Good Friday Meditations

Gill Sakakini
Friday, April 14, 2017 - 1:00pm

Good Friday Meditations

Meditations by Gill Sakakini
drawing on visual commentary by Neil MacGregor, Janet Johnson 

Edvard Munch Golgotha


We have accompanied Jesus on his way to Jerusalem and have traced his footsteps towards the cross. We have watched with him in the Garden. Now we enter the Golgotha landscape and make our way to the foot of the cross. Our companions for this Good Friday meditation are paintings which invite us to wait, to stay, and to ponder the pain and the hope demonstrated in the sacrificial love of Jesus.

Let us pray
Crucified Christ,
we draw near with awe
to this holy place of Calvary;
here you transformed evil into the victory of love,
and violence into the victory of peace.
On this painful and mysterious day
accept our thanksgiving
for the cost of what you endure,
and give us the courage to stay with you
until it is finished.

Hymn: It is a thing most wonderful 

1. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do

Christ on the Cross, Fransisco de Zuberan, c. 1632-4

Luke 23:32-34: Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.  When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus, there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

The even black background of this painting makes a strong contrast with the pale but brilliant flesh tones of Jesus on the cross. The artist, Fransisco Zuberan, wants our gaze to close in on the particularity of Jesus, a portion of the scene selected from the Golgotha landscape. Light falls on his body from above left and is a visual communication between the “Father of Lights” and his Son. Jesus is alive, there is no wound in his side, he lifts his head, his lips are open, he is clearly speaking. The agony of the crucifixion seems to be only beginning. These surely are the first words from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He is praying for us.

 We seem to stand at the foot of the cross, closest to the brutally nailed feet, looking up at the body in pain, and we witness the very act of redemption when Christ’s suffering is clearly revealed as a supreme gesture of love for us. For most of us, pain makes us look at ourselves; our needs and fears. But not here. In the throes of his agony, this man is concerned for others, that they will be forgiven in spite of their cruel action. This is the mystery of Christ as sacrifice and saviour.

Hymn: My Song is Love Unknown 


2. Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise

Christ and the Good Thief, Titian, 1566

Luke 23:39-43   One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  Then he said, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  He replied, Truly I tell you,
today you will be with me in Paradise.”

In contrast to the dark uniformity of the previous background, here, the artist, Titian, uses warm earth tones which swirl behind and around the figure of Jesus and the “good’ thief. He makes marks which trace the movement of trees and of gathering clouds. The two men are painted in similar ways. The musculature of their arms and legs links them together, and, in spite of the tonal differences, Jesus is very much with this young man in their shared humanity, even if he will later do something for him.

The easy symmetry of the last image is disrupted by the three-quarter stance of Jesus, whose curving body directs our gaze towards his companion through his inclined head and bent knees. The shadowy companion indicates to us the presence of another, not depicted, through his right hand which is raised in a gesture of defence of and solidarity with Christ. We are brought back from the exchange, however, by the bright white of this young man’s eye which reflects the radiance of Jesus’ halo. Compared with the weakening body of Jesus, the thief’s limbs, torso, and head are firm, strong, and proactive, embodying his urgent plea to be remembered by Jesus in paradise. Jesus’ leaning head visually speaks acceptance.

Choir: There Shall Be No More Tears  (Jenkins)


3. Woman, here is your son; here is your mother

Mathias Grunewald The Crucifixion, from the Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510-16 

John 19:25-27: Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

This panel is from an altarpiece that was originally in a hospital for suffers of a deadly skin disease, St Anthony’s Fire. Jesus body is portrayed here, by Mathias Grunewald, inflicted with sores which connect him to sufferers of the disease.

The action takes place against a black background with hints of the Golgotha landscape. We, the viewers, find ourselves in the foreground of the picture plane, almost touching Mary Magdalen’s garment. This is the bleak darkness of the sixth hour. Christ’s mother faints in anguish into the supporting arms of the beloved disciple, John. She clasps her hands in a gesture of prayer that also suggests she is holding tight to the little that is left to hold, now that her son is dead.

The words of the old priest Simeon are poignant: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealedand a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34b-35) 

Mary leans back as if taking the impact of the sword and is gathered into the arms of John who will take care of her. At the bottom right hand of the panel blood pours out from another wound. The lamb is slain, pierced, and blood gushes from its heart into a chalice, like the chalice of wine which would have once been drunk at the altar table below this painting. 

