Only five days after Palm Sunday, there is no mention today, in John’s Gospel, of Jesus’ triumphal ride into Jerusalem. No mention of the palms and the crowd that waved them. No mention of the donkey that carried Jesus into the city.
Chances are very good that that donkey made its way through the streets barefoot, un-shod, since donkeys are very rarely fitted with metal shoes, like horses, and horse shoes were only just being invented around that time. Even today, however, donkeys don’t usually wear shoes. Their hooves are big and broad and tough enough to withstand the impact of their work, even carrying heavy loads, or drawing a cart, or with a person on their backs.
Horses, on the other hand, are more delicate creatures whose hooves did just fine, more or less, when they were left to roam in their natural habitats. But when horses were domesticated and started carrying humans on their backs, and pulling carts, sleighs, plows, beer-wagons, and royal wedding coaches, their relatively soft hooves could not take it: hence the horse shoes - our way of helping horses cope with the demands we make of them, our way of protecting them from the damage we would otherwise do to them.
A couple of weeks ago, at a horse barn not far from the city, I watched, as a farrier pounded a red-hot horseshoe into shape on his anvil. Then he cooled it in a bucket of water, and took it to the horse, and showed me the narrow band near the outside of the hoof where it is safe and painless to nail the shoe into the hoof; further inside the hoof wall and the nail will draw blood. He bent over, with the horse’s hoof between his knees, the nails in his teeth, hammer in hand, and tapped the nails into the hoof. And he showed me how he places one finger of the hand with which he holds the nail on the outside of the hoof, just where he wants the nail to come out, to help guide him as he drives the nails with his hammer.
Leaving the barn behind for a moment, back in church, the exuberance of the palm-waving, now over, we often feel on Good Friday as though we have come to a funeral. After all, we have come to remember Jesus’ death on the Cross. And if there is heaviness in our hearts, then it may be, in part, directed at those who put Jesus to death. You can hear the suggestion of this in John’s Gospel: his antagonism toward the Jews, and toward the roman soldiers who mock Jesus and beat him. And so, we have adopted a posture and attitude of mourning, by and large. And if we think about it, we might feel a little more righteous ourselves, as we look aghast at the betrayal of Judas, the scheming of the chief priests, the abuse of the soldiers.
And if this is the way we approach Good Friday, what could be more poignant than that moment when Jesus’ wrists are tied to the wood of the Cross, and his hands pinned to its beam, and we can hear in our mind’s ear the harsh clang of the hammer hitting the nails as they are driven into his flesh to hold him to his Cross? It is the type of thing that ought to make us look away, to cover our eyes in horror, and in shame, and disgust.
But actually that is not really why we are here. We have not come to point the finger of blame, or to nurture old hatreds, or to bemoan the sins of someone else, long ago. Actually we have come here to help with the nails; we have come here to place our fingers on the far side of the Cross, just where we want the nail to come out, to make sure the nails go in right.
For in the strange husbandry of God’s love and care for his people, this is the way he has given us to cope with the way we have chosen to live our lives. This is the way he guards us from the damage we would otherwise do to ourselves. Not by nailing protective metal shoes to our feet, but by letting us nail his Son to a Cross for our sins.
It’s true that this is not what was meant to be. Like horses, we were meant to go barefoot, to roam freely, to live our lives as the crowning achievement of God’s creation: the most noble of his creatures. We were not meant to carry the kinds of loads we must now carry, to survive only by virtue of the sweat of our brows, to have to withstand the elements just to survive. We were made to be relatively fragile, lovely creatures who could happily survive in a garden where hoeing and plowing were hardly necessary, in a soil so loamy and rich the good things just sprang up from it.
But we saddled ourselves with a selfishness that takes what it wants, even if it is comes from the one tree in the garden we should not eat from, and we bridled ourselves with a self-assurance that will murder its brother out of nothing more than jealousy. And we have turned our ancient proficiencies at taking what we want, and killing when we want to, into a life-style, into a society. If you wonder why these two sins are the first and most important ones described in the earliest pages of Scripture, just review a little human history – pick almost any era - and see if these are not recurring themes. And yet, we pretend that it has come at no cost to ourselves. We pretend that it does not hurt our feet to walk over the stony ground of our murderous selfishness. We pretend that our Nikes protect us; and then we just do it, whatever “it” is.
It is the usual expectation to come to church on Good Friday to reflect on Jesus’ pain as he suffered and died. But it might be useful to stop here for a while and think about what has happened to us, to reflect on how difficult it is for us to walk barefoot, so to speak, over the sharp and painful landscape of our sins.
God knows how difficult the terrain is that we have either chosen or been forced to walk because of our human nature. God knows how much of our history can be boiled down to a pattern of taking and killing, taking and killing, taking and killing. We can dress both up and make them seem legit, but the pattern is the same.
What to do for your most noble creatures, your loveliest, if fragile, creatures, the crowning achievement of your creation, if you are God, and you see them struggling, limping, lame as we are?
You send your Son to them. And by the mysterious alchemy of God’s grace, when he is nailed to the Cross, it as though something strong has been affixed to our souls; something shaped to fit just right is attached to our lives, to keep us safe despite the rugged terrain that lies ahead. And we are here today to put our fingers on that spot on the far side of the Cross where we want the nails to come out, to make sure the nails go in just right.
Left to our own devices we will just continue to do ourselves damage, our feet simply cannot take it. But God’s devices are more wonderful and mysterious than our own – working even in the darkness of a tomb, in the death of his Son. And from the instruments of death he forges the mechanics of salvation, and still somehow allows us to run barefoot whenever we want to.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Good Friday 2011
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia