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Christ Speaks from the Cross – A Holy Friday Retreat

by Elissa Bjeletich

Lately, I have been fascinated by the idea of Family Retreats, of events that feed the parents as much as they feed the children. Orthodoxy is a way of life, and you can teach facts and ideas in a weekly class, but to truly follow Christ we must be living as His body. Sunday School teachers can plant seeds and inspire thoughts, even inspire faith and prayer — but parents have the power to do so much more. By establishing an Orthodox home with a pattern of prayer and fasting, parents can help their children develop a healthy spiritual rhythm that they’ll carry throughout their lives.

“What saves and makes for good children is the life of the parents in the home. The parents need to devote themselves to the love of God. They need to become saints in their relation to their children through their mildness, patience and love. They need to make a new start every day, with a fresh outlook, renewed enthusiasm and love for their children. And the joy that will come to them, the holiness that will visit them, will shower grace on their children.” — St. Porphyrios in Wounded by Love

Our parishes are often divided into official Ministries — serving elementary-aged children, teens, young adults, middle adults, older adults, women’s groups and men’s groups — and while that works well to create communities of loving friendship within the parish community, it sometimes leaves holes and, in particular, it can carve up the family (both the parish family and the family family).  When the kids head out to Sunday School or to a youth event, we might ask ourselves: what are their parents doing? why aren’t we offering something to the parents? why teach only the children and leave the parents unequipped and uninspired? So we’re experimenting with ways to feed the parents too, and ideally to feed the family in such a way that we inspire conversation and teaching about the faith to spring up in the household.

I’ve had this in mind as I contemplated our parish’s upcoming Great & Holy Friday retreat, an annual tradition that takes place between the communal decorating of Christ’s tomb and the service of the Descent from the Cross. We have the kids out of school and gathered around, and in those quiet hours we like to bring the events of Holy Friday, Christ’s crucifixion and death, into focus in a way that will be fruitful as we stride into Holy Pascha.

As I read Joel Miller’s Theology that Sticks blog here at Ancient Faith — a personal favorite — he reminded me of a great old story in which several blind men touch a large elephant and relate what they think the elephant is: one touches the leg and thinks an elephant is like a tree, another touches the tail and thinks it’s like a snake, etc.  Quick, go read it on Joel’s blog and then come right back.

This is a great analogy for the Holy Church, and works well when you’re considering the difference between Orthodoxy which embraces Holy Tradition versus the various denominations relying solely on the personal interpretation of the Scriptures. We are all blind and incapable of truly seeing God, but if we can gather enough blind men with solid experience reaching for God, that collective wisdom can help us to better know who God really is (escaping the trap of believing that He is who alone we imagine Him to be.)

The elephant tale also expresses what I’m hoping to do with the family retreats. If we can give each member of the family a different part of the elephant, each having access in their own way, then they can come back together and share their experience, building the elephant together there in the house.

And obsessed as I was with finding a Great & Holy Friday topic, that elephant rang another bell: it made me think of the ways in which the four gospels offer different perspectives and even different stories about our Lord. Indeed, we know that our Lord spoke seven times on the Cross — but there’s no one gospel that contains all seven of His statements. You have to search the various gospels to find the whole story, because the fullness only comes when you bring together their various perspectives.

And there it was — the Holy Friday retreat I had been seeking.  We can get the parents involved.  We can talk about the blind men and the elephant, and then split them into groups — preschoolers and elementary-schoolers, teens and parents — and give each group a different piece of the puzzle. We’ll give each group one or two of Christ’s statements from the Cross and teach them about the significance and import of each one. Then we can bring them all back together into one group, and they can share what they’ve learned. Because no two groups learned the same thing, every group’s contribution is important to the whole understanding — even the littlest preschoolers will know something that their older siblings don’t know, and together all of us blind people with our limited, personal insights will come to understand what Christ told us from the Cross. We’ll close by having everyone put the seven statements into chronological order, bringing all of it together into one coherent and complete understanding. We’ll do it together, as families and as a community.

