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

PEPITA

I

Once upon a time, many centuries ago there lived an artist, a painter in a town in Italy . He was a very good painter but not a very good man. Unusually for that time he did not believe in God but because he was such a good painter the church in the town asked him to paint a picture of the crucified Christ. Because he was not a believer he demanded a very large fee. Then he set to work.

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”.

The 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!”  

II

“That man Jesus, he died for you. But I’m only a gypsy girl. He didn’t die for me”.

To understand Pepita’s sense of exclusion you probably need to go to Eastern Europe where gypsies still exist in considerable numbers. They are at the bottom of the social heap. Everyone hates them. They are thieves, beggars, drunkards, loafers. They look good in their colourful clothes but don’t be deceived. They will cheat you as soon as look at you and steal the shirt off your back. That is how society sees them and no doubt society is right. We all know that Hitler’s regime killed six million Jews. We forget it also killed hundreds of thousands of gypsies. No one minded that, or tried to save the gypsies. Who cares about them? Yet Jesus did care and does care now. Jesus cared for the outcast, the rejected. He cared for the tax collector who was probably the most despised and hated person in Jewish society. He cared for prostitutes, for women taken in adultery, for lepers. No one was beyond the care of Jesus. The more lost, isolated and despised they were, the more he sought them out. So in the end he became one of them. He didn’t just die for us, the nice, the good, the respectable, well behaved Christians. He died for those who are hated, for the dirty, the unwashed, the unlovable; for the ones we push to the margins of our world.

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 Golgotha – the Place of the Skull. He was stripped naked – there was no nice little loin cloth such as we see in most paintings of the crucifixion. It was hardly possible for Jesus to be more rejected, more despised than he was. He went that far to seek out the loneliest most lost people of the world. He went that far, to seek us.

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. St Paul tells us:

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.

III

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 Germany where it hung in a German parish church, looking down over the people, drawing them also to gaze on the loving face of Christ. When Napoleon invaded Germany his soldiers camped in that Church bringing in their horses out of the cold and the crucified Christ gazed down on those French soldiers for whom also he had died. That painting of the Crucified continued to hang there until a night in 1944 when bombers that had set off from England dropped bombs on that church and destroyed it, blowing the Crucified Christ to pieces. Of course the pilots of those planes did not mean to destroy the painting. Perhaps they did not mean to kill the men, women and children whom those bombs also hit. They were high up in the sky in the darkness seeing just a few lights below. They did what they were told. How often the greatest evils we do are done unaware, or just because we do what we are told. It is the Crucified Christ who suffers.

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 Iraq , at Palestine , at Darfur, at the Eastern Congo , at the endless list of places in the world where violence reigns. It is the innocent and defenceless who suffer there. We cannot ignore them. They are people like us. They feel as we do; they are hungry, and frightened and they do not wish to die. They don’t want to see their children blown to pieces, or starved. Yet that is what happens. We share responsibility for their plight. The arms which our country manufactures find their way there. The financial wealth of our country is built on the exploitation of countries which cannot defend themselves. The dictators and warlords of Africa and the Middle East are kept in place by our governments, who support them, or by our economies who trade with them. It is the innocent and defenceless who suffer, and the crucified Christ is there.

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.

Why 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 persecution in Russia and the communist states? How do we preach a God of compassion and love in Africa today where millions are dying of AIDS, of starvation, as a result of droughts and war?

Is 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 Yugoslavia – and now Iraq and Darfur . The evil goes on. Did the Cross achieve nothing? Is Satan still firmly in control?

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.

So let us return to that darkest place, to Golgotha , to a thief crucified alongside Jesus. He was in pain, at the very end of his life, enduring the mockery of the crowds. Yet he was not taken up simply with himself. The other thief mocked and insulted Jesus. This thief could forget his own pain and defend the sinless one. His words to the other thief are spoken also to us. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? We indeed justly” . We will not understand the events of the next two hours unless we remember at every moment that we are one with that thief, a sinner, part of a sinful human race, participating in evil beyond our imagining, causing pain, giving insult, rejecting the love of God. Yet still Jesus goes on, suffering for us. We deserve nothing, have earned nothing. We have nothing with which we can buy our salvation. We come to this last moment, like Peter, like the other disciples, knowing we have failed Jesus whom we love. We have not done what he asked. We have not stood by him and confessed his name. We have joined with the mockers and the crowd. We thought we had to; we thought no one would notice. We thought it didn’t matter. Now, at the foot of the Cross, we realise it did matter. We are responsible for this disaster. We have put Jesus here on the Cross and we cannot take him down. It is too late to turn the disaster round. It is too late to do anything but to realise how sorry we are. We cannot go with him. He must leave us in the place of death, our own Golgotha . We have deserved this death and must die this death. The one last pathetic thing we can do is to say we are sorry; we can ask that he will at least remember us with kindness though we failed him so badly. "Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom" and to our amazement we hear his reply: "Today you will be with me in Paradise".

            Nicolas Stebbing CR