By the Rt Revd Dr Nicholas Chamberlain, Suffragan Bishop of Grantham

You may wish to click here to download the order of service to accompany your reading – Good Friday Three Hours Devotion

12.00   This Three Hours gives us space and opportunity to ponder the Cross of Christ.

There will be silence, singing, and a series of short thoughts, post scripts and comments, following each of the hymns and chants. Do please come and go as you choose, but I invite you to enter and leave the building at a time when we are singing, and to respect each others’ space. We begin with the hymn ‘The Royal Banners’

There are different ways of approaching and pondering the cross of Christ. I say ‘approaching and pondering’, because I am hesitant to say ‘understanding’, for how can we understand this mystery of Jesus’ obedience and God’s love? And is there a risk, if we do not recognise the challenge of understanding, that we will turn the cross into a tool with which to argue and contend, rather than let it be the scaffold of our liberation?

The hymn ‘the royal banners forward go’ reminds us of the different facets of the cross. Each will speak differently, but I particularly respond to the idea that the cross is the tree that helps undo the disobedience that took place beneath the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil in Eden. Jesus, the second Adam, ascends the cross his throne, where the first Adam fell. In Jesus, history moves on, past failures are made good, hope is restored.

There is a cost – but the cross is more than simply cost or penalty; it is a deep mystery that affects all things. So in the silence that follows, we begin to approach the cross, in its mystery and its wonder. It is an instrument of torture that is used by a political power in an attempt to terrorise and cement rule. For the thousands who were crucified by Rome it remains just that – an instrument of terror. But in this one cross, the cross of Christ, the instrument of terror becomes much more – it becomes the throne of liberation, and this one cross puts all other crosses into perspective. Political and spiritual collusion is unmasked, the way forward revealed.

12.20  Morning Glory, Starlit Sky

Gathered in what is a beautiful place, we can perhaps still be reminded of the importance of the created world in the events of Good Friday, and it is on this aspect of the cross that I would now like to dwell, as on its impact on God himself.

The Cross of Jesus, the Cross of Christ, liberates not only those human beings who cling to it, but the whole creation in which it is set as a kind of pivot of redemption and renewal. And we can perhaps sense this, as we contemplate the saving mysteries during the Springtime of the year, as this beautiful Lincolnshire land springs to life after the dormancy of winter.

But there is more, as W.H.Vanstone shows, because, dare we say it, the cross affects the Godhead itself; the death of the Son of God has its impact on the Father and the Spirit, too. This is risky and brave theology, drawing on the insights of the generation that experienced world war, built a new nation, founded the welfare state, and whose work has been in many ways dismantled in recent years. But I recommend that we attend to these now fading voices, and I suggest that in Lincolnshire at least, we may feel their force still.

Sometimes, as we cry out to God in our fear or anger, or walk away from God, because we feel what we see as His distance – where is God in our cost of living crisis – in the struggles of those who are living with pain and illness or  who seek safe refuge? Sometimes, we might do well to wonder at God’s response at the death of the Son. There are, surely echos of Abraham’s anguish when he is asked to sacrifice Isaac. In that case, God can prevent the death. But he cannot prevent Jesus’ death, for only by obediently facing the horror can the Son spring the trap on himself that will thereby free all others who follow Him.

‘Abba, Father, not my will but thine be done’

Is it the Father’s will that the Son should die, or is death the inevitable outcome, the inevitable fate, that in being faced will suddenly release overwhelming love and compassion? This is a question that should not be ignored, and for which pat responses should be avoided.

‘Here is God: no monarch he,
throned in easy state to reign;
here is God, whose arms of love
aching, spent, the world sustain.’

I invite you to consider the words of Vanstone’s hymn, and to ponder the cross not just as a human object, as it were, but as something of significance for the whole created order, and for the Godhead himself, who while standing outside creation, is yet its author and origin.

12.40 Laudate omnes gentes

If all creation is somehow caught up in and affected by the events of today, it should not be a surprise that on occasion we creatures  find ourselves drawn to praise and wonder.

‘Laudate omnes gentes,
Laudate Dominum.
Laudate omnes gentes,
Laudate Dominum’

‘O praise the Lord, all ye nations.  Praise the Lord.’