The lesson plan is posted on the Sunday School Curriculum page (there’s a link on the right side of the blog), but here’s a preview of the significance of Christ’s seven statements from the Cross:

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

Jesus’ first words on the Cross are of forgiveness. The people chanted ‘Crucify Him!’ and He was mocked, scourged, tortured, and nailed to the Cross (and we’ll take this opportunity to look through the gospel and have participants identify the various indignities and tortures he suffered.  We might begin with the betrayal by Judas, and continue through his arrest and beating and crucifixion, by looking through the Gospel of Matthew, chapter  27.

Even so, He asked that God forgive them, because even as they looked upon an innocent man and attacked Him, He knew that humans lack understanding. We know this too, and we are called to forgive as He does, even in the very moment when we are being attacked.

We’ll note that Jesus was very humble and was realistic about our fallen world:  He did not expect that people would always recognize Him or respect Him.  Likewise, we can follow His example and not expect our lives to be easy or perfect. If we understand that in this fallen world, bad things will happen, it is easier to be forgiving when they do.

“Assuredly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”  (Luke 23:43)

On the cross, Jesus is tormented by the Roman soldiers, by various passers-by who mock Him, and then by one of the two robbers who were crucified together beside the Son of God.

“Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.”  Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”  And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23: 39-43)

Many people mock and accuse Jesus, and then a stranger defends Him. The good thief argues back at the bad thief, and then does more: he acknowledges that Jesus is truly the Son of God and asks Him to save Him: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom”. (Luke 23:42). This thief is the first person to declare Jesus “Lord” over life and death; even there on the Cross, he knows that Jesus still has His victory ahead of Him, and that His Kingdom is coming after His death. Many of the apostles will walk away broken-hearted thinking that Jesus’ death means that he would not rule over His Kingdom (such as Luke and Cleopas who are so disappointed and saddened on their walk to Emmaus) but this good thief understands what they do not yet understand — he has faith that the Lord’s Kingdom is still to come, and asks to be remembered in it. This is why He becomes the first person in Paradise, as Jesus says: “Assuredly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise”.

Of course, Christ Himself foretold this: “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you” (Matt: 21:31) — and indeed, a guilty thief would be the first to enter.

When the thief on the Cross reaches out and asks, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into your Kingdom”, Christ generously opens the door to heaven for those who repent of their sins — even at the last moment of life. Indeed, Christ will soon head to Hades and invite even those evil souls from the days of Noah to join Him in Paradise. There is no sinner He does not wish to save, and His mercy is always boundless.

When Jesus therefore saw His mother and the disciple whom He loved standing by,  He said to His mother: “Woman, behold your son!”  Then He said to the disciple: “Behold your mother!”  (John 19:26-27)

This is more than just Jesus looking for someone to take care of His mother. This is the very special moment when Jesus, who has adopted us as His brothers and sisters and invited us to call God, ‘Our Father’, invites us to understand the Theotokos as a Mother to all of us, quick to intercede and to bring joy and peace to us in our sorrow and pain. He is not just talking about John, but about all of the Holy Church:  the Theotokos will love us as she loves her own Son, and we will turn to her and love her like we love our own mother.

This would be a great statement to assign to a younger group, so that they could learn and sing a hymn to the Theotokos for their presentation to the group. This would be a nice opportunity to teach them to sing, “More honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word. Truly Theotokos we magnify you!”

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying:”Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani?” Which means, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, Matthew 27:46)

Jesus prays Psalm 21, a Scripture which foretold the very details of the Crucifixion. Taken without the rest of the Psalm, His cry of “Why have You forsaken me?” could be misinterpreted as a cry of despair. Since He took on our nature, Jesus experiences our alienation from God in His humanity, knowing our suffering and distress, yet He does not despair. The Psalm foretells many details that we find fulfilled in the gospel stories of crucifixion, including saying that he feels humiliated, like “A reproach of man and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; They speak with their lips and shake their head, saying, “He hoped in the Lord, let Him rescue him; Let Him save him since He delights in him.”” People really do walk right by Jesus and say those very things. The Psalm says, “They pierced my hands and my feet” as they did, and “They divided my garments among themselves, And for my clothing they cast lots.” The evangelists specifically emphasize when they cast lots for His clothing, noting that the Scriptures (this very Psalm) foretold this. They recognized the Psalm that Jesus is praying here, and they know that the Psalm does not end in despair but in victory:  “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the Lord; And all families of the Gentiles shall worship before You, For the kingdom is the Lord’s; […] The coming generation shall be told of the Lord, And they will declare His righteousness To a people who will be born, because the Lord made them.”  

