Thursday, April 01, 2010

Good Friday

A rule of thumb that some Bible scholars use when they go through the gospels and try to decide which sayings of Jesus or stories about Jesus are authentic and which ones might have been put in by later editors - is that the more shocking it is, the more embarrassing it is for Church theologians who have to try to explain it, the more likely it is that Jesus actually said it.  Their logic is simple.  Ancient editors are more interested in adding extra comments that they think explain or make something fit more easily, not in putting words in Jesus’ mouth that are going to create problems.  And so it is that we can be absolutely sure that Jesus died on the cross, a form of execution not only hideously cruel but shameful, reserved by the Romans for slaves and the very worst of criminals.  God’s Son wasn’t supposed to die at all, much less to die in such a shameful way that would suggest he wasn’t disgraced just in the eyes of the Roman Empire but also in God’s eyes.  If it didn’t happen, none of the writers of the Gospels or later editors would have dreamed of saying it did.  Something else we can be absolutely sure of, on this logic, is that the dying Jesus really did cry out from the depth of his humiliation and agony to the one he called Father: ‘My God, why have you abandoned me?’  It’s a question that receives no answer, a question that fascinates and disturbs us even when we try to get around its raw horror by pointing out, for example, that the words are taken from Psalm 22, a psalm that plumbs the depths of despair before eventually coming to rest in a statement of trust.

As modern men and women, having emerged from the shadow of the most appallingly violent century on record, poised as we are still at the threshold of a century that seems set to challenge as never before our sense of security and call into question our basic assumptions about the ways we live - we are both drawn to and repelled by the figure of the crucified Jesus.  Good Friday is not the most popular day for occasional Christians to come to church.  Many Christian Churches dispense with Good Friday altogether, many long-terms Christians avoid it.  It’s disturbing, and it’s embarrassing.  In an age when violence has become a popular fetish, when we are served up a constant stream of almost pornographic violence on TV programs and in the popular press, the crucifixion of Jesus disturbs us because it mirrors our most fundamental anxiety, it challenges our culture’s uneasy denial of death and suffering.

As I talk to people about God, and about the mysteries and heartache of life, however, I find that in some of life’s bewildering and difficult circumstances, only the crucifixion of Jesus makes sense.  In some circumstances, it is only the crucified and dying Jesus who can adequately convey the reality of God’s care - and, I believe, today of all days we need to stay with the unanswered questions, the loneliness and despair and shock of Jesus’ agonising death.  We do know that the ambiguity and the unanswered questions of Good Friday receive an answer in the resurrection, that today’s grief is transformed into Sunday’s rejoicing, but we do ourselves and others a disservice if we hurry past.

Why?  Because Good Friday is the day when all who suffer, all who are degraded or excluded or forgotten, all who are humiliated or taunted, all who suffer physical or mental anguish, can enter into the mystery of God’s love. 

A while ago I heard on the radio a psychologist talking about his favourite music, and he pointed out the paradox that people who are depressed or lonely or facing an uncertain future aren’t helped by switching on some bright, happy jingle.  If anything, the brighter the music the more isolated and wretched you feel.  Instead, he claimed, the only music that can really sustain you in the dark passages of life is the music that conveys an understanding of your suffering.  At such times only the most profoundly sad and beautiful musical passages are adequate.

And so it is, for example, that Christians who are suffering turn to the laments of the psalms or the sad and beautiful passages of Lamentations or the mysterious ‘suffering servant’  passages of Isaiah.  Passages that tell us God knows what it is like to be poor, to be a refugee, to live under military occupation, to be terminally ill.  God knows the suffering of the hungry and the outcast, of those taken advantage of because the world sees them as meek. God knows the grief of the grieving, the pain of betrayal. God knows the anguish that just might be the hardest of all to bear -- the terrible loneliness of one who is suffering all of these things, and who feels separate from or abandoned by everyone who might provide consolation -- separated even from God.

The crucifixion is real, not just God putting on a show, play-acting at being naked, vulnerable and twisted by violence.  The abandonment and humiliation of Jesus on the cross is real and shocking, not just a brief unfortunate phase that had to be endured on the way to the resurrection - but a revelation, I suspect, of who God is in God’s essential nature.  A glimpse into the heart of God, and an icon to the poor, the abandoned and the dying that says, ‘you are not alone.  I am here with you.’  The pain of loss, the failure that is the flip-side of every success, the brokenness and suffering that is the downside of evolution itself is at the core of who God is, how we can best understand the heart of God.  Danish theologian Neils Gregerson calls this the idea of deep incarnation.  He says that in Christ, God has entered into not only our human existence but the biological life of the planet in a new way.  The cross of Jesus, in this way of thinking, is an act of divine solidarity with a physical creation in which competition, predation, disease and death are the necessary processes of evolution and growth.[1]The crucified God reveals a God who, as St Paul says, groans in the very structure of creation as it struggles towards completion. [2]  The crucifixion of Jesus, I believe, reveals God’s priority for the suffering of all creation.

In Elie Wiesel’s profound and painful memoir of the concentration camps of World War II, the depths of despair and human depravity seem to have been reached at the point where the Nazi guards hang a nine year old boy.  Because he is so thin from months of deprivation, the child is not heavy enough to die quickly, and so the camp inmates are forced to watch his slow suffering.  ‘Where is God now?’, one of the prisoners demands.  ‘If God exists, where is he now?’  And the rabbi answers him, pointing: ‘There he is.  At the end of that rope.’

If that’s true, if that’s where God always is, in the most agonised and lonely moments of those abandoned and tortured by the empires of this world, then what it means is that in the suffering of the poor, we see the very face of God. It means that we are able to respond with compassion, with integrity and authenticity because in human suffering we are in touch with the source of our very being, our human lives become luminous with the presence of the one whose word of love creates and sustains the whole universe.   It means that in our own suffering, in the loneliness and pain that we all inevitably face, we are not alone because it is there that we encounter God.  Through human suffering - our own and that of others - we are invited into the mystery of our own reality, and it is in the costly encounter with that reality that our wounds are anointed by love and for love.

In our culture it is difficult to live out Jesus’ way of compassion and forgiveness.  Our culture tells us to fear our own weakness, to deny our own vulnerability - to illness, to age or misfortune, to loneliness or death.  We surround ourselves with images of wholeness and youth and beauty, and we turn away from the indignity and the urgency of others’ suffering.  Maybe we write a cheque.  But we turn away.

But God gives us Good Friday, the opportunity to face the reality of our own existence - the opportunity to look deeply into the suffering of the world - the suffering of Haiti, of Sri Lanka or Afghanistan or Sudan or Zimbabwe of Nigeria - the opportunity to look deeply into the suffering of the world and see God’s face.  The opportunity to see that our own wounds are made holy by the one who continues to suffer with us.  Good Friday critiques our shallow religion.  Good Friday critiques our anaesthetised lifestyles, our flickering depthless TV-centred view of reality, our addiction to consumer goods and the distractions of sport and glossy magazines.  Good Friday critiques our desire to turn away from injustice and oppression and challenges us to believe in resurrection, not just as pie in the sky when you die, not just as an antidote to the apparent failure of the crucifixion, but as the fundamental structure of creation, the fundamental promise of a God chooses to make his home among us, who promises us in the book of Revelation that death will be no more, that mourning and crying and pain will be no more because ‘see, I am making all things new’. [3]

Thank God it’s Friday.


[1]Denis Edwards, Ecology at the Heart of Faith: The Change of Heart That Leads to a New Way of Living on Earth (Mayknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2006), 59.

[2]Rom 8.22-23.

[3]Rev 21.4-5