“If I say, peradventure the darkness shall cover me, then shall my night be turned to day. Yea, the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the light is as clear as the day, the darkness and light are both alike.”Psalm 139
The one who appeared to Moses as a voice from a fiery bush, the one whom he meets in the gloom of the cloud on the mountain top, the one who will go before him and his people as a pillar of Fire by night and a cloud of darkness by day: this is the one who commands him now to raise his hand and call down a darkness so thick that it may be felt, a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt. A darkness to last, we note, three days. In that darkness, the Egyptians could not see one another, the pharaoh could not hear the voice of the Lord, and for them that darkness brought only death. Yet the children of Israel, it is written, had light in their dwellings all these three days; And as the final, deepest midnight brought death to the first born of the blind and deaf Egyptians, to those who saw, to the Israelites, the death of a lamb brought light, life and liberty.
We read of how the Israelites are about to begin their long sojourn just as we come to the end of ours. Today, we arrive. We have walked with the Lamb through Lent and today, with him, we ascend to Jerusalem, we pass through the gates, we enter the Temple of God’s presence. The one who veiled himself in darkness, who passed quietly through the lands and warned his followers to silence, who healed in secret and told those he made whole not to broadcast his power, now pulls the veil aside. We saw him transfigured on Tabor, radiant with glory; we saw him, in full view of the people, raise Lazarus from the dead; now, he comes down from the Mount of Olives – fruits not incidentally crushed for oil to give flavour, fire and light – and we join the crowds of children at the gate as they wave triumphal palms and see him as Messiah and King.
But who is this King? This fool on a foal with his pantomime triumph who storms into the Temple he claimed he could rebuild in just three days? This is the question which guides us all through this Holy Week and the answer we give dictates whether we can truly call the coming Friday “Good.” Who is this King who refused all the kingdoms of this world, the Devil’s desert gift; this King who stands mute against the accusations of his royalty; this King who calls himself not even a servant – the language is far too sanitised – but who took the form of a slave. Is he a lamb or a scapegoat? Messiah or pariah? Son of God and God or mere man?
He is, at least, a King who weeps. He wept once before, over Lazarus; and now he weeps over stones: the stones of the holy city, the city of peace, knowing that they will be destroyed; stones which, he says, would call out and rebuke the crowds if they did not proclaim the entry of their King. He weeps as though to water the stones, to give them life, that they too may join in the children’s and the angels’ song of praise: “Hosanna in the highest.”
For make no mistake, this is a day of praise and feasting, the day of proclamation of Our Lord as King of all Creation, to whom even the stones, as loyal subjects, sing: a day of revelation, transfiguration and of light. And – not but, and – it is a day of weeping, a day which marks the turn towards a thicker darkness. It is often said that there is no Easter without Good Friday, partly to cajole congregations into celebrating the sacred Triduum, but also because it is true. And yet the truth of it it somewhat obscured by our innate tendency to diachronicity: creatures bound in time, we see history in terms of progress and decline, and so we might imagine Good Friday as Good because it is a necessary evil, a day of darkness which gives way to Resurrection light. Christ dies for our sins on Friday, descends to harrow Hell on Holy Saturday, so that on Easter day he can rise again and all will be well with the world. Except, we know that it isn’t. And so, while Good Friday tears in all their sorrow might anticipate something of the joy of Easter day, even Easter tears still bear the bitterness of the Cross, for loves (like Lazarus) lost, or for a world (like Jerusalem) stablished in iniquity and disarray.
And here is the mystery of our puzzling faith; the secret, insofar as we can see it, of our puzzling God; here, at the sublime portal which leads us through the holy city’s streets toward the three holiest days of our year. For yes, to our eyes, darkness is only an absence of light, and a light has come into the world which darkness cannot consume, light which gives us life and sight, but on which we are still waiting for full illumination in another life and another kingdom. This is good, for a start, but I think we are called to walk deeper into the darkness if we really want to know the light. Our time-bound way of seeing is, I think, as far as I dare to presume on such matters, quite different from God’s view. So I wonder – in the Son of Mary and Son of God, the wise fool, the scapegoat lamb, the weeping victor, the criminal lawgiver, the slave King, the severed Way, the transgressed Truth, the murdered Life – can we glimpse something of the mind of the One and Three, the hidden and revealed, for whom the darkness and the light are both alike? In the three darkest hours of the three darkest days, can we see light and life where the blind world sees only death? Can we spend this Holy Week in prayer, letting God tear the veil of our souls so that we can see glory in the Cross, the light of Christ in the face of all who are crucified, and hardest of all, his presence in the crosses we bear?
By our own power, no: no more than a camel could enter the notorious Needle, Jerusalem’s narrowest gate. But with our King guiding us through the wide gates which have lifted high their heads for his triumphal entry, with the grace of the King of all Creation cleansing the temples of our hearts, we may yet get to Friday and see – not just believe, but with the inner eye truly see – that it is Good.