Growing up, hearing the anniversary of Jesus’ death referred to as “Good Friday” always struck me as a bit of a misnomer. I struggled to see what exactly could be good about the unjust torture and execution of an innocent man. It was often explained to me that “by his blood, we are made clean.” Yet I found this to be an unsatisfying explanation – sure the end result is good, but isn’t this a strange way to achieve it? There are many explanations as to what makes Good Friday “good,” but that is now a question I am simply no longer interested in answering, as I worry that in our attempts to make the crucifixion beautiful, by trying to make the remembrance of Jesus’ death somehow Good, we fail to see it at all.
It was a Friday morning almost two thousand years ago that Jesus of Nazareth hung on a cross atop a hill just outside Jerusalem’s walls. A sign above him, mocking those who declared him the Messiah, providing a not too subtle warning to those who hoped to continue his mission or try to fill the vacuum his death would leave. The morning of his crucifixion, he had every reason to feel desolate, abandoned. Several of his disciples, his closest companions throughout his public ministry, had fled back to Galilee, likely out of fear they would meet a similar fate if they stayed in Jerusalem. Peter, one of the disciples who had stayed, denied having ever known Jesus thrice in the immediate aftermath of his arrest. After hours of interminable and incalculable suffering, the weight of all this anguish – both physical and mental – finally overwhelmed the man the Romans bitterly referred to as the King of the Jews. The Gospel of Mark preserves Jesus crying out in Aramaic, just before the moment of his death, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” meaning “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a heartbreaking moment.
The author of John’s Gospel, writing about thirty years later, finds the vulnerability demonstrated in Mark’s account distasteful, choosing to showcase a serene, almost docetic, Jesus who is in control of the situation, even as he takes his last breath. At this early recounting of what happened, just seven decades after his death, we can see attempts taken by the author of this Gospel to sanitize the horror of the crucifixion. Here, Jesus does not cry out with a loud voice, as in Mark, but merely says, “It is finished,” before bowing his head and giving up his spirit. Jesus appears more as a stoic hero from a Greek myth than an unjustly executed man of God whose dreams for the imminent incoming Kingdom of God had been shattered. While John’s telling may be more palatable to those who want to see Jesus’ death as a necessary part of God’s plan to save the world, and Jesus as a willing participant in this endeavor, Mark’s account strikes me as more honest, and more resonant. Although we are rarely as Christlike as we aspire to be, it seems that all Christians can relate to Jesus’ cry in Mark. We wonder why we are alone, where God’s promised love and mercy has vanished to in our times of trouble. Indeed, God seems to have forsaken us, and the belief that God is present at all times, seems, in these moments, to be more of an abstraction than something truly felt in the depths of the soul. To deny the validity of this cry is to deny the validity of human existence, and the pain that so often accompanies it.
We tend to avoid viewing Good Friday in isolation, looking with our eyes cast ahead towards Easter Sunday, missing the reality that lies in front of us, averting our gaze towards something easier to love, that edifies and inspires. It is not that we should refrain from celebrating the joy of Easter, but on this day of remembrance, to do so is a distraction, an avoidance of our existence at its murkiest and most troubling.
Jesus’ disciples who fled to Galilee, his mother who watched him suffer and die, those healed by him and changed irrevocably by his teachings and his presence, had every reason to believe that his death was the end of his life and mission, that the Kingdom he proclaimed was not really coming. Perhaps Jesus himself, as he hung on the cross for six agonizing hours, came to believe his mission had failed. Perhaps he wondered if he acted foolishly during his demonstration at the Temple just days prior and whether he misunderstood what God asked of him. Surely, this was not how things were supposed to go. To deny the intensity of these deferred dreams is to do injustice to their hopes for the coming Kingdom and their love for their friend – Mary’s son, the man they traveled and ate and laughed with, the man now dying on a cross.
Good Friday tells us that there are days when all seems hopeless, when our dreams have been shattered and there is no reason to believe that the jagged pieces lying in their wake can ever be reassembled. It speaks to all who suffer needlessly, without reason, for no reason other than the color of their skin, where they were born, or their gender or sexuality. James Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree makes a compelling connection between Jesus’ death on a tree and those victims of lynching throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who also hung from a tree, denied justice, showcasing the brutality and inhumanity that too often defines this world. Cone forces us to recognize that the crucifixion was not a one time event, but something that occurs uninterrupted in our world today, making the tragic events of Good Friday not an isolated event, but an ongoing occurrence. While we cannot let such tragedies have the final word, it is nevertheless important that they be allowed to speak their peace, to let the tragedy and shame and anguish wash over us so that we never forget what it feels like in hope that we aspire to prevent such tragedies from happening again.
The cross, on this day, is not empty, is not something to gaze upon with love or sanguine contemplation. On this Good Friday, let us draw our attention to the cross and the death of Jesus, not for edification or emotional comfort, but to jolt us out of any such complacency. As Christians, while we affirm the hope of the resurrection, to deny the tragedy of Good Friday, and its haunting reappearance in numerous guises throughout our modern world, is to nullify what makes such hope necessary, for if through Jesus’ death our salvation is already assured, then we fail to recognize the humanity, the anguish, of his cry recorded in Mark that still echoes many centuries later. Today, as we remember our Saviour’s death, we should not shy away from the horror of the cross, but neither should we embrace it as something beautiful.
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