The words come from Psalm 117, one of the songs of praise of the Jewish people, so they would have been known to Jesus the Lord, and used by him and his friends. In singing them now, we reach out to them and to others across time and place. We recognise our shared humanity:  our createdness. We bring ourselves to the Lord on the cross. And we try to turn our hearts out, troubled as they are by so many things, trusting that he will hear us and heal us, and help us to attend to his world.

The psalm, the shortest in the Bible, ends with the words:

‘For great is his steadfast love towards us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Oh praise the Lord.’

I pray that that may be our prayer today. That, paradoxically, as we face horror, so we are drawn to praise. This paradox is one of the great Christian truths, and is perhaps one of the things that makes Christian faith challenging for many. But what I have seen in others, and know in my own heart, is that if we can place our trust in the God who loves us in Jesus to the very end, including at our moments of deepest distress or fear, then we may well be drawn to praise. And if we are drawn to praise, we have a resource that will help us to face what is inevitable in human life, which is pain, and loss, and injustice and persecution.

13.00 We sing the praise of him who died

We are drawing closer to the cross.

It may be that the big questions, the existential questions, the theological questions, are now being tempered by our rising emotion, the passion and awareness of what it is to be human. We are frail and fragile, beautiful and vulnerable, capable and yet compromised. We need the Cross, because we need the Saviour. We need the Saviour to take us beyond ourselves, out of ourselves, and to deliver us to the Father. And that is why we can praise. And in the hymn that we have just sung, we encounter a word that I have so far used sparingly in these thoughts, the word ‘love’.

The word ‘love’ was not inscribed upon the cross by Pilate’s soldiers, but the hymn writer grasps that it is indeed love that is the message of the mystery, the core identity of the cross itself. An instrument of torture is actually the most profound demonstration of love that is possible – the perfect love of God for his world, for his people, for all time and all places.

Please take some time to consider God’s love for you, and for those you love, in the silence.

I know that this isn’t easy, perhaps because we are experiencing loss, perhaps because we don’t feel worthy of being loved, but the uncomfortable yet comforting fact that is revealed by the cross is all to do with love.

13.20 Glory be to Jesus

As time draws on, the punishment site that is Golgotha becomes horrific. Those on their crosses struggle to breathe. Their arms and legs are tired, their chest heaving, the blood runs from the wounds of the nails. This is a scene that has been repeated countless times, with countless forms of torture. It is being repeated on battlefields and refugee pathways today. As we breathe, if we live, as humans, so we bleed.

But the Cross of Christ opens a new window onto suffering. While it cannot be eliminated from the world – human fallenness ensures that – it will no longer be the last and defining experience of life. Jesus’ death, the threshold through which he passes in obedience, opens the compassion that will be expressed as resurrection. And that changes everything, everywhere, for all beings, even for angels and other powers beyond this world:

‘On a rusty iron throne
Past the furthest star of space
I saw Satan sit alone,
Old and haggard was his face:
For his work was done and he
Rested in eternity.

And to him from out the sun
Came his father and his friend
Saying, now the work is done
Enmity is at an end:
And he guided Satan to
Paradises that he knew.

Gabriel without a frown
Uriel without a spear,
Raphael came singing down
Welcoming their ancient peer.
And they seated him beside
One that had been crucified.’

(James Stephens)

13.40  Jesus, remember me…

As the repentant thief prayed, so might we:  ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom’.

Things are becoming personal. We are with the thieves, we are with Jesus, we are seeking for the kingdom, we know our hope, we know our weaknesses. Now over half way through the three hours, the victims are becoming weaker, those who are watching, also, are being drained, what do we see? What do we hear? For what do we hope?

That we will not be forgotten.
That there may be a better future ahead.
That we, too, may live the resurrection life, perhaps even now.

It is important to be personal before the cross, and I invite you to do so, if you choose, during the coming silence. I also invite you to consider, if you choose, the image on the front cover of this order of service, which is of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal. It might just be that this will speak to us, and perhaps give us comfort. Why have I given us this image for this time of waiting before the cross? Well, in the picture, the parent waits for the child, and the prodigal returns,  to be welcomed. Might that be us?

We do not have to be a radical prodigal, to know that we have some need of healing, or restoration, of hope.

Obviously, the picture describes Jesus’ Parable, but as Jesus taught, so he did at Golgotha: he looks to his Father, seeking love, even from his position of sinless obedience.

