John 19:42: A Good Friday reflection

I will preach this at noon at St. Peter's, Lewes, Delaware, where I can only hope there is forgiveness beyond all measure. Preaching on Good Friday is an invitation to failure. Against what is remembered, what is there to say? Still, here it is.

John 19:42: A reflection.

"I'm sorry. There is nothing we can do."

That is often the death sentence for the lingering, the long and sometimes horrific closing days and hours of life: "There is nothing we can do."

It is the sentence used beside the bed of the dying, in the cell of the condemned, by the flood as the victim is swept away down river. It is the cry of the powerless.

And in some strange way, after all these years, it is our cry as we listen to the Gospel account of everything falling apart as Jesus, pulled toward Jerusalem as a moth to the flame, is caught into the vortex of events beyond control or finally our influence. We sit here and listen, and there is nothing we can do.

The powerlessness of the death watch is so awful that it is almost a relief to be able to do something – anything – that gets us beyond the dreaded moment. So a family member dies, and the terror in the heart, the powerlessness of waiting, is for a moment replaced with something to do. There is a task or tasks to be completed. At least now we can do something.

The Gospel reading today ends with John 19:42, " And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there." There it is, something practical to do: they laid poor Jesus in the tomb. Now the numbing horror of watching him die was over. Now those who had averted their eyes rather than look into his could come and carry him away and lay him out. They could do something.

And we too here will leave this beautiful Church with Jesus still in the tomb. Still, we do something – we lay him down and let him go.

We Christians tend to read all the difficult parts of the Gospel against the backdrop of a faith already established: we know it is all going to turn out all right – that the three days when death seems to be all there is will be replaced by a new witness that Jesus is risen and the conviction that the story is not over.

But on Good Friday, for just a few moments here in this silent Church, among friends of Jesus, we remember: it was not Good Friday, not then, not now. It is not Good Friday until we are in a different place. It was unbearable sadness and horror, the more so because unjust. Then and now.

The followers of Jesus watched, or didn't, an execution in which the point was precisely inhumane and lingering taking of life. And we watch with them. It goes on and on, and the pain is unrelieved, and we blame everyone in sight: it is the Jews fault, it is the Romans fault, it is the fault of the times, the law, the people and their fickle ways, it is the fault of Judas, of the high priest, of Pilate, of almost everyone who was in authority. They did this terrible thing and we were powerless to help.

But we never seem to get to the end of that list, and add our own blame. We claim we were powerless, but we never tried – we never took the authorities on, we never told the doctors and the lawyers and the politicians to stand back. We never said no to the horrors imposed by the powerful on all the world, or to the horrors we impose even in our own day.

We wander around always thinking we are powerless in the face of death, as if death really does have dominion over us. We become like the young man who ran naked away from the police, or Peter who denied that we ever knew this sufferer Jesus. Or we avoid the whole matter and try to weasel out of the injustice of it all by arguing about what is Truth and what is right belief. We want to run away, and sometimes do.

So our powerless leads us to stand at the foot of the cross and look away, or more likely behind the tree, peeking out, or perhaps leads us to a dark cave or distant pub. We can't do anything, so we do nothing. And, when it is finished we finally come out of our holes and rummage around and try to do something practical.

"Let's lay him in this borrowed tomb."


"Let's come back later and get him ready for burial."


"God I could use a drink."

"Me too."

And here we are on Good Friday. It's hard to simply stand in the powerlessness of Good Friday with a silly smudge of a face – part smile part anguish. He is dead – thank God. The suffering was unbearable. But what now? My face is cracking, my mind is cracking…"Wait, I know. Let's take him down and lay him out."

Where is the power, the overcoming power, then and now? Mary and John, the one Jesus loved, were able to stand at the foot of the cross and not look away. Rather they looked at him, eye to eye, and he gave Mary over into John's care, and John found a mother. There was power in presence – in being present with the one dying. It made them new.

That is why on Good Friday and every other Friday in people's lives as they come to death, one of the most powerful things we can do is be truly present with them and with one another.

We will in a few moments share Eucharist – The Great Thanksgiving. For even on Good Friday, even when we dare to look on the Cross, when we dare to look into the eyes of the One who loved us, when we think on these things, we are filled with thanksgiving. The bread and wine taste just a bit sour, as if we have been too long powerless, too long grieving, too deeply in shock. But the taste is a jarring reality: there is thanksgiving even here, using last night's bread and wine.

The power in the powerlessness is this: Stay present, stay with it, stay with the grief, the awe in knowing the suffering, stay with Jesus never more human, never more God present with us. Stay with Jesus.

In baptism we die with Jesus and are raised with him into New Life. So today we die just a bit. After all the efforts to make a difference we are brought up short; there is nothing to be done. Time is up. He said it most simply, "It is finished."

We know, having been born anew, that this is not the full story, not the end of the matter. But for the moment taste the meal of powerlessness, the bread and wine of the vanquished and the doomed. It is not the last supper with Jesus, but in some ways the last meal in his presence.

Next time we eat and drink with Jesus it will be in the New Jerusalem, in the new boat – the new ark - of the new covenant.

Sunday sounds about right.


  1. Thank you for this, Mark. Blessings to you and your ministy(ies) this Holy Triduum.

    Padre Wayne

  2. after listening to the wondrous service of St. Thomas, NYCITY, on webcast, I felt emotionally exhausted yet hopeful.It reminded me of the services of DEan Stewart, now Bishop, in New Orleaans. Then I turned to your more immediate reflections and knew what I should do with my humbleness: "Stay with it, Stay with the grief and awe in kmowing the sufferiing. Stay with Jesus"
    Thanks for showing me what to do. Anne Frances

  3. [I just got a call that this evening's GF services at my church (St. James, Albion, MI) were snowed out---so blogs are my worship tonight.]

    Thanks for this, Mark---

    This past fall, as I was on death-watch for my mom (it took a week: the end of ALS, "Lou Gehrig's Disease"), I took a couple of hours off---because I "had to" go pet-sit for some friends (And, oh yeah, they had a hot tub I could use, too).

    As I was sitting there soaking, I remember thinking "C'mon, Mom: Die Now! Right Now! While I'm 10 miles away!" *

    "We become like the young man who ran naked away from the police": my brother, my self.

    Lord have mercy.

    [* She didn't---I was "sleeping" in the guest bed in the living room, when the night nurse came to tell me it was Finally Over. RIP, Mom.]

  4. Death is not always our enemy. For Jesus on the cross, it was the moment of triumph. For many of us it is the moment of release.

    The hymn has it, "where oh death is now thy sting." Without its finality, with the sting removed by Jesus, death is a portal, a time to move on. When my grandfather who had led an independant and full life died after a short period of illness, we celebrated. His eternal fate is something we never doubted.



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