Into the Darkness | a Good Friday sermon

A sermon for Good Friday by Jamie Howison

  1. Into the darkness

A couple of weeks ago Samantha Peters sent me the text of a reflection she preached as part of the Lenten series at Canadian Mennonite University. The theme she’d been given was “Darkness in Community,” and she decided to speak about Gord Johnson’s song “Into the Darkness,” with which we end most of our liturgies during the season of Lent. She wrote of how she’d felt what she called “a surge of resistance” the first time she heard the song. “Surely,” she wrote “a church service should move from darkness to light, not the other way around. Surely we should be sent out with a promise of hope, not an assertion that the light is gone. At the very least, surely we are expected to carry a candle into the darkness…. But no: Gone, gone is the light.”

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It is a question others have raised over the years. What does it mean to be sent from a communion liturgy with such words? The arrival of Samantha’s piece was for me a confirmation of something I’d been thinking about over Lent, namely that I would build my Good Friday sermon around this very song. I’m in no way intending to qualify, correct, or improve on Samantha’s insights. Her piece stands alone, and you can both read it and listen to it on our website. No, she set a standard. What I will do today is akin to what jazz musicians do. They take one of the “standards”, and then begin to improvise; to explore and stretch and see where it goes. Not to erase or over-ride the standard song, mind you. So, an improvisational and personal exploration that owes a debt both to Gord’s song and to Samantha’s reflection.

Into the darkness we must go;

Gone, gone is the light.

I’ve always heard that as referring to the movement into the darkness of Gethsemane, following that last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. After that meal, “they had sung the hymn, [and then] went out to the Mount of Olives.” The meal would have been filled with light and life, marked by the rich tastes and smells of that food, shared in a safe and warm place. In John’s telling, it is in that space that Jesus washes his disciples feet, and names them as his friends. But there were those strange words as well, about a broken body and spilled blood. The presence of Judas, too, with his plan already well underway; for Jesus at least, that must have added a very real tension and sorrow to the meal. Now it is time to sing together, my brothers, my friends, and then it is out into the darkness of Gethsemane. Literally dark in that garden, where even the light of the moon gets lost in the branches of the trees. Figuratively dark, too, marked by those agonizing words: “Jesus said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…” It just doesn’t get much darker—more heart rending— than that.

As many of you will know, I spent five weeks this past winter on an intensive retreat at the University of King’s College in Halifax. My spiritual guide and mentor over those weeks was the chaplain, Fr. Gary Thorne, and he’d set up for me a demanding practice and discipline of solitude. Aside from the daily services I attended in the college chapel—Morning Prayer, noonday prayer, Evening Prayer, and twice a week a late evening Compline liturgy—I was very much on my own. Fourteen, sixteen waking hours each day in solitude. Journaling, directed readings, trying to learn how to draw and then how to paint, so I could attempt to complete an orthodox style icon of Christ. And a lot of pacing the cage. In his outline for my weeks there, Fr. Thorne highlighted the need for me to become bored: “It will be difficult,” he wrote, “to find the boredom and inner chaos that can lead to a divine restlessness. Spending unproductive time in your cell is important.” At the time, I wasn’t even sure what he meant.

The only writing I was to do was in my journal. No work was to be done on any new book or essay—that’s too familiar for me, and I can get lost in it. No. I was not to “produce” like that. In fact, when we talked a few weeks before my arrival there, he’d told me I was not to come intent on fixing or solving or answering or even healing anything. Were I to set my mind and heart like that, the five weeks would be wasted. I was simply to “be”, in openness to God’s mercy. Full stop.

There were days that it was tough; really tough. There was a stretch of three days in the middle of those weeks when I wondered how I could possibly make it through. All I could think about for those days was how many hours it was before I could go back to bed.

Into the darkness we must go;

Gone, gone is the light.

And then came the morning when something shifted. Out for an early morning walk, the sun just coming up over the horizon, I thought to myself, “this is going to be a good day.” I didn’t even know why.

Jesus remember me

When You enter Your kingdom;

That’s the second verse of Gord’s song, drawn directly from the Passion story according to Luke. I felt that day as I walked the streets of Halifax that I had been so remembered. Not that Jesus had been absent up to that point, but somehow that day—and then through the rest of my days there—I felt held in his presence. More, I realized I was being re-membered—re-integrated—body, mind, and soul. The days could still feel long, and the work of solitude hard, but I was being remembered.

There’s one more verse in the song, again drawn from the Passion story according to Luke:

Father forgive them

They know not what they do;

We can never lose sight of those words. Jesus speaks them—prays them—over his executioners and all of those who have set this awful torturous death into motion. There’s a long and shameful history of Christians blaming the Jews and calling them “Christ-killers.” Centuries of persecuting, excluding, condemning, and even attempting to annihilate the Jewish people. They did it. But no. Jesus looks out over the soldiers and Pontius Pilate and the temple leaders and the Pharisees and scribes and all the others who had participated in this horror, and prays forgiveness. They don’t begin to understand what they’re doing, Father. Forgive them.

Into the darkness we must go;

Gone, gone is the light.

Into the darkness we must go;

Gone, gone is the light.

Jesus remember me

When You enter Your kingdom;

Jesus remember me

When Your kingdom comes.

Father forgive them

They know not what they do;

Father forgive them,

They know not what they do.

(Gord Johnson)

 

  1. Truth in the darkness

They know not what they do, and sometimes we don’t either; not fully. We say things and do things and fail to do things and rationalize and justify things, not ready to acknowledge the damage we are doing. And over those things, too, he speaks his prayer of forgiveness. From the cross, he speaks into the brokenness of our lives.