And as Jesus both taught and did, so does the eternal Father, welcoming his Son home, even though the Son cannot yet feel the welcome, and feels himself forsaken. Jesus goes into darkness for us, as one of us, with us. It is an existential moment. And the Father waits for him, with his arms open.

14.00 At the cross her station keeping

We have just sung the hymn that turns the focus of our attention from the Son to the mother. In doing so, again it reminds us of the humanity that we share with the Lord. He is flesh of our flesh, we are flesh of his flesh. The courage, love, resilience of Mary, is ours too, strengthened by our companionship with her Son.

As we contemplate her, so her prayer, her passion, assists us. We are not alone, and together we are drawn even closer into the mystic union with Jesus that will help us to bear our own crosses:

‘In the Passion of my Maker,
Be my sinful soul partaker,
May I bear with her my part;
Of his Passion bear the token,
In a spirit bowed and broken
Bear his death within my heart.’

Jesus dies that we might live, but in order to live, we also have to die. In this portion of silence, as Jesus’ death is close, we might perhaps remember those whom we love and see no longer, and raise them to the Lord in prayer. We might also recognise those whose prayers, love and kindness have supported us, and continue to support us, and pray for them, that they may know the Lord’s compassion, as might we.

14.20 O sacred head, sore wounded

This passion chorale takes us even closer to the death of Jesus. We, who look to him, who seek to follow him, who have come with him to his cross today, we soon will witness his death. On the rear of the service sheet there is a reproduction of Zurbaran’s stark painting The Lamb, or The Lamb of God. Lambs were slain at passover in ancient Israel, in obedience to the law, and as a reminder of the escape from slavery in Egypt. Jesus, called by John the Baptist the Lamb of God, taught about shepherding and sheep and presents the image of seeking out the lost sheep as an image of God’s relationship with the world, and of what we should do to follow him.

We have sung:  ‘I pray thee, Jesus, own me, Me, Shepherd Good, for thine’, and it is our deepest cry not to be forgotten. But the Shepherd who is also the Sheep, must die. His death affects everything, all creation, all creatures.

And it must happen. We are bound together in it, and then set free by it. This death ends the need for further sacrifice, except for the sacrifice that is offered when we freely give ourselves to him.

But it is a death that must be faced. I personally find the matter of factness of this painting very affecting but also very difficult. Perhaps that equates with my mixed feelings about the cross itself, and all that happens on it and all that surrounds it. It’s horror cannot be avoided, but horror is not the total story.

O Lord, hear my prayer

We are drawing towards the end of the three hours. Soon we will go out into the world, having opened our hearts to the Lord, laid our concerns at his feet, drawn close to the mystery of love that is his cross, a mystery that affects every level of creation. Writing about the cross, the poet and teacher Ruth Etchells said:

‘Contemplating the Cross takes us beyond time and beyond space and into the grace immeasurable that is ‘God’s plan for the fullness of time’’.  She then says ‘And there’s the power that enables us to forgive not just others, but ourselves.  And that’s where the mystery of reconciliation begins.’  ‘Contemplating the Cross takes us beyond time and beyond space and into the grace immeasurable that is ‘God’s plan for the fullness of time’. And there’s the power that enables us to forgive not just others, but ourselves.  And that’s where the mystery of reconciliation begins.’

The cross is not a formula to be applied. It is an event.  It is a mystery.  It is a threshold. Whatever our prayer has been these last hours, whatever has been on our hearts, we have been heard. We have perhaps laid the world before the Lord. We have probably laid ourselves before the Lord. And as we have done so, we have been joined by the Lord himself, not just the risen and eternal Christ, or the consoling and strengthening Spirit, but also by the Creator of all things, the forgiving, compassionate Father.

We have considered the cross from multiple perspectives, including that of the Father, and ventured into places where words break down, and concepts fall into silence and adoration. In just a few minutes there will be the great silence that comes at three o’clock, which is the hour of the Lord’s death, and there will be no comment at that point; we will simply leave.

Before that, we will sing a final hymn, which is also a prayer.

In a world that is scarred by guilt and a church that can burden people rather than relieve them, may we use these precious minutes to realise that God’s love is without limits and that many of our burdens can indeed now be laid down.