A Sermon from the Church of
Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 7, 2023 (Good Friday)
“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”
And so the words of a familiar hymn, often sung at Christmas pageants announcing the arrival of the three kings, come back to us on Good Friday. The Magi’s gift of “bitter perfume,” this embalming oil, finally makes sense. The foreshadowing of the seemingly odd gift of myrrh is realized on this day when we mark our Lord’s crucifixion. His broken body is taken down from the cross and prepared for burial with myrrh before being “sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”
And just as myrrh itself has a bittersweet aroma, so is this day bittersweet to Christians throughout the world. Bitter in its agony; bitter in its indignity; bitter in its shamefulness. Yet sweet in its necessity for the redemption of the world; sweet in its act of love for all humankind; sweet in its atoning, once-for-all sacrifice. Good Friday is and must be bittersweet. For to minimize the bitterness of the cross is to gloss over its power. And to minimize its sweetness is to neglect its love.
I’ve always thought the Good Friday symbolism of the Orthodox Church beautifully and poignantly captures this duality. As worshippers enter for the evening liturgy they encounter a rough-hewn wooden cross placed in the middle of the church, surrounded by Easter lilies. A compelling visual manifestation that the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is both bitter and sweet; that death and resurrection are intertwined and can never be separated. On Good Friday we anticipate our Lord’s resurrection, even as we reflect on the hard wood of the cross.
So amid all the images of crucifixion – the crown of thorns, the nails, the indignities, and the mockery – everything points forward to the resurrection. We know that soon enough, Jesus will be released from his three days’ prison. And to pretend we don’t would delve into the realm of play acting. Come Easter Day, we know the tomb will be empty and we can’t make believe that we don’t. Good Friday is not a “funeral” for Jesus. But even still, the violence of the cross is a bitter pill. The image of our Lord’s broken body hanging on a cross is seared into our consciousness. And we can imagine what those first disciples must have felt – the anguish, the loneliness, the feelings of abandonment, the despair, the heartbreak.
Because in our own lives we are all familiar with such emotions. We have all experienced loss and pain and grief. Perhaps the whole notion of Good Friday is an apt metaphor for the human experience. Because life itself is often bittersweet. Our dreams are dashed; our expectations don’t meet reality; our hopes are met with disappointment.
As we gather today, some of these wounds may still be open and raw for you; some, over time, may have built up scar tissue around them. But our very humanity binds us to the anguish of Good Friday. And the cross stands as the great connector that links the suffering of Jesus to our own suffering. Jesus’ humanity touches our own very human hearts.
And the good news embedded in the agony of our Lord’s death, is that we can leave our pain, drop our burdens, release our sorrows, shed our grief right there at the foot of the cross. We don’t have to hold it alone. Jesus, our constant companion, bears it with us and for us. He walks with us through the valley that can indeed feel like the shadow of death. And so even in the depths of our pain and brokenness, hope exists. A deep and abiding and life-giving hope. A hope that transcends even the most seemingly hopeless situation.
And so, even as the Savior of the world hangs upon the cross — bruised and broken, reviled and forsaken — the cross of Christ invites us into a place of hope and meaning. A place where salvation is freely offered and grace is abundantly poured out. Which is what makes this day “Good” Friday or, as the Orthodox call it, “Great” Friday.
“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” Jesus’ death and burial is not the end of the story, merely a piece of it. It is bittersweet, yes, but it is decidedly not yet finished. Our journey continues.