I preached this sermon on Good Friday, April 7, 2023, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is the Passion Narrative according to John, in which Jesus, as he dies, says, “It is finished.“
I was not there to witness it, but I was told that shortly before my great-grandma died, many years ago, she began speaking to her own mother, long since dead—speaking to her as though she was right there in the room with her. Not mumbling in her sleep, not in a delusional state, but clearly, directly, as you might talk to anyone who has come to visit your bedside. She saw her mother’s face, and then, not too long afterwards, she died, and it was finished.
I’ve heard many similar stories about other people since then, and while I don’t really know how to explain them, they seem to suggest that as our lives ebb, like a wave pulling away from the shore, a returning wave of something makes its presence known to us—something very real and very deep. Maybe we call it a memory…or maybe we call it divine presence…or maybe, like my great-grandma, we simply call out, mother. Whatever it is, whoever it is, there is a shared sense across many cultures and generations that in our final moments, we catch a glimpse of the people and the places we have known and loved.
As they say, our life flashes before our eyes.
Just last year a medical paper was published documenting, for the very first time, how this is in fact true—how life does flash before your eyes in the end. Somewhat by chance, the brain waves of a dying man were captured by an advanced medical scanning device. The doctors noticed that in the moments both immediately before and after this person died, the portion of the brain that processes memory was activated. As his other brain waves ebbed, the gamma waves—the waves of memory and meaning—flowed. He was remembering—processing a vision, somehow—of someone or something familiar. Something lost that had come back to him in the end.
And I wonder what he saw, that unnamed man. Was it his mother’s face? Maybe the time he got lost as a child? Was it the way the sun sets over the water on a summer evening? The fragment of a half-forgotten song? The smell of baking bread or the taste of good wine? How his father used to smile at him? And I wonder, were they just memories, just impulses in the brain, or were they a response to something real, something, like my great-grandma’s mother, that was somehow truly present again in a way that no medical scanner could ever detect? Those are questions that science cannot answer, but that the heart ponders nonetheless.
Because I like to think that, whatever it was that the dying man experienced, or whatever it was that my great-grandma saw as her life slipped away, that they were not just alone with their thoughts. I want to believe that their lives and their love came back to them at the very end, like a returning wave upon the shore, a presence, a promise that even though it is finished, it still all mattered. And that nothing was lost. Not really.
And if that is true, then I also can’t help but wonder what Jesus saw in his final moments on the Cross before he said, it is finished. He who felt so alone, he who was so abandoned, so undeserving of the ending he received. My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
But if it’s true that our life flashes before our eyes, that love returns to us in the end to companion us into the darkness, I wonder what he saw as his breath ebbed away.
We know, of course, he saw his mother’s face, still alive, but deadened by grief.
And maybe, as he closed his eyes, maybe he saw the time he got lost as a child, when they found him in the Temple, when everything was new and possible. Or perhaps he saw the way the sun sets on the Sea of Galilee. Or maybe he remembered the fragment of a half-forgotten song heard long ago: my soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior. Maybe he remembered the smell of bread in the Upper Room.The taste of good wine at that wedding in Cana. Or how his Father smiled at him in secret, in his heart, and from beyond the cold and distant stars.
Maybe it was all of this, the sum of a life, the fragmented pieces of himself gathering back in, returning on a wave, bearing witness to the ending, bearing the memory and the presence of love, bearing the unbearable weight of loneliness until…it was finished.
And although that would be beautiful and meaningful all on its own, and although I believe that Jesus’ own life and love came back to him in the end, I don’t think that’s all there was. I don’t think that’s all he saw as he hung there, his breath crushed under the weight of the world’s brokenness.
I think we would miss something essential about who he is and what this day is about if Good Friday were the story of just another, single life flashing before someone’s dying eyes.
For the life of Jesus is the life of God, and the mind of Jesus is the mind of God, and the memory of Jesus is the memory of God, deeper and broader than any one returning wave. He holds the whole ocean of time and experience within himself. His life, his mind, his memory encompass everything, everyone, everywhere.
And so it was not just his own private memories, his own personal life that flashed before his eyes in the end, but ALL of life. All that ever was, all that ever will be. He saw all of it as he died on the Cross. He saw all of you. He saw every part of you. And through eyes blurred with tears and blood and love, he saw, as he always had, in the very beginning, that it was good. Not perfect, but very, very good.
He saw the time you got lost as a child and your parents found you.
He saw the time you got lost and nobody came looking.
He saw the way the sun sets over the lake you sat beside on a summer’s evening.
He saw the way the sun rose on the first day of the world.
He saw how your mother sang to you when you were afraid.
He saw the times you were too afraid to sing out loud. The poems you never wrote. The letters you never sent.
He saw every meal on every table. He saw every hungry belly.
He saw the consequential fruit trembling on the tree in Eden; and he saw the unnoticed wildflowers and weeds that grow on the side of the road. He saw the bouquets at every graveside, the names inscribed in stone.
He saw every creature, its life and its death, its peace and its agony, he saw every crack in the earth, every polluted river, every verdant forest, every wave of the infinite sea.
He saw every battlefield, every bomb and bullet, every needless slaughter, and he saw how our brother’s blood cries out from the ground, seeking justice.
He saw every broken heart, every tearstained face, every lash of the whip, every dream deferred, every march for peace, every backroom deal, every sacrifice and every betrayal, every sleepless night, every tick of the clock.
He saw all the times we failed, all the times we tried, all the times we made something beautiful, all the times we broke something beautiful.
He saw all the times we broke.
He saw the worst of what we have done, and the best.
He saw all of it.
All of life—all of life flashed before his eyes.
And then he said:
It is finished.
He said, it is finished, now, my beloved child, bone of my aching bone, and flesh of my wounded flesh. Finished because now I see it all, with my own living, dying eyes, everything done and left undone. Now I comprehend your finitude, your fear, how alone you feel in the vastness of creation. I see, with my own eyes, the returning wave of memory and grief, all that was lost, all that was forgotten, all that was loved; all of it is returning to me now, and it is your face I see, your face I call out to, your face I will not forget as I enter into the darkness and whatever lies beyond it.
It is finished, and I do not know where I am going, but now I see the pain and the beauty and the promise of this entire world and I hold it in my broken heart, in my fading breath, and so wherever I go now, I will carry you all with me. Nothing is lost. Not really.
So let us rest, now. It is finished. For I see, in the end, what was always the only important thing to see: that I love you, all that you are, all that you are not, with the ferocity and the depth and the power and the mystery of the endless ocean, and if I can, I will return it all to you, I will bring it all back to you, I will make it whole again, somehow, someday.
For all of life—mine, and yours, and ours—has flashed before my eyes, and thus I have drawn all things to myself.
It is finished.
And then the wave breaks on the shore.
And he is gone.
And, for today, there is nothing else that can be said.
3 thoughts on “What He Saw: A Sermon for Good Friday”
Dear Phil Your sermon for Good Friday was excellent. Your writing of images, smells, conversations was exquisite. I could easily see all of that tumble of images, flowing like the wave as you said. Very moving. And you captured it all, the good-byes, the last dying images, the love, the failures, the possibilities and the grief. What a skillful writer you are!
Wishing you peace through this Holy Saturday of waiting, and much joy tomorrow at Easter morn.
In Christ, Mary Jones
Mary, thank you so much for the kind comment. I am so glad that you enjoyed the sermon, and I pray that you are well and enjoying a beautiful Eastertide! Blessings and love to you.