Sermon (4 of 4 [in three parts]) Preached by Fr Nicolas Stebbing CR at St Mary, Bourne Street, London on Good Friday (6 April) 2012
upon a time, many centuries ago there lived an artist, a painter in a town in
At first the painting went well as he painted in the surroundings and worked on the tortured figure of Christ. When he reached Christ’s face, though, he got stuck. Time after time he struggled to paint it. Time after time he knew he had failed. It would not come right. Then one day, in exasperation, he flung down his paints and went out for a walk. It was one of those lovely North Italian days when the sun is shining but not too hot and the birds are singing and the colours of the trees and the flowers are just perfect. He walked on through the woods relishing this beauty until suddenly he heard a voice singing. He followed the sound and came to a glade in the forest. In the middle of that glade was a lovely gypsy girl, dancing and singing entirely on her own. It was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. For some time he watched the girl but then he made a noise. She heard and stopped. She saw him and made to run away but he ran to her and caught her. She struggled but he held her till she calmed down. He asked her name – it was Pepita. He asked her to come back to his studio so he could paint her. At first she refused but in the end she agreed and he took her home.
He brought her into the studio and stood her on a small dais and asked her to assume a dancing position. She did but she wouldn’t keep still. As he sketched her she kept looking round, amazed by the pictures. Then she saw the figure of the Crucified Christ. “Who’s that?” she said “Keep still” said the artist. “What are they doing to him?” she asked. “Keep still” said the artist but she wouldn’t. She walked over to the picture. “Why are they doing that to him?” she asked “Who is he?” Well the artist realised he had to answer her questions. So he sat her down and told her this story of a Father who had loved all the people in this world; how he had seen them going wrong and tried over and over again to get them to go right; how in the end he had sent his own Son. How this Son had gone around teaching people, healing them, telling them about his Father but still the people had gone wrong and in the end they had killed him, killed him on a Cross. Even so he had accepted this death to show them his love. Indeed he had died for them so that they would know his love and how he had promised that all who listened to him would join him in a Kingdom with his Father for ever...Well, the artist was an artist with words as well as with paints and he told this story well. At the end there was a long silence and then Pepita looked at him in amazement and said “How you must love him”.
artist felt empty. He no longer felt like painting, so he sent Pepita away. As
the days passed her words kept coming back to him. “How you must love him” but
he pushed them away. He tried to continue his painting but he got no further.
After a few days he once again flung down his brushes and went out for a walk.
It was a dull overcast day. No birds sang. Subconsciously he followed the same
route through the forest and found himself once more at the glade but it was
empty and silent. Then he heard the sound of crying and there on the edge of the
glade was Pepita, lying on the ground sobbing. He ran across and took her in his
arms: “Pepita what’s wrong? what’s happened”? She said nothing. “No
come, Pepita, tell me what’s wrong. Why are you crying”. Then Pepita turned
a tear streaked face to him and said “That man Jesus; he died for you but
I’m only a gypsy girl. He didn’t die for me.” At that the artist’s heart
broke. The ice in his heart melted and he understood that Jesus had died for him
and for Pepita and for all the people in this world. Then he told Pepita this
and dried her tears and explained to her how Jesus knew her and loved her, even
though she was just a gypsy girl and that he had died for her. Then he went back
to his studio and finished painting the Christ. He gave his painting to the
church, refusing a fee. It’s said that every day the artist would go into the
Church and sit in front of this painting and look at Christ and think of
Pepita’s words. “How you must love him!”
“That man Jesus, he died for you. But I’m only a gypsy girl. He didn’t die for me”.
understand Pepita’s sense of exclusion you probably need to go to
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief and, as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised.
Jesus became one of them. He let himself be
rejected by his own people, by his own church. He was driven out of his religion
by the highest authorities of the temple. He was condemned to a slave’s death
by the Roman rulers. He was abandoned by most of his family and most of his
friends. He was dragged through the streets, spat at, jeered at, whipped and
beaten. He was taken to the loathsome
Who would Jesus seek out now – the asylum
seeker? the BNP supporter? the paedophile? Who does our society most hate? who
do we most hate? It is a sobering thought that these are the very people Jesus
died for. They are the ones he seeks out now to show them his love. That is
fortunate for us. It was because of that love that he died for us too. Jesus
died for you and me. If that does not surprise us, even shock us, we have not
really understood what the crucifixion was about.
