Good Friday Worship: The Signs of the Cross

APOLOGIES – the publication of the video is delayed due to a technical problem. It should be available a little later on Good Friday morning.

Mark 15:16-41

Everywhere around us we have signs. Among the most common are road signs. A red circle around the number ‘30’ tells us that the maximum speed limit is 30 mph.

It’s far better to have a sign like that than one which writes out the meaning longhand. Imagine if everywhere you drove, you saw signs with the message written in longhand: ‘You may not exceed 30 mph’ or ‘Roundabout ahead with six exits: two are for the A245, two are for the A320, and there are two minor roads as well.’ (Woking residents will know the roundabout to which I am referring!)

The signs work well because they convey the message as we travel along.

There are two signs at the heart of Mark’s account of the crucifixion. However, we might need to think about what they mean so that we can absorb their meaning as we travel through the story of the Passion. As we learn our road signs in the Highway Code, so we also need to learn our spiritual signs.

The first sign is the torn curtain:

38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 

Ah, but which curtain? You might not guess it from Mark’s language, but there were two curtains in the Jerusalem Temple. One at the innermost part. It separated off the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple. It was entered only once a year by the high priest on the Day of Atonement.

Christians have naturally thought Mark was referring to that curtain. It makes sense of Christian teaching about the atonement Jesus achieved on the Cross. But there is a problem. No-one could have seen that curtain being torn.

It’s more likely, then, that it’s the other curtain which was torn. This one separated the Court of Israel from the Court of Women. According to Josephus it was decorated with ‘a panorama of the heavens.’ And Mark uses the same word here for ‘torn’ that he uses at the baptism of Jesus when the heavens are torn open and God speaks from heaven.

So at the baptism of Christ, the heavenly dwelling of God is opened to humanity, and at his death the earthly dwelling of God is rent open.

This, then, is the sign: heaven is open to humanity, through the death of Jesus. All that stands in our way is torn apart. We no longer need to hide from God like Adam and Even did in the Garden of Eden. We don’t need to stay at a distance. Heaven is open.

Perhaps Good Friday is a day when the natural thing to do is to feel shame for our sins that put Christ on the Cross. But it’s a mistake to park there. The sign of the torn curtain beckons us on, and into the presence of the God of grace and mercy.

So why not come?

The second sign is the centurion’s confession:

39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’

This sign has been signposted before, at the beginning of the Gospel, like one of those road signs that tells you there are fifty more miles to Portsmouth. For the Gospel according to Mark begins with the words,

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God (1:1)

The Messiah and the Son of God. In chapter eight, Simon Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah. Now in chapter fifteen, the Roman centurion confesses him as Son of God.

At one of his trials, the high priest has asked Jesus if he is ‘the Messiah, the Son of the Blessèd One’, those very titles Mark has set out at the beginning. When Jesus says he is, he is condemned as a blasphemer and the religious court says he is worthy of death (14:60-65).

What an irony. What the religious leadership condemns, a fisherman and a centurion welcome and wonder.

Just ponder that centurion. How many crucifixions had he been in charge of during his career? He knew what a death by crucifixion looked like. But there was something different about this prisoner. And it is seen in the manner of his death.

In fairness, Mark doesn’t tell us exactly what the difference is that the centurion notices, but there is something about Jesus even at the moment he cries out at his death that marks him out to this soldier as more than a mere mortal. He sees it. Simon Peter, for all his blunders and failures, has seen it. The people who should see it have heard it but rejected it, rather than wondered at it.

Today, Good Friday, let the immensity of the fact that the Son of God died in our place fill our hearts with wonder, amazement, and worship. Let it bring us to the foot of the Cross where we kneel in allegiance to him.

And there let us find that heaven is open to us, even us.

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