Words on the Word

Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13-53:12: Many were astonished at him.
Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9: Though he was Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.
John 13:1-15: They drew back and fell to the ground.

It is accomplished. At this point on Good Friday, our nerves are frayed. Our heart aches, unfit to sustain further tension. Then, this strange, sudden stillness. The world’s redemption has been wrought. The king sleeps. We wait for the fulfilment of his work. Our eyes are set now on the promise of the third day. Meanwhile, we try to reflect on what we have recited and, in a sense, relived. I’d like to pick out a particular incident. At the beginning of St John’s Passion, an odd fact is reported. Judas approaches Mt Olivet followed by guards, tough fellows responsible for order in the temple precinct. Seeing them approach with torches, Jesus steps forward and asks, ‘Whom do you seek?’ They say, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. Jesus answers, ‘I am he’. Hearing that, ‘they drew back and fell to the ground’. What discomfited this band of bouncers? The question has exercised readers for centuries. It has been answered in various ways. At one end of the spectrum, it has been thought that Christ’s moral authority, perhaps also his thunderous voice, bowled the men over. But would a mere display of integrity cause soldiers armed for action to collapse? Hardly.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is suggested that Jesus’s answer, ‘I am’, is heard as a reference to God’s self-revelation at the burning bush. On this reading, Jesus makes a claim to divinity, prepared through a series of sayings when he says ‘I am’: ‘I am the bread of life’, ‘I am the good shepherd’, etc. Christ, it is argued, proclaims who he is, weaving his new testament into the old. The soldiers are said to pick this up, and to prostrate themselves in awe. Theologically, it’s an attractive theory. The trouble is, it is linguistically impossible. In English, Jesus’s ‘I am’ does recall the Divine Name spoken to Moses, ’I am who I am.’ In Greek, the language John used, the same is true to some extent. But Jesus spoke neither Greek nor English. He spoke Aramaic. In that language, the sort of statement that says, ‘I am the light’, ‘I am the way’, is made without a verb. An Aramaic-speaker does not say, ‘I am he’, but simply ‘Me, he’. That is how Christ’s answer on Olivet is reported in the first Aramaic versions. There cannot be a verbal echo, then, of the tetragrammaton, which in contrast conveys the fact of being. We must look elsewhere for the reason behind the guards’ stumbling. It takes us to the heart of the Fourth Gospel, and so of Good Friday.

A constant motif in John’s Gospel is the theme of ‘glory’. ‘Glory’ is an attribute of God. It’s what makes God unlike anything that isn’t God. We associate glory with light, but in biblical language, ‘glory’ is simply synonymous with ‘presence’. It is what we encounter when we stand before God. This glory, John tells us, was manifest in Jesus. It wasn’t imposing. Yet at certain moments it was tangible. The miracle of Cana was one such moment. Changing water into wine, ‘Jesus manifested his glory’. Later, at Lazarus’s tomb, the raising of one who was four days dead is described as ‘seeing the glory of God’. As the Gospel progresses, Jesus speaks of his glory in increasingly mysterious terms. He refers it, not to outward signs of power, but to self-giving in darkness. In an intimate moment, we hear him cry out, at the thought of the grain that must fall into the earth and die, ’My soul is troubled!’ Yet he goes on, ‘For this I came. Father, glorify thy name!’ In Jesus’s high-priestly prayer, glorification is linked to his approaching Passion. Eyes fixed on the cross, he prays, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee’. The cross, in John’s Gospel, is a glorious cross. It is where Jesus, through self-emptying, reveals the fullness of God’s love. Where God seems most absent, he is in fact gloriously present.

It isn’t death as such that is glorious. Our faith doesn’t glorify death. The glory inheres in life fully given, ‘to the end’. The times in the Gospel when people intuit Christ’s glory point towards this fullness of gift. They’re perplexing times. The glory perceived is no measurable thing; to all intents and purposes, everything remains ordinary. Yet at the same time it is clear that God is there, reordering reality. When Jesus, in the garden, says, ‘I am’, he effectively gives himself up to be crucified. He does so freely, with authority, for love. It is a glorious moment. Glory catches the guards off guard. They have an eery sense of something else. What is it? One or two stumble, causing others to fall over, that’s all the text says. But then they look up, and there’s nothing special: just an ordinary man. Trusting their senses, not their heart, they compose themselves. They take Jesus away to execute him.

In this world, that is how God’s glory is revealed, in disconcerting flashes. May we be alive to such instances of revelation. May we let them transform reality around us. When knocked over by a glimpse of God’s glory in Christ, may we stay on the ground, prostrate, and adore. Let’s not judge just by what we see, be sensible and say, ‘Oh, it was nothing’. It is everything! Jesus would prepare us for a share in his glory. Today he gives us a pledge of it. Death’s sting is no more. The third day, the day of glorious fulfilment, is already dawning in the East.