Friday, March 25, 2016

Ave and Consummatum Est

“He said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”  St. John 19:30

Today is the twenty-fifth of March.  That, in itself, may seem rather unremarkable to you.  The dates for the celebration of these great three days of Holy Week change from year to year, depending on the cycles of the moon.  We last kept Good Friday on March 25 eleven years ago, and it will next be on this date in 2157, when we will have all gone to our reward. 

But it may be that the first Good Friday was also on the 25th of March, and as they say, thereby hangs a tale.

If you know your liturgical calendar really well, you will remember that when Holy Week and Easter Week don’t interfere, we celebrate another festival on this date, March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary, and God sent His Son into the world to save us.  Christmas is exactly nine months from today.  This is a day of the great end, but also of the great beginning.  He came on this day to save us, and this day He announced His work was done.   The life of Christ is a perfect circle.

The great Anglican poet John Donne, back in 1608, when once again Good Friday fell on March 25 explained it this way:
This day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one…
Of the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est.
Ave—Hail, O favored one, and Consummatum est—it is finished. 

There was a legend in ancient times, known among both Jews and pagans that great heroes, people who truly changed the course of history, were born and died on the same day.  It was so, the rabbis said, for Moses and many of the great prophets, and for some of the great Roman heroes as well.  There were also similar legends surrounding the particular season of the Passover, which began, Saint John tells us, on the evening of Christ’s death.  This was the day when God set his people free from slavery in Egypt.  But it was also then that the world was made, that Noah and his family emerged from the ark, that Abraham lifted the knife over Isaac his Son.  This is a day heavy with symbolic meaning, with resonances that sound across the long story of God’s faithful love for the world He had made. 

As I say, it’s an old legend, recounted by many of the early Christian writers as evidence for the truth and significance of this day, of this death and the Man who perished on it.  Many medieval paintings reference it, juxtaposing the two scenes of Mary's encounter with the angel and Christ's death on the Cross.

It’s not the kind of argument we modern people generally find convincing.  Though I suspect that many of us, if we’re really honest, do watch for the odd coincidences in the run our lives, those dates when events seem connected, giving deeper meaning to both.   When a baby comes on day his great-grandmother died, we’ll note it with wonder.  A letter arriving on an anniversary, a phone call arriving at a most surprising time.  We watch for these things, they make us sit up and take notice. 

Because what they might reveal is purpose.  They allow us to pull together the raveled string that is so much of the life we live.  They point to a deep consistency in the course of things, a consistency fixed in time itself.  If we are people of faith, they are more than coincidence.  They deepen our trust that God is good, that He who acts in the small happenings of life will be faithful to bring all things to their long-promised fulfillment.

This day, this good Friday, can appear an unexpected disaster, an occasion where purpose and pattern seem impossible to trace.  It certainly seemed so to the apostles, who spent the day hiding in fear.  It seemed so, perhaps, to Pilate, who saw before His tribunal a man who simply refused to play by the rules, who would not cower, beg, or cut a deal.  It seemed so to the religious leaders, who rush about, trying every means they know to force the result that just might slip from their grasp.  They think they have a plan, but clearly they’re trying too hard, nervous that it all may go badly wrong at any moment.

It’s only Jesus who seems to know what’s really happening.  This is among the deepest themes of Saint John’s telling of the passion story.  Jesus is completely in control.  He keeps silence mostly.  His words are carefully chosen.  There are no protests or complaints.  “He poured out himself to death”—that’s what Isaiah had prophesied generations before.  And here we see it, moment by moment.   He poured himself out slowly, with intent, until He spoke the last word, “It is finished.”

This was the long-determined plan, that the Son should offer His life, that the righteous One, by His blood would make many righteous.  This plan of reconciliation, Saint Peter testified, was determined before the world was ever made.[1]  In the Book of Revelation, Christ is praised as the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world. [2] For the joy set before him, the author of Hebrews proclaimed, “He endured the Cross, despising its shame.”[3]   Everyone else, perhaps, had forgotten the significance of this day, how what He does this day completes the annunciation’s miracle.  Everyone else failed to see how the whole history of salvation led up Calvary’s hill to this moment of reckoning. 

Perhaps only his holy mother also remembered, and this is part of why she takes her place beneath his Cross.  Mary watches her own life coming full circle, her greatest joy swallowed in bitter sorrow.  And yet, there had been warnings that it would come to this.  She does not join the mob that bids him show his power and come down.  This was His hour, the culmination of what was promised by the angel so long before.  The angel had promised that He would be the Son of God, the Savior of His people, that He would rule a kingdom that endured forever.  And this is how He must do it.  This day, the sword pierces her own heart, as the prophet had foretold, but in this piercing of His body, life for the world flows forth. 

In one sense, the death of Christ is a failure: a travesty of justice, an unveiling of the bitterness of the soul, a rejection of God’s love so freely offered.  But it is also the reaching of a goal, the setting right of a world so badly off course, the return of all that was lost, the bridging of the great gulf fixed between the Holy One and a world of sinners.  It is finished, He says—for this moment Mary said yes to the angel’s glorious words.  For this moment, He was made, and in it all His life’s work is gathered up and laid before the Father in triumph. 

“Through him,” Isaiah promised, “the will of the Lord shall prosper.  Out of his anguish he shall see light; The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” 

We are people who say, but very rarely ‘it is finished.’  There is so little that is resolved in our lives, so little that we know clearly and beyond a shadow of doubt.   Our motivations are mixed, our repentance not quite so earnest as we would have it be.  We cannot make ourselves righteous.  We do not carry our own light.  We cannot bear our iniquities.

Which is why on this day of all days, we rejoice that “it is finished.”   

[1] I Pet. 1:20,
[2] Rev. 13:8.
[3] Heb. 12:2.

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