A few weeks ago a dear friend who lives in the country called with sad news: a horse had died. It was one of two horses he’d bought for his kids, really, when they were teenagers and riding was one of their sports. Since they lived in the country it was no big deal to buy the horses and keep them on the farm. But after the kids grew up and outgrew riding and went off to college, my friend, their father, who had himself ridden as a teenager, decided that he would take up riding again – it would be good for him and for the horse. He chose Moe, the big gelding thoroughbred he’d bought for his son.
So he would ride in the mornings around his property, and along the shady trails that lead through neighboring farms and along the river, and he would ride in the open field where he still had jumps set up from the days when his kids learned to ride the horses over them. And he would practice his jumping, and enjoy the air and feeling of remarkable freedom you get when a horse is carrying you faster than you think ought to be possible, and then flying with easy grace over a log, or a ditch, or an obstacle set up in the field. And he was right: it was good for him and for the horse.
Since I started to ride a few years ago, I would visit my friend and I’d ride the other horse. We would ride together through the woods, and down to the river, and along the road, with my dogs alongside us, except when we cantered and the dogs couldn’t keep up, and then we’d stop and wait for them at a turn in the path or at the top of a hill. Horses live for a good thirty years or so, and my friend’s horses were getting on in years, but we didn’t work them very hard.
Lately my friend was riding a bit more frequently, having reached a point in his life when he could take it a little easier at work. And although we live at some distance, and so don’t ride together often, we talk regularly to share stories of our riding accomplishments or failures. And the other day he called. A few days before, he reported, Moe had stopped eating, which was a worry. And on the day he called he’d walked out to the barn to check on him, but Moe didn’t look like his old self. My friend put a lead rope on him to walk him down the long drive that leads to the entrance of the farm – maybe he needed to get out of his stall, out of the barn?
At the end of the drive, he tied Moe up to the fence for a moment to get the mail out of the box. And when he turned around, Moe was quivering. The quivering quickly turned into convulsions which sent the chestnut thoroughbred down to the ground, into the ditch that runs beside the drive; the horse was now clearly unable to get up.
My friend went around to the horse’s head, and there he laid down in the ditch next to Moe, and he held his head, and he told him it was OK, he told he would be alright, he told him what a wonderful horse he had been for him and for his kids. And finally Moe quieted down, and his great sides heaved their last breaths, and his nostrils fluttered as they left him, and he died there with his head in the arms of a man who had owned and ridden that horse for 24 years.
My friend called the vet, and on doing so immediately began to feel guilty: what had he done?! Had he ridden his horse to death, he wondered? Should he have just put him out to pasture and not taken him out for those canters through the woods, not jumped over that fallen tree beside the pasture that makes such a perfect jump? Should he have refused to take me out for rides when I came to visit, because, after all, the horses were getting older?
And the vet looked at my friend and asked him this: Did Moe ever refuse to trot when you asked him? Did he ever refuse to canter or to gallop? Did he ever once refuse to jump over that fallen tree, or anything else that you asked him to jump over?
Not once, my friend replied, not once did he refuse. And my friend had the answer to his worry that he had asked of his horse something that the horse was not willing or able to give.
On Good Friday, it seems a trivial thing to compare the death of Jesus to the death of a horse. The Psalmist reminds us that God “hath no pleasure in the strength of an horse,” but I am not convinced the Psalmist is correct here.
In any case, there is nothing trivial in remembering that spiritually speaking, Jesus carries us through life. If you have ever fallen to your knees to beg for something in prayer, you know what it feels like to realize that you are counting on Jesus to carry you on his back. If you have ever found that you are at the limit of your own ability, or patience, or strength, or whatever, and turned to Jesus in desperation, then you know something about how this feels.
You think we ask horses to do things that we could somehow do ourselves? Horses have done for mankind things that we are not capable of doing without them. Many of us don’t turn to Jesus until we realize that we need something done that we are not capable of doing ourselves, and then we ask him to do it. The Christian faith has thrived because of that remarkable freedom we discover when Jesus carries us with easy grace over obstacles that we know we could never clear on our own, when he propels us forward with a speed and a strength that is quite definitely not our own.
But of course these days Jesus has become nearly as passé as horses have: as much of an anachronism in people’s lives as riding a horse through the streets of Philadelphia. Which is why it is not, perhaps, so trivial a comparison. Because in modern, sensible, adult society everybody knows that you don’t grieve for an animal for all that long when it dies, you don’t weep and moan about it, you certainly don’t let it change your life. You get over it quickly, because it was, after all, only a horse.
And what’s the difference, in modern, sensible, adult society, between a horse and Jesus? You think most people expect you to take this Jesus stuff seriously? You think you are supposed to weep and moan on Good Friday? You think you are supposed to be any more undone than you would be by the death of an animal, a pet? You think you are supposed to let the death of Jesus change your life? In the world we live in, such sensitivities are the domain only of old ladies, and effeminate boys, and a certain kind of pathetic liberal who can’t seem to find a better framework for making sense of the world.
But here we are, dropping to our knees, almost as if we are ready to get down into the ditch and cradle the horse’s head in our arms – or cradle Jesus’ head in our arms, when he has been taken down from the Cross. It’s almost as if we are trying to remember that remarkable freedom of being carried, supported, lifted high over the obstacle we cannot cross ourselves – even the great abyss of death, at whose gate we are now paused, Christ’s body in our arms, having heaved his last breaths, as they flutter through his nostrils.
The second call my friend made, after the vet, was to his neighbor with a backhoe, who came and dug a grave for Moe, right there at the end of the drive, just beside the crepe myrtles that my friend had planted for his daughter’s wedding. And here, I pray, the comparison does become trivial. Grass will grow, as it must, over the grave of my friend’s horse.
But as we see in our mind’s eye, Jesus’ body wrapped in its shroud, and lowered into its grave, we might ask ourselves, what have we done? The question is implied in our liturgy today: what have we done to you, O Lord?
And a voice answers us: did I ever fail to carry you when you needed me to? Did I ever fail to gallop for you? Did I ever refuse to sail over an obstacle with speed and grace that you yourself lacked, carrying you on my back?
No, my child, I never did. And fear not, for neither will I refuse to carry you over the abyss, and past the grave and gate of death. For I have never refused you before, and I never will.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Good Friday 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia