HOLY AND GREAT FRIDAY
Sermon of Saint Philaret of New York delivered in 1973
Last night, in the reading of the Ninth Gospel concerning the suffering of our Saviour, and this morning, when the Gospel of St. John was read during the Ninth Hour, we heard the Conqueror of Hades, death, and the devil exclaim from the Cross, “it is finished” (John 19:30).
What was finished? Finished was that which the Lord God Omnipotent knew at the time of the creation of the world. Finished was that which the whole world had long been awaiting; finished was that which was prophesied even in Paradise to our forefathers who had sinned; finished was that which was foretold to the Prophets-that which the Old Testament prefigured; finished was the redemption of the human race, its salvation from sin, death, and condemnation. Christ the Saviour made this exclamation, as already a Conqueror, Who had fulfilled the purpose for which He had been sent.
Before this, however, there was heard from the Cross an exclamation of an entirely different nature: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ (Matt. 27:46). This exclamation was that of a sufferer, not yet a conqueror. It is one of extreme torment and shows us with what terrible sufferings the act of redemption was accomplished. But, as the God- inspired Holy Fathers of the Church tell us, and as our great father of the Church Abroad and renowned theologian, His Beatitude Metropolitan Antony, expresses with particular clarity, our redemption consisted of two parts, so to speak: First, the Lord Saviour accepted upon Himself all the weight of our sins; then He nailed them to the wood of the Cross on Golgotha.
At first, in the garden. When He walked with the Apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane, they who were accustomed to seeing Him immovably calm, the Master of all creation, the King and Conqueror of the elements, and the Master of life and death, heard with horror words they had never heard from Him before: “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” The Saviour then asks His beloved spiritual children, the disciples, during those unbearably difficult and decisive moments of the Passion, “Tarry ye here, and watch with Me” (Matt. 26:38).
Then the prayer in Gethsemane begins. -in this prayer we see that the Lamb, Who was ordained at the time of the creation of the world for the salvation of mankind, recoils as if terrified before what is approaching Him and what He has to accept and suffer. Is He so much afraid of the physical suffering? Is it that which causes Him to recoil? No, it is not.
From the narration of His suffering, we see how calmly, how majestically, and with what wonderful and truly divine patience He endured the terrible bodily torments. One has to keep in mind that He was pure and sinless. Suffering is characteristic of sinful nature, but He did not have to suffer because there was no sin in Him. Therefore, suffering was for Him unnatural, and consequently, incomparably more sharp and difficult than for us. And yet, in what manner did He endure the physical torments?
Let us consider one moment of these torments: He is laid on the Cross, and His most pure hands and feet are pierced by dreadful nails. What a terrible moment! But not concentrating on Himself, the Saviour, Who came into the world to save sinners, even here thinks of them and prays to His Father for His slayers, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). At that moment, He does not think of Himself, He forgets His own suffering; He prays only that the Father would be merciful and would forgive the sin of His own crucifers. This is yet another example of the way He fulfilled His act of serving and saving sinners. Later on, after a few more hours, He was to lead yet another soul to salvation-the soul of the wise thief.
The acceptance of our sins. But here in the garden, we see that He is so struck with awe at the horror, that He prays to His Father, “Father, if Thou be willing, remove this cup from Me” (Luke 22:42), and even more strongly according to St. Mark, “Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee” (Mark 14:36). All things are possible unto Thee; Thou mightest find yet another way. Let this cup pass from me. It is so terrible, that He prays it will somehow pass from Him.
The Church tells us that Christ the Saviour is the Lamb of God Who takes upon Himself the weight of the sins of the whole world. Yes, He took upon Himself, He accepted as His own, all our sins-all the sins of mankind from the fall of Adam until the end of the world. And remember that this fact is not merely something written down here on paper, it is not just a vibration of the air which we term a sound as we say the words; this is reality-the very truth!
In the Garden of Gethsemane during this unimaginable, terrible struggle, the Lord received into His soul the whole of humanity. As the All-knowing God, for Whom there is no future and no past, but only one act of Divine omniscience and understanding, He knew each one of us; He saw each one of us and received each one of us into His soul, with all our sins, our cold unwillingness to repent, with all our weaknesses and moral defilement. So, in order to save us, whom He loved so much and whom He received into His soul, He had to take upon Himself all our sins as if He Himself had committed them. And in His holy, sinless, and pure soul every sin burned worse than fire. It is we who have become so accustomed to sin that we sin without hesitation. As the prophet said, man drinks unrighteousness as a drink (Job 15:16), and does not count his sins. But in our Saviour’s holy soul every sin burned with the unbearable fire of Hades, and He took upon Himself the sins of the whole human race.
What a torment, what agony it was for His all-holy soul to contemplate this act! But He sees that if He does not accomplish it, if He refuses to take upon Himself the weight of human sins, then humanity will perish for endless eternity. His human nature, stricken with horror, recoils before the fathomless abyss of suffering, but His endless, His boundless, His inexpressibly compassionate love will not consent that humanity should perish; so within Him there occurs a terrible struggle.
Finally, exhausted, He goes over to the disciples, from whom He was seeking compassion, and whom He asked to tarry and watch with Him, but instead of receiving commiseration from them, He finds them sleeping.
He speaks to them-according to one of the Evangelists, he addressed Simon directly, thus: Thou steepest, thou who but a short while ago swore that thou wouldst follow Me everywhere, even unto death; thou steepest, thou couldst not watch with Me even one hour? “Watch and pray,” He tells them, for “the spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). He moves away and continues His lonely prayer. And in the end, His boundless love and his complete obedience prevail, and He takes upon Himself the sins of all humanity.
It is obvious how much this struggle has cost Him. The Heavenly Father sends an angel from Heaven to support Him because His human strength had reached its limit, and we see that He is exhausted and covered with a terrible bloody sweat which, as medical science states, occurs as a result of an inner spiritual struggle which shakes a man’s whole being.
Saint Demetrius of Rostov, meditating on the sufferings of the Saviour, says, “Lord Saviour: why art Thou all in blood? There is yet no terrible Golgotha, no crown of thorns, no scourging, no Cross, nothing Re unto this as yet, yet Thou art all stained with blood. Who dared to wound Thee?” And the saintly bishop himself answers his own question: “Love has wounded Thee.” Love brought Him to torment and suffering; from this struggle He is covered with blood, but comes forth as Conqueror. And in His redeeming, heroic deed, he took upon Himself our sins and carried them on the Cross to Golgotha, failing under its weight.
And there began that other, central part of our redemption, when He suffered for all those sins which He took upon Himself in Gethsemane, in the terrible torments on the Cross.
The Holy Gospel draws aside somewhat the veil covering the Saviour’s suffering on the Cross by including the exclamation I mentioned earlier: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46; also see Ps. 2 1: 1). For this was the principal terror for Him. It was probably because of this that He recoiled in terror in the Garden of Gethsemane when thinking of what awaited Him. He knew that when He was covered with the stain of human sin, the Father would forsake Him-that for a time, as part of the act of redemption, He would endure that separation from God that we all endure as a result of the Fall. By His uttering this exclamation, the abyss of His measureless suffering is partly revealed to us. If we were able to look into this abyss, not one of us would remain alive, because from this immeasurable superhuman suffering our soul would perish.
But at last, through His unimaginable suffering, our Saviour achieved everything for which He had come. As the new Adam, He becomes the forefather of the new, renewed, spirit- filled-humanity, and then as Conqueror He exclaims, “It is finished.” Now the suffering is ended, and He, surrenders His spirit unto His Heavenly Father: “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit” (Luke 23:46).
As one of our great Russian preachers said, “The suffering is finished, let the wounds be healed, let the blood stop flowing; approach now ye Josephs of Arimathea and ye Nicodemuses, and also ye reverent Magdalenes, come to the Deceased in order to show Him the last honors.
And now, while worshipping the Saviour entombed on this Great Friday evening, let us remember that the Lord suffered for our sins, that all these wounds were inflicted by us. And as we reverently kiss the wounds of the Crucified One with repentance and thanksgiving, let us pray to Him that by His grace He will teach us to be faithful to Him in all the aspects of our lives. Amen.