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man - though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die but God shows his love for us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
If we have not understood just how awful our sin is we have not understood the depths and the riches, the height and the breadth of the love which Jesus showed on the Cross. We are in a worse position than Pepita, or the penitent paedophile, or the penitent thief on the Cross. How can I speak thus of you nice people, or even of myself? We are not thieves, tube train bombers, murderers. We are not sex maniacs, drug addicts or any of the other things that make for big sinners. All of us try quite hard to live good Christian lives. We fail often but our failure is not spectacular. It doesn’t reach the newspapers. Yet still we commit the worst of all possible sins. Over and over again in big ways and apparently small ways we turn away from the love of God. We reject the love God offers us. We walk past the Cross and do not notice the torture he is enduring. We don’t notice the love on his face, the pain that he has chosen to accept to try and convince us he loves us.
“Is it nothing to you all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow“.
That is why now, this afternoon, we look at Jesus hanging on a Cross. We come to Jesus on our knees and kiss his feet while he hangs on the Cross. Through the rest of the day we genuflect to the crucifix which will stand on the altar. Today at least we will not simply pass by.
Yet that is not enough. As we watch Jesus this afternoon go through the terrible agony of the Cross, the loneliness, the rejection, the insults, the pain, we remember it is for us. How can we return that love? How can we show him we do not simply pass by? Is it not by confessing our sins, confessing them perhaps in that most painful and costly way, in the Sacrament of confession, before a priest? If we do that we discover one of the strangest mysteries of the Christian faith – the felix culpa; the happy fault. It is through the most terrible thing that ever happened in the world, the Crucifixion of the son of God, that the greatest good came to us. It is through our willingness to enter into the shame and humiliation of our sins that we discover our forgiveness, discover just how much we are loved, discover like the Prodigal son that there never was a moment that we were not loved, that love sweeps all else away. There is no short cut to that knowledge for all of us sin but the sight of Christ dying on a Cross breaks our hearts and gives us the love we need to lay our sins at his feet and accept his love.
That story of the painting of the Crucified
Christ was a true story. In a curious kind of way that painting became the
Crucified and its history imitated his. The painting hung in a North Italian
church for about 200 years, watching over the people, drawing all who looked on
it to that remarkable face, full of suffering, of love, of compassion, of
understanding for all their sins. Then in the religious wars of the 17th Century,
the painting was looted by Germans and taken back to
Once, many years ago, I lived in the midst of a civil war. One of the worst things about war is to see the innocent suffer. Day after day we watched the people of the village suffer, hit by both sides, unable to defend themselves except by running away. Where was Christ in such a place? I came to see he was there in the villages with the people, helpless, defenceless, suffering like them. He was close to them and comforted them and through his suffering he drew the evil from their pain and in the end peace came.
So today we look at
The Cross goes on. Its shadow is cast over the centuries. Each decade, each century produces new horrors. Christ continues to suffer. He suffers in the countries whose stories are told in our newspapers. He suffers in the lives of many whom we never hear of at all – women and men who are abused, children who are exploited, people who live with painful diseases, people who are cast out of society, refugees, homeless ones and those who die in squalor. There is no place where Jesus is not but if we want to find him we must look for him in the places of pain, in the dark places of sorrow. There, seemingly against all the odds, his light continues to burn.
is Good Friday called good? That mystified me as a child. Why do we Christians
put a naked man suffering death on a cross above our altars and gaze on such a
horrible sight with love? How did Christianity survive the decades of relentless
the story we tell really true? Christ destroyed sin on the Cross; he destroyed
the power of evil; he fought with the devil and cast him down. Yet sin goes on.
As each of us knows if we are at all honest with ourselves, sin goes on and the
victories we win are small and fragile, easily lost again. We can be forgiven -
thank God - but even that marvellous forgiveness takes a long time to stop us
sinning. Evil goes on. It would be nice to think that the world has become a
better place since Christ fought that battle with evil and won. In some ways it
has but in most ways the evil seems to go on. We remember the horrors of the
First World war, the millions who died under Stalin and Hitler, the genocide in
Ruwanda, the ethnic cleansing of
No; the Cross, the Harrowing of Hell and the Resurrection are not time bound events which happened on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday two thousand years ago. When Jesus died he broke out of time and his battle with the devil goes on. The victory is won but the battle goes on. We ourselves are part of it. We fight against evil and experience the evil. We see the darkness and see also the little fragile light in the darkness which will not be put out. We see the pain and desolation of those who suffer and yet we see also their courage and resilience and joy. We live with the Cross and we live with the Resurrection too. We have hope; not because there is no power in evil but because, in the end, hope depends on God and he sends his Son again and again into the dark places of the world, to bring life.
let us return to that darkest place, to
Nicolas Stebbing CR