by the Rev. James B. Craven III
In the name of one God – Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.
All my life, since childhood anyway, I have wondered why today is called Good Friday. Apparently others have wondered too, as no hard answer appears anywhere I have looked. The best I can come up with is either God Friday, or more likely I think it may be from the Old English for good, which meant Holy. In the Greek Orthodox Church, it is Great Friday. Tomorrow is Holy Saturday, so Holy Friday fits. Those also are the only two days, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, when there is no celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
Good Friday was a day like no other. Make no mistake about it. Jesus died on that cross, he was as dead as dead can be. In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, built originally around 326, you can see where the three crosses stood on the hill called Golgotha. You can see where Jesus was laid in the tomb. You can see where the stone was rolled away. The last five Stations of the Cross are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Some suspension of disbelief helps though, for all these places are inside now. Imagine the Astrodome. But you can still kneel down and touch the holy places. And if they hadn’t been enclosed and covered 1700 years ago, they wouldn’t be there today.
What is our response to Good Friday? It may just lie in an old book, the #1 best seller the year it was published. That year though was 1418, and The Imitation of Christ may have been the only book published in 1418. It is a manual of spiritual devotion, written anonymously, but maybe by Thomas a’Kempis, to instruct Christians how to seek perfection by using Christ as the model. I read it in seminary but did not find it a page turner.
Ruby Sales is an Episcopal priest in Atlanta, now 74 years old. That she lived beyond age 17 is due to one who had read The Imitation of Christ and exemplified it in his life and death. It is a remarkable Good Friday story. It was a Friday in August 1965, and folks were fighting to register to vote in Lowndes County, Alabama, a dangerous business there and then. Ruby Sales, a young black teenager, was arrested along with another young woman, and a 26 year old newly ordained Roman Catholic priest from Chicago. There was one other, Jonathan Daniels, also 26, and a seminarian at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. Jonathan was from New Hampshire and was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute.
The four young people were released from the jail in Hayneville. It was a hot day, so they stopped across the street at a small country store for a cold Coca-Cola. When Jonathan and Ruby came out, they were met by Thomas Coleman, a deputy sheriff and Klansman armed with a shotgun. Coleman shouted racial epithets and raised his shotgun to fire at them. Jonathan Daniels pushed Ruby Sales aside and took the full blast in his chest, dying instantly. Today there are statutes of Jonathan Daniels in the National Cathedral in Washington and at VMI in Lexington, Virginia. And he is now remembered on our church calendar on August 14. It is difficult to imagine one who more truly exemplified the imitation of Christ. And the shooter Thomas Coleman, he claimed self-defense and was acquitted in 20 minutes by an all white jury.
Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan priest, 47 years old, who also exemplified the imitation of Christ, which he had also read and preached on. He was arrested in Warsaw on charges of aiding the Jewish underground and was sent to Auschwitz. He exchanged his brown Franciscan habit for a tattoo of #16670, and had a job carrying dead bodies to the crematorium. Still functioning as best as he could as a priest, he was violently beaten by the Nazi guards.
In July 1941 a prisoner escaped from Auschwitz. In retaliation, ten men were selected for the starvation bunker. One Pole cried out “my wife, my children!” Father Kolbe immediately offered to take his place, and remarkably the Nazis agreed, so the ten, including Kolbe, were locked in the starvation bunker to die, without food or water. A sympathetic Auschwitz employee kept watch though a small window in the door. He saw Kolbe praying with the nine others. He celebrated the Eucharist, holding out his broken hands, “This is my body which is given for you, and this is my blood which is shed for you.” He sang to the men and hugged them. He heard their confessions, absolved them, and blessed them. The onlooker said Father Kolbe often had a smile on his face. After two weeks, only Father Kolbe was still alive, though he was of course awfully weak. The Nazis were tired of waiting, so on August 14, 1941 they gave him a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Before dying he said two words, “Ave Maria.”
Maximilian Kolbe was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1982. Pope Benedict later said of Kolbe that “Hate is not a creative force. Only love is. “And Francis, the current Bishop of Rome, went to the starvation bunker at Auschwitz on his visit to Poland in 2016. The whole story is nothing less than the imitation of Christ.
Jesus wasn’t on death row long before his execution. Suppose though he had written to his mother. What do you suppose he would have said to her? We can only speculate, though surely he would have expressed his unconditional love for her and his longing to be with her and in her protective embrace forever. I can remember several times as an adult, well after I was married and a father, really wanting my mother with me as I was having surgery. Others have told me that is just instinctive.
Father Edmund Muller, a German priest caught sheltering Jews in Hamburg in 1944, understood these emotions and instincts. Only an hour before his death he wrote to his mother:
It is especially during this period of fasting, so rich in grace,
that we should entreat the Lord to give us the grace to understand
at least something of the mystery of the Cross, so that we too, like
St. Paul, should “glory…in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
At three o’clock I am going to die. Now the hour has come that
God in his eternal love has ordained for me. In one hour I shall
pass over into the glory of the living God. I have given myself
over wholly, completely, and without reservation to God.
In his hand I am sheltered. In his holy heart Christ will carry
me up to the Father. Mary will protect me, and St. Joseph
will accompany me.
I commend you to the heart of Christ. God will care for you.
Do not lose courage. Trust in God. He has not forsaken me.
The eight months of my preparation for eternity have been
difficult, yet very beautiful. Now I must go home through
the narrow gate of the guillotine.
May the almighty God, the Father, the Son, and the
Holy Ghost bless you.
Until we meet again in heaven.
Good Friday is the toughest day of the church year, hard for any of us to really understand, just as the imitation of Christ is not easy. Jonathan Daniels, Maximilian Kolbe, and Edmund Muller understood Good Friday and exemplified the imitation of Christ, thanks be to God.