Homily on Great Friday, Given at the Evening Service

The Crucifixion. Fresco by Dm. Mironenko.
The Crucifixion. Fresco by Dm. Mironenko.
And all the people that came together to that sight, beholding the things which were done, smote their breasts, and returned (Lk. 23:48).

What was this sight, which brought the onlookers to total bewilderment? What was this sight, which sealed the lips of the onlookers with silence, and yet struck their souls? They came as to a spectacle, just to satisfy their curiosity; they left the scene beating their breasts, carrying away a horrifying astonishment… What was this sight?

Not only did people look at this sight—the angels of God also looked upon it with terror and the deepest awe; their attention was no longer drawn to heavenly objects—their gaze was turned and riveted to the scene unfolding on the earth. The sun saw something it had never seen before, and, unable to bear what it saw, hid its rays like a man shutting his eyes against an unbearable sight; it cloaked itself in deep darkness, expressing with this dark cloak a sorrow so bitter—as bitter as death. The earth quaked and trembled beneath the event taking place upon it. The Old Testament Church rent its magnificent veil—that is how those experiencing an irrevocable calamity rack themselves, not sparing their most precious garments. All those who came to this sight, beholding the things which were done, smote their breasts, and returned… What was this sight?

It was the sight we now commemorate in the present Church service, and behold in the sacred Image before our eyes. The sight was the Son of God, Who came down from the heavens, became man for the salvation of the human race, and was mocked and scourged by men.

What feeling, if not that of horror, should wholly envelope the heart at this sight? What state, if not a state of absolute bewilderment, should be our state of mind? What word could be pronounced at this sight? Does not every human word die upon the lips, before it can even proceed from the lips?

All those who came to this sight, beholding the things which were done, smote their breasts, and returned.

They returned, smiting their breasts; they returned in bewilderment and fear, who had come to look at the Savior hanging on the tree of the cross, like a ripe and reddened fruit; they came to gape with probing thoughts, out of pompous and false self-importance. Faith was silent in them. The darkened sun called out to them, the quaking earth called out to them, the rocks, cracked with a loud noise and parted over the graves of corpses suddenly come to life by the death of the Savior. In vain did the curious come, for they returned in terror—not from the very act of deicide, but from the threatening gaze and voice of shuddering, insensible nature, expressing its knowledge of God before a humanity that had not recognized Him. Beating their breasts, they returned in fear for themselves, for their flesh and blood, for the sake of which the blood of the God-man was spilled, and His body tormented.

At the same time the Jews, who took their solace in the Law and boasted of their broad and exact knowledge of it, where bewildered when they beheld the events foretold by the Law and the prophets; when they beheld the voluntary Sacrifice of which they were the unwitting priests. At the same time that the Jews were bewildered and returned, shaken with dread and a dark presentiment of their own calamity, a pagan centurion stood fixed before the cross. He could not leave, for he was in charge of the watch that guarded the Sacrifice; to him was given that fortunate impossibility, because a faith was hidden in his heart that the Seer of hearts could see. When nature cried out its confession of God, the centurion gave an answer to the mysterious voice of nature, an answer to the mysterious testimony, by confessing clearly and for all to hear. Truly this was the Son of God (Mt. 27:54), he said of the executed stranger who hung before his eyes, recognizing in this executed stranger to be God.

The Jews, proud of their knowledge of the letter of the Law and their external ritual correctness, were bewildered before the crucified Son of Man and Son of God upon the cross. On the one hand they were stunned by the signs: the earthquake, the rending of the temple veil, the deep darkness that came at noon; on the other hand they were blinded and hardened by carnal reason and proud self-delusion, which pictured the Messiah as dazzling with earthly glory, as a magnificent king, the conqueror of the world, at the head of a great army, within a host of luxurious kingly palaces. Meanwhile the soldier, a pagan, confessed the executed stranger to be God; a criminal at that time confessed Him as God. "Come down from the cross!" the blind Judaic high priest and scribes said mockingly to the God-Man, not understanding what all-holy Sacrifice, what all-holy and all-powerful Whole Burnt Offering they were bringing to God. Come down from the cross, that we may see and believe (Mk. 15:30, 32). At that time, a coarse, ignorant thief recognized Him as God, and as One Who had ascended the cross by reason of His Divine righteousness, and not from any sin of His own. With his bodily eyes he saw one naked, crucified next to him, subjected to the same treatment with him, a helpless pauper, condemned by both the religious and civil authorities, tormented, punished, and again tormented and punished by all the expressions of hatred; but with the eyes of a humble heart, he saw God. The strong, glorious, intelligent, and righteous of the world covered God with cursing and mockery, while the thief turned to Him with a timely and effective prayer: Remember me, O Lord, when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom (Lk. 23:42).

