Good Friday: For the Badness and the Sadness
What does this have to do with me? These were the decidedly impious words that kept rattling around my cranium as I drove around town running errands after a local Good Friday service this morning. It had been a meaningful service—beautiful music, considerable time spent hearing Scripture, a dramatic portrayal of Jesus’ betrayal, “trial,” and crucifixion—but for some reason, the events we remembered this morning seemed light years away from my own life and experience.
Today, I found my mind wandering, departing from the script. I thought not of the usual divinely-authored, salvation-accomplishing, prophecy-fulfilling story of Jesus’ death, but of the human story behind those awful events that took place outside Jerusalem two thousand or so Fridays ago. I thought of all the political manipulation, all the religious groping and grasping after power and status, of the human betrayal, of the idealistic young rabbi who, to quote Albert Schweitzer, “threw himself under the wheel of history” in an attempt to bring about the kingdom of God. I thought of how this Jesus must have seemed not to comfortable postmodern suburbanites, but to his first-century contemporaries… Not the second person of the Trinity or my “personal Lord and Saviour,” but an enigmatic revolutionary, a strangely compelling religious zealot who threatened the powers and structures and institutions of his day and who was executed for his troubles.
I thought about these things, but I also thought simply of a very sad story. I thought of a young man wrongfully accused, falsely tried and convicted… of a horrific and barbaric execution… of how there is so much violence in our world… has always been so much violence… how the violence never stops, but just hardens and breaks us, numbing and deadening our souls. I thought about a brokenhearted mother and a son gone too soon. I thought about confused and shattered disciples of another failed Messiah. I thought of a beleaguered, harassed, and occupied people whose wait would continue. Such a very sad story…
I thought of all these things and more as I watched these familiar scenes and heard these familiar words. But what do these strange events that comprise this sad story have to do with me?
That we affix the adjective “good” to this Friday could surely be seen as among the more perverse ironies of history. These events are not “good,” in any normal sense of the word, even for those who have an eye on the Sunday coming. We still stubbornly call it “Good Friday,” though, perhaps because from that terrible first Friday down to today, there has always been a sense that there is more to the story than the sadness and the badness that we see on the human level. There has always been a sense that, while the story of Jesus’ last hours is a profoundly human story, it is more than this as well. There has always been a sense, however partially understood or embraced, that the God of the universe was somehow at work amidst all of this tragedy and evil and apathy and betrayal and confusion and tears and rage and emptiness and despair.
The Christian conviction has always been that the story of the execution of a young Jewish revolutionary by the collusion of religion and Empire is only part of the story—that behind these events, God was at work reconciling all things to himself. The Christian conviction has always been that this Friday changed things. Big things. Cosmic things. Historical and social and spiritual and existential things. Somehow, this death was a turning point in history. Somehow this death has echoed down through the ages.
There is so much that we don’t understand about this death. We fight about theories of the atonement and what they mean and how much we have to understand and in what way… We try to wrap our little brains around how one member of the Trinity can die… We scramble for terminology like sin and punishment and vicarious substitution… We have all of these images and concepts competing for space in our brains… Jesus died to satisfy the wrath of God… no, wait, he died to express solidarity with the oppressed… or, was it a kenotic expression for us to emulate… or the ultimate reminder that we do not suffer alone, that God is with us in our suffering… Or maybe he was just a victim, plain and simple… Or all of the above, and more? So much we don’t understand…
I think that those of us who presume to speak for or about God for a living should tread very carefully around mysteries like these. We so often confidently proclaim what this or that meant, why this or that had to happen, what this or that accomplished, how God “had” to do this or that to get this or that, what this or that means for you and what you should do about it. We use impressive, churchy-sounding words to describe it in order to keep the story manageable and safe, to make it look like we know what we’re talking about, to make it seem like God is as rational as we are. But the truth is that the horrible execution story we remembered today in our Sunday finest in our comfortable seats is a story cloaked in mystery at every turn. Glorious, frightful, beautiful, God-awful mystery.
And yet, we cannot shake the deep sense that this Friday mystery is a hopeful one, and that the God behind these mysterious events is a generous, merciful, self-emptying God. We are convinced that these mysteries do, indeed, have something—everything, actually—to do with us, all these years later. We may understand less than we think we do about the cross of Christ, but we understand enough to know that the badness and sadness of our stories is bound up with the badness and sadness of that first awful Friday. And we know that somehow the cross is part of God doing something for the badness and the sadness that we could never do for ourselves.