When Jesus cries out this Psalm on the Cross, He reminds us that we are in community and in continuity with the whole Old Testament; what we are seeing here is the fulfillment of the Scriptures, and will deliver the promise of the age to come.

After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said: “I thirst.” (John 19:28)

This is the only verbal expression of His physical suffering on the cross, and Jesus’ thirst reminds us that He suffered a terrible physical thirst in order to heal our own spiritual thirst. He is both expressing real thirst, and prompting the soldiers to fulfill the Scriptures: Psalm 21, which describes the crucifixion refers to His thirst (“my tongue cleaves to my throat”, 21:16) and Psalm 70:22 says, “They gave me gall for my food, and they gave me vinegar for my drink.”

It would be appropriate to offer the participants to consider how much pain Christ had endured, and how it must have been to have a sponge of gall and vinegar thrust into His mouth as yet another insult and assault — if you have vinegar, you might pour some onto a sponge and let some of them try it.

Finally, we might consider how Christ offers to heal our spiritual thirst, recalling His conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, who asked Him:

“Are You greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, as well as his sons and his livestock?” Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”  (John 4: 12-15)

So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said: “It is finished.” (John 19:30)

This does not just mean that Jesus’ life on earth is “finished”, but indicates that His divine mission, His plan of salvation, is now complete.  The prophecies are fulfilled and His work on earth is complete.  He did not die or even lose consciousness before He accomplished everything God willed to be accomplished.  Still God, He was always in charge, and patiently completed everything before dying.

The sour wine in particular fulfilled the prophecy in Psalms 21 & 70:  Psalm 21, which describes the crucifixion, refers to His thirst (“my tongue cleaves to my throat”, 21:16) and Psalm 70:22 says, “They gave me gall for my food, and they gave me vinegar for my drink.”

“It is finished” refers to the entirety of Christ’s mission on earth: He came to take on flesh, to live among us as fully human and fully God, to engage in His ministry from His early preaching in the Temple to His baptism and His miracles and teachings, through to His arrest and crucifixion.  He is God, and He has always been in control, and it is He who declares that “It is finished”, assuring us that He has completed all that He was meant to complete.

And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said: “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” Having said this, He breathed His last. (Luke 23:46)

Jesus willingly gives up His soul to His Father in Heaven; His life is not taken from Him, but He voluntarily commits it to the Father. His was the first human soul not to be taken to Hades; instead it was freely given into the hands of God. Thus, Christ frees all of humanity from death’s grip. Now, Christ enters death in order to destroy it.

We recall how Jesus answered Pontius Pilate when Pilate asked, “Do You not know that I have power to crucify You, and power to release You?” Jesus answered, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:10-11).  The human beings on this earth, even those who represent the great power of the Roman Empire, “could have no power at all against [Christ]” if God Himself had not willed it. Yes, this crucifixion is the work of human beings who wished to see Jesus destroyed and vanquished, but that is ultimately only possible because it was part of the divine plan for our salvation. Because the Father sent the Son to enter into death, because it is His will, the Son goes willingly to Hades, where He will preach to those who died in the times of Noah and to all human beings throughout history. He will bring them His message of great mercy and love, and then Hades will learn that the immortal God cannot be contained as He breaks open the gates, bestowing life onto those in the tombs. It is because of this great goal, this merciful outreach to His wandering, lost creation that Jesus willingly breathed His last.


Elissa Bjeletich is a mother and Sunday school director in Austin, Texas. She's also author of In God’s Hands and the Raising Saints podcast. This article was originally posted on blogs.ancientfaith.com