That Wonderful and Sacred Mystery
Growing up I had no access to Good Friday as a day in the Christian calendar, except only as a day on the calendar. Every year I’d flip the pages and look at the holidays: hmm, the Fourth of July falls on a Wednesday this year; Easter is in March. Once, when young, I asked my mother what “Ash Wednesday” was. She said: “It’s the day they mark forty days before Easter.” Good Friday, I found out in a similar fashion, would be the day Jesus was crucified, if you counted back from Easter Sunday.
If you counted back from Easter Sunday. I can sympathize with those who don’t like the day; who say, “What’s good about it anyway? How should I derive any blessing from a maudlin twenty-four hours spent dwelling on the crucifixion of Jesus?” I can sympathize because I was always the sort of person who heaved an impatient sigh tinged with guilt over my own supposed callousness whenever passion plays were put on; whenever someone in church got up to do a monologue about the pains of the crucifixion in graphic detail that was inevitably punctuated with the dramatic declamation, “…and he did this for me?” I couldn’t possibly respond to something like that. I felt no obligation to see The Passion of the Christ, even to be able to respond as a Christian to questions from unbelievers. The exercise of visualizing and dramatizing within oneself the pains of Jesus’ passion has always been just that, an exercise, and it rarely resulted in any sort of realization or epiphany or fresh gratitude for my salvation. So I sympathize entirely with those who want to gloss over Good Friday and focus on Easter Day.
Except I also want something in my religion that acknowledges how bitter defeat can be. I know a small taste of what defeat feels like on a large scale: November 3rd, 2004 has been put on my list of Worst Days Ever, because I worked harder than I ever had before to elect someone I thought good, and not only was that person defeated, the hopes of everyone in this country who wanted to change its direction were defeated as well. I don’t make fun anymore of the disciples who trudged toward Emmaus and explained to a stranger, “We had hoped he was going to be the one to free Israel.” On a larger scale than an American election, Jesus was the last best hope of his followers for their homeland. If we can ride the swell of his power and goodness and holiness, they must have thought, we can stop the stain of evil spreading into our very hearts, the stain of totalitarian rule by the Roman Empire. If Jesus is who we hope, we might be able to stop the cruelty and the surveillance and the faceless, merciless crushing of the poor. We might stop being such broken people, if the world changes; if Jesus changes it.
But Jesus did not change it. The religious authorities, who ought to have welcomed this shattering, wonderful incursion of holiness, reviled him, discredited him, and finally betrayed him to Rome. With Rome’s iron-gloved hand they killed him, stopping the dazzling rebellion of humanity against suffering almost as soon as it had begun. Their last best hope was sentenced to a disgraceful death.
Not only that, but a person they loved intensely was being tortured in public. C.S. Lewis has pointed out that the cross did not replace the fish as the primary symbol of Christian art until the last person to see a real crucifixion died out. Why? Because the cross was an engine of torture and shame, and nobody liked seeing even people they didn’t know hanging on one along the road, much less someone they loved. I don’t like watching people I care about suffer even mildly: it makes me want to go away and not have to hear the sounds of pain or sickness. Would I like to see a Roman soldier step with grim casualness up to somebody I loved and stick a spear in him, to see if he was dead? Had I been there, would I have fled helplessly, like some of the disciples, or equally helplessly trailed along after, as if by watching it all happen I could hope it into stopping?
That must be what utter defeat tastes like. Ashes and adrenaline in the mouth, pain coruscating from the shoulders and driving everyone who shares it apart instead of together. That is what we call “Good” Friday.
I admit I haven’t attended a Stations of the Cross service; but it seems to me that Good Friday liturgies in general are not focused on defeat. They may dwell on the passion (from the root word for “passive,” encompassing both meanings of the word “suffer”) of Christ, but they also nudge in words like “glory,” “redemption,” “joy,” “reign”; like a grandfather who tells a child with twinkling eyes that no, he hadn’t brought back any candy from the store, fully expecting the child to raid his pockets the next minute for the promised booty. Or like a person rereading a beloved detective story, knowing how it is going to turn out but still holding her breath at the crisis.
The virtue of Good Friday happened for me today, I think, sitting in the kitchen and wondering, with that same childlike thrill, if it really was going to happen again this year. This year, will things be raised up that were cast down? Will things that have died be resurrected? Is it really going to happen? Is everything sad going to come untrue?
Are my defeats going to be swallowed up in victory? God knows the pains have been bitter; everything is tooth-grindingly hard these days, it seems; dust and ashes are my efforts, self-hatred like a perpetual bruise under my tongue. My sins—and the sins of others which have also come under my ownership—have taken hold of me, and I cannot look up.
This is my “in” to Good Friday. I forge my way into the darkness, not knowing, but trusting, that there will be brilliant light and life at the other end of it. Not knowing, but trusting, that the finishedness of Jesus’ work on the cross will transform the world yet again, and more, and further, and with light and joy. If I make my bed in the grave, there he is also. And perhaps it will happen again this year: he will rise again, and take me with him.
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.