing to take the human risk of committing himself to living as humans must, in relationship—without reservation. He took the risk of love. That is what we see on the cross. The man Jesus and the risk of love.

On the cross is a fully human being and God himself. On the cross, we also see ourselves. Seeing him, we see his determination to risk love and our determination to avoid that risk he took. We have to see that. He lived and loved and we killed him because we would not love. If we really see Christ today, we will see God and begin to see ourselves and what we have done with the gifts God has given us. We have to see that. We must see what we are and what we might be. We must see man and God. We must see.