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  • Writer's pictureFather Benjamin von Bredow

He opened not his mouth.

A Sermon for Good Friday

March 29, 2024 at the Solemn Liturgy

“Like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.

“Rank your pain from one to ten.” When I have been asked this question at the emergency department, I rarely know what to answer. What counts as a ten? In comparison to the worst pain I can imagine someone else suffering, nothing I have ever experienced counts above a three, probably, but that would give the false impression that I’m don’t have any reason to be there. But the last time I went to emergency to get something checked out, I saw a helpful sign, not only showing a graphic, but describing in text what happens to your face as pain moves from a one to a ten. Specifically, around a pain of level 6, your mouth will naturally open in a grimace.

Besides the physical aspect of pain, we also expect that as emotional pain increases—which is much worse than physical pain—there are reactions that naturally emerge. When we suffer loss, or betrayal, or alienation, we move from stress to anxiety to depression to despair to loss of the will to live. And this increasing pain manifests as we become less patient, less generous, and more concerned with our own hurt than with others’ needs.

It was not so with Jesus. Isaiah, speaking about the Messiah’s suffering, prophesied, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). In all likelihood, Jesus did cry out in pain when he was whipped, when the crown of thorns was pressed into his head, when the nails pierced his hands. We know he uttered a loud cry just before he died. But that’s not the point: the point is that, despite all the physical pain, Jesus neither resisted nor grew bitter. Descent into torment did not, for him, mean descent into scorn and bitterness. He went where he was led and meekly offered up his life when he was called upon to do so.

Before the worst of his physical torments, at his trial before Pilate, Jesus does not respond to any of the charges, embracing everything that is to come without trying to find a way out. His silence throughout the Passion is remarkable: in St John’s Passion, which we have read today, we only hear three brief words from the cross, none of them complaints or accusations about his situation. In fact, one of these words is an act of compassion, as he entrusts the care of his widow mother to his disciple John.

By contrast, the thieves crucified next to Jesus, in their final agony, satisfy their bitterness by reviling him in the same way as the cruel bystanders (Matthew 27:44). At the utmost of their suffering, they do what we are always tempted to do when we suffer: they push people away, they cut people down, allowing suffering to make them cruel and isolated.

At the very end, Jesus gives up his own spirit back to the Father, willingly and with trusting release. He did not allow his life to be taken from him by violence, but yields it up voluntarily once he has plumbed the very depths of suffering. He is ready to enter the next stage of his humility: descent into death. He is not a victim, not raging to the end—indeed, not raging at all. His torment has never taken away his humanity. In St Mark’s account of the Passion, it is this fact specifically which moves the centurion to say, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). To suffer with self-possession and to die with peaceful humility is beyond what we expect from someone so abused.

Last evening, we said that Jesus’ command to his disciples is to “Do this as my memorial”—to imitate him as gives his life for the life of others. Our acts of self-giving are memorial actions, actions which make Jesus present.

Suffering, when it comes to us, is likewise an opportunity to “do this as Jesus’ memorial.” As our collect says, Jesus “suffered death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility.” Jesus’ suffering is our example.

But if we suffer as a memorial, then following Jesus’ example is not simply a moral obligation, a command to grit our teeth and endure until we live up to the high bar set by Jesus. To suffer in remembrance of Jesus is to make Jesus present afresh through our suffering. We seek renewed communion with Christ at our lowest moments by imitating his patience. We benefit not only from the virtue of patience itself, but from the spiritual solidarity of Christ our God who suffers for and with us. Christ near us, with us, in us, redeems our suffering as an act of remembrance and honour to the one who voluntarily took on the suffering which we, unlike he, did not choose.

Your life will involve suffering. Perhaps you already have had more than your share of suffering, and perhaps not. Perhaps you are immersed in great suffering now. But there will still be more hurdles to cross, not least the hurdles which will come at the end of our lives, if not many hurdles before.

It is not ours to decide whether we will suffer, but it is ours to decide how we will suffer. Will we suffer with simple-hearted acceptance, with patience, with willingness to experience whatever comes for us? Or will we resist our suffering? Will we avoid our suffering? Will we seek a way out? Will we suffer alone, or will with gather people around us? Will we keep our suffering secret, or share the burden with those who love us? And above all, will we consecrate our suffering to communion with God? Christ our God chose suffering for himself when he did not have to, so that he could suffer with you and you with him.


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