First Meditation for Good Friday
The Smell of Crucifixion
Reading: The Passion narrative of John, Chapters 18 and 19
Hymns: 68 O scared head sore wounded; 66 Glory be to Jesus; 67 When I survey the wondrous Cross
For centuries, the smell of incense has risen to the blackened ceiling of the Church of the Sepulchre in Jerusalem, mingling with the smell of light-bringing oil-soaked lamp wicks and fat tallow candles. Some years, the smell of baking bread, bread of life, fills the nostrils of pilgrims along the alleys now cloaking Golgotha’s grassy slopes: though not this year, as Passover and Easter coincide, and only bakeries in Christian areas are open. The smell of Hot Cross buns filled with the allspice of Christ’s burial garments filled Rita’s kitchen this morning as she baked for out post-service pleasure. All these life-bringing long-lingering smells are stored in our memories, and even when the sense of smell fades with age, the memory does not.
In Corinthians 2, the otherwise orderly Paul sees Christians opposing the power of the state, the status quo, where that offends Christ’s Way, ‘led by Christ in triumphal procession spreading the fragrance which comes from knowing him: For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and those who are perishing: for the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.’ A startling view, perhaps, spreading this ‘aroma of faith’ to the world on the wind. But what was the start-up cost of that fragrance, the cost of the allspice baking in the buns, the cost of the incense wafting over Golgotha today: what was the smell of that death?
There was the smell of sweat on bodies and on clothes, for Jerusalem in April averages 23C in the shade, closer to 30C.
There was the smell of blood; the strong smell of blood dripping, the fusty smell of blood drying.
There was the sour smell of urine drying on cloth as it leaked from the dying men, and the sweeter smell of faeces as they died.
And the sickly-sweet smell of dead bodies hanging in the sun.
Merging with those particular smells, perhaps overwhelming them all in people’s consciousness, was the sharp smell of panic and fear in those three dying men, panic and fear in those watching.
Do we, may we, hope to spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ in our lives now and in the future? If so, we need to know what Jesus, and Jesus as God, is for us. Yet part of that means grasping these dark days, for without darkness, light has no meaning, just as without sadness and struggle, happiness would be candyfloss, without taste, smell or shape. We need, therefore, to acknowledge the inevitability of this week, Spy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, in the unfolding narrative of God, and our individual place in and contribution to it.
‘Spy Wednesday’ focussed on Judas, that ordinary man, neither good nor bad, chosen by Jesus and also offering himself to Caiaphas to betray his Master, the Jesus whom he loved and had followed for three years. At least he recognised the consequences of that simple kiss, and repented fully, unlike his Hebrew Bible namesake Judah, who took some jolting to see his sin! Then we had Maundy Thursday, with its reception of the excommunicated back into the fold and its mandate to us all to waft the Word, given in and living beyond the Eucharist, to the world. Today we witness God’s mortality as a human who, knowing he would live again, yet being human, was still horrified amid that dark moment: ‘My God my God, why have you forsaken me!’ And in acknowledging that Christ’s first action at death is for others, as he ‘harrowed hell’ to reach lost souls before appearing to Mary in the garden on Sunday, we might discern an inkling of the Way. Christ endured the noisome aromas of dying to witness to the world that God, Creator Redeemer, Comforter, lives through darkness, through death, into the Light of life. By accepting rather than ignoring apparent pain, failure, defeat, we are ready to embrace the returning exuberance of Easter, that ever-reiterated gift of reconciled life, which is not the end of the story, but the start of the sequel.
May we each us gently, delicately, lovingly, spread the fragrance of his dying and his quickened body among the lost and the cheerful, the cocky and the despairing, albeit in pale imitation of his regard for all.
Elizabeth Koepping, 2015