The Most Holy Virgin stood by the cross and the crucified Lord. Her heart was pierced with grief as if by a sword: the prophecy of Elder Simeon was being fulfilled.[1] But She knew that the redemption of the human race was being fulfilled on the cross; She knew that Her Son, the Son of God, deigned to ascend the cross and offer Himself as a peace sacrifice for rejected mankind; She knew that the Lord, having brought the redemption of mankind by His death, will resurrect, and resurrect mankind with Himself. She knew this—and was silent. She was silent before the magnitude of the event; She was silent from the over-abundance of sorrow; She was silent before the fulfillment of God's will, which no voice can oppose.

The beloved disciple [John] of the Lord stood by the cross. He looked up at the height of the cross—in the ineffable love of the voluntary Sacrifice, and he contemplated Divine love. Divine love is the source of theology. Love is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and theology is a gift of the Holy Spirit (see Rom. 5:5). Love revealed to the Apostles the mystical meaning of redemption. God's love constraineth us, theologizes the disciple and emissary of Christ, reasoning thus: because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead (2 Cor 5:14). But the infinite love that the Lord had for mankind, and which only the Lord is capable of possessing, suffered on the cross in the person of the Lord; and all mankind died in the person of the Lord. If mankind suffered in Him, then it was justified in Him; if it died in Him, then it is also revived in Him. The Lord turned death into the source of life.

Suddenly came the voice of the crucified Lord from the cross to the Ever-virgin: Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! (Jn. 19:26–27). Destroying on the tree of the cross our forefather's and mother's sin, which they committed at the tree of paradise; giving mankind birth into a new life by a living-creating death, to the Lord passes the rights of the Father of mankind, and He proclaims His Mother according to the flesh to be the mother of his disciple and of all His disciples—the Christian race. The old Adam is replaced by the New Adam, and fallen Eve is replaced by the immaculate Mary. For if through the offence of one many be dead, said the Apostle [Paul], much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many (Rom 5:15). Through our Lord Jesus Christ, innumerable and unutterable benefactions are poured out upon the human race: not only was man redeemed, but he was also made a son of God by adoption.

Illumined by the contemplation of the great event, let us return, beloved brethren, to our homes, and bring along with us deep, saving thoughts, smiting our hearts with these thoughts. We remembered and vividly beheld the act of divine love; an act surpassing words, surpassing comprehension. Martyrs responded to this love by the streams of their blood, poured out like water; the saints responded to this love by the mortification of their flesh with the affections and lusts (Gal. 5:24); many sinners responded to this love with a flood of tears, heartfelt sighs, and the confession of their sins, and drew from it healing of their souls; many people burdened by sorrows and sickness responded to this love, and this love dissolved their sorrows by Divine consolation. Let us also respond to the love of our Lord Jesus Christ by our sympathy with His love: by a life according to His all-holy commandments. He demands this sign of love from us, and only this sign of love will He accept from us. If a man love me, said He, he will keep my words: He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings (Jn 14:23-24). If we do not respond to the Lord's love for us by our love for Him, then was not the blood of the God-Man shed in vain? Was not His all-holy body tormented for us in vain? Was not the Great Sacrifice placed upon the table of oblation and pierced in vain? Its intercession for our salvation is all-powerful; all-powerful also is its indictment against those who disdain it. The blood of righteous Able rose from the earth to heaven, and stood before God to accuse those who had shed that blood; the voice of the great Sacrifice rings out through the very heavens, on the very throne of the Godhead, upon which the great Sacrifice is seated. The voice of Its indictment is also God's sentence of eternal punishment to the enemies and disdainers of the Son of God. What profit is there in My Blood when I go down into corruption? (Ps. 29:9) announces the all-holy Sacrifice, accusing Christians whom It has redeemed, who took the price of It on themselves, and cast It down along with themselves into the stench of sin. Anyone who has made his soul and body members of Christ, redeemed by Christ and belonging to Christ, commits a terrible crime when he then makes them the members of an harlot (1 Cor. 6:15) through multiform merging with sin. Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy (1 Cor. 3:16–17). Amen.

St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov)
Translated by Nun Cornelia (Rees)


[1]Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, said the holy God-receiver to the Most Holy Virgin (see Lk. 2:35).
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