As a child I often felt disappointed in Holy week, especially Good Friday. It seemed kind of depressing, even shameful. How could Christians worship such a sad figure, to die the way he did?
Would it make any difference to your faith if Jesus didn’