Hymn: O Sacred Head Sore Surrounded

4. My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

Die Harder, David Mach, 2011

Mark 15:33-34: When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This 20 feet high body is brimming with tension. It is fashioned from thousands of straightened out coat hangers and evokes the searing torture of the crucifixion. The sharp quills are like dozens of tiny lightening rods emanating from Christ’s body. We are disturbed by the rawness, pain, and horror that is exposed.

Yet this is about more than physical anguish. It is about the devastating pain of abandonment. The choice of coat hangers carry interesting metaphorical resonances with the crucifixion. Jesus hung on the cross. His body was a human body; subject to gravity and the burden of its own weight. And at this moment Jesus’s body was weighed down with the sins of the world which separated him from his own Father.

In the death of Jesus we are confronted with the awesome paradox that the one upon whom all things hang is himself hanging on a tree

Choir: He That Shall Endure to the End. 

5. I thirst

Sassandra, I am Thirsty, 2000

John 19:28-29: After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.

We see a tortured Jesus, naked, nailed and bleeding. Our eyes are drawn upwards, then are stopped by the horizontal beam just below the topmost limit of the picture. The cross with its bold straight lines is very high. Smoke and reddish dust swirl upwards behind it like flames in a storm. Light bathes the outstretched body, seeming to push back the billows before it, and a patch of blue sky remains. A pale-orange halo encircles the head.

Our gaze rests there. Jesus is not yet dead though his head droops level with his outstretched arms. His red-streaked hair mingles with a thorny wreath. Howling dogs on long thin legs surround the cross, three with lifted heads. Blood streams like flames from their raging jaws, their fangs are bared, but they cannot reach their prey. Jesus' mouth is open too, straining, unable to reach what he desires: the jug of water at the foot of the cross.

Thus we see the Son of God – the One by whom all oceans and rivers and lakes were made – thirsty. He who said: If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink (John 7:37) cannot have that jug of water, cool in its blueness. Jesus has been lifted up and nailed, he cannot move, and the cross is tall, tall out of all proportion, making us feel the vanity of his struggle. His wide-open mouth seems fixed.

‘J'ai soif’: ‘I thirst.’ 

 Hymn: When I Survey The Wondrous Cross 

6. It is finished

The Crucifixion, Ed Knippers, 1990

John 19:30: When Jesus had received the wine, he said, It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

We return to a uniform black background where stark, spare white contours of Jesus’ body draw our eyes to what is important to notice. The painting (dimension) is imposing in size and its simplicity focusses our attention. The artist uses line economically to capture the essence of what needs to be said. That Christ hangs, dead, leaning forward into our space. Broken lines describe his arms in a hyper-stretched state, flaccid, limp. They are lengthened beyond the boundary of the image.

Thinner lines describe his twisted torso and make it diminish to allow Christ’s head to fall into our space. Here the lines of the crown of thorns are bold and harsh, close, heavy.

7. Father, into your hand I commend my spirit

The Flowering Tree, Roger Wagner

Luke 23:44-46:  It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land, until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.

The final image is a window in another St Mary’s church, under which we linger. Reading the image from the bottom we re-trace our sombre Good Friday steps. Our gaze is invited upwards through the darkened Golgotha landscape, which resembles a pasture, by a ribbon of water. Sheep graze at the foot of the cross, a tree on which the dead Christ hangs. The glass of this window invites us to both dwell by this cross-tree and its blossoming branches and to look beyond.

A man, a river, and a tree
Enamelled with the flowers of May.
Good Friday sky as blue as sea
A hill as green as Easter day.
A tree, a river, and a man
Who hangs from branches thick with flowers.
A love which flowed since time began
Is measured here in three long hours.
A man, a tree, a river flows
Down to a font which leads us in
Towards where man, tree, river shows
That Easter where our lives begin.


We have listened together to some of the last words of Christ on the cross. They promise us forgiveness, Paradise when all seems lost, communion when it has been broken. They embrace us in our deepest desolation, and invite us to
open ourselves to the perfection of love, and promise us final rest.