In the late 19th century, Rudyard Kipling composed a poem, Recessional, on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
The poem is a prayer of stark and raw honesty – calling out the jingoism and triumphal nature of British imperialism. Kipling named the deepest sins of his people, put them in the context of the original sin of placing ourselves in the place of God, and asked for God to have mercy on the nation.
He reaches a crescendo with this final verse:
Kipling could have been describing America today. We put our trust not in the saving power of the love of the cross but in the 21st century far more terrifying and lethal versions of reeking tube and iron shard. We have 24-hour cable news channels and most political campaigns devoted to frantic boast and foolish word. We are in deep need of humility. We are in deep need of Christ’s mercy on each of us, on the nation, on us all.
Simon took an extraordinarily beautiful piece of music – Hans Leo Hassler’s “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded” (the same piece that Bach used for a chorale in his St. Matthew’s Passion) – and crafted a lament for our nation that moves me to tears every time I sing along.
Good Friday is the day to recite Recessional, and it is the day to sing American Tune. Good Friday is the day to fall on our faces and admit that we don’t have it all together. That as individuals and as a nation we have erred and strayed from Christ’s ways like lost sheep. That we need, deeply and desperately need, the love and mercy of Jesus.
Good Friday is the day for us to sing our lament.
To fall at the foot of the cross and admit that we are so very often mistaken and confused, forsaken and misused.
That we are weary to our bones and feel so far away from home. That all our souls have been battered, and none of us feel at ease. That there’s not a dream that’s not been shattered and driven to its knees.
That we look around us—at all the deep divisions, the poverty and the violence and the pain and the rage – that we look around this road we’re traveling on…
…and we can’t help but wonder what went wrong.
God, how I wonder what's gone wrong.
Jesus the Christ hangs on the cross today. Today is the death of dreams. The death of hope. Today is when we are all stripped naked and we can no longer hide behind frantic boast and foolish word. Today is when we are laid bare and the only song on our lips is lament and the blues.
Today is Good Friday. It is the day we look at ourselves – as individuals, as a church, as a city, as a nation, as a world – we look at ourselves and see the huge chasm between what we dreamed to be, what we hoped to be, and what we are.
Today is Good Friday. It is the day we hear the Statue of Liberty saying with dear welcome “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and we look around and see the oppression and rejection those among us who fit those categories are experiencing.
As Rudyard Kipling was in his day, as Paul Simon was 20 years ago, as Jesus was 2,000 years ago, we too are in the age’s most uncertain hour. And today we take time to cry. To lament of dreams lost and of sins committed. To cry out “Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord.” To fall at the foot of the cross in weariness and collapse into Jesus outstretched arms.
And in those arms to get some rest.