And so there, pacing the cage of my solitude I had to accept that deep forgiveness for all of the failings that had brought me there in the first place. And having accepted, I needed to then take the next step; the step of forgiving, and of forgiving at that depth at which things truly are released. There’s darkness in that as well, because forgiving like that is hard. Yet then comes the moment when you realize that this darkness has come about because the light of grace is so bright that it has temporarily blinded you. It is then that you begin to be free.

On my last night at the College, Fr. Thorne arranged to have a dinner for me with the chapel community. He wanted me to speak to them about what I’d seen and learned about their community; about what I had come to know about them that they maybe needed to hear. That day the city was hit with one of the worst snowstorms on recent record, and I wondered how many of the students would be able to attend the meal. A number did live on campus, but the majority lived in apartments and houses around the neighborhood. The streets were closed down, the sidewalks three and four feet deep in wet Maritime snow, even the chapel steps were buried. But somehow over thirty of them managed to get there, and together we feasted against the cold and dark of that storm. When it came time for me to speak, I realized I needed to say something about what had brought me there, as all the students knew was that I was a priest from Winnipeg who had come to spend those weeks on a contemplative retreat. I didn’t go into much detail, but just said that I was coming off of a very tough year, marked by deep sorrow, loss and grief, and that at the very toughest point in the year Fr. Thorne had reached out to me in friendship. Seven months later, that friendship had landed me in their midst, in a posture of openness to God’s grace and mercy. And then I spoke about the hospitality I’d received in the chapel—this stranger who kept coming to liturgy after liturgy, day after day. At noon prayers there might only be three or four of us; at the weekly choral evensong or university Eucharist, there could be as many as eighty. But there was always a space for me in the pews, always a greeting, a smile, a bit of encouragement. That’s what I’d experienced, and I’d watched as other strangers had been offered the same gentle welcome.

When I finished speaking, Fr Thorne stood up and said, “Jamie, you came to us with a broken heart. This is a community that always has room for the broken hearted, because every year in Holy Week we walk with the broken hearted Jesus. And we know of his mother’s broken heart—‘a sword shall pierce your own soul also.’”

Which is why here at saint benedict’s table we insist on singing those stark and even unsettling words: “Into the darkness we must go; gone, gone is the light.” Those words that Samantha said had evoked in her “a surge of resistance,” but are still so very true. We must go into the darkness over these days of Lent and Holy Week, because Jesus did. And because Jesus did, even the darkness itself is forever changed.

We know how the story turns out, but for today we won’t go there. This space will remain stripped of the usual hangings and liturgical colours; no flowers, no candles, no bells rung. There is that one prayer near the beginning of this liturgy that acknowledges that we know the fullness of the story—that admits that even as we bear witness to the Passion, we know it isn’t only a dark death.

O Lord Jesus Christ,

Son of the living God,

set your passion, cross and death

between your judgement and our souls,

now and in the hour of our death.

The prayer goes on to ask for “mercy and grace for the living,” for forgiveness to “us sinners,” and for “everlasting life and glory.” We know that there is light beyond the darkness of this Passion liturgy, but we just won’t go there. Not yet. We need to meditate on the broken heart of Jesus, and on the broken heart of his mother, and of the disciples who were in hiding, and of Mary Magdalene and the other women who dared to go to Golgotha. We need to do that, and to do that year after year after year. If we walk with those broken hearts in Holy Week, then we will be the sort of community where there is always room for the broken-hearted; for the last and least and the lost and the little. And maybe this year, that’s you.

One more story. By the time that chapel community dinner and all the conversations were finished, the storm had largely died down. It was soon going to be time to sing Compline together, so after dropping a few things off in my room, I made my way back across the yard toward the chapel. The wind was still blowing, and the snow was deep and wet, but the worst of the storm was over. A student came up to walk beside me, his parka hood pulled tight around his face. “Well Jamie, it looks like we’re going to sing Compline outside under the tree.” “Will,” I said, “maybe you’re going to sing Compline under the tree, but I’m going to sing it inside with the rest of the community.” Then I opened the chapel door, to see Fr. Thorne bundled with his jacket under his cassock. “We’re praying outside tonight, my brother,” he said, and soon about twenty of us were processing out the door with candles in our hands; candles that stayed lit for all of about three seconds. We divided into two sides so we could chant the liturgy back and forth to each other, and the whole time I’m just thinking “Oh Gary, you’re just having us do this because you can. You’re creating a memory here.” I shivered, wishing I’d put on an extra layer or two, because even though it was only four or five degrees below zero, there was a real Maritime damp in the air.

Two thirds of the way through, we came to the prayers and confession. The young woman leading us intoned, “Let us pray,” and everyone dropped to their knees in the snow. Wet snow that immediately soaked your knees with an icy cold. And we begun to chant:

Lord, have mercy upon us.

  Christ., have mercy upon us.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

We chanted the Lord’s Prayer, and then a set of responses. We spoke the confession and received absolution, followed by another set of responses. And then the young woman who was leading the intercessions called us into prayer. “This night we pray especially for those in our city who have no shelter, no place to call home.” That’s why you’re having us do this, Gary. There’s a prayer sometimes said before meals that says “make us ever mindful of the needs of others.” I tell you, there is no way to be more mindful of the needs of people who that night would sleep in bus shelters or under the bridges than to feel it in the cold damp of your knees. That’s why we needed to sing that liturgy out in the cold, darkness; so that we’d not forget, not take our own warm spaces for granted, not fail to walk with a deep mindfulness that the homeless and the broken are also our brothers and sisters.

Into the darkness we must go;

Gone, gone is the light.

For this day, that’s as much as we will say.

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2 Responses to Into the Darkness | a Good Friday sermon

  1. john says:

    The Good Friday service was so awesome. Thanks so much, church! Is there a audio recording of the song ‘thoughts of the disciples?’ I love that song but can’t seem to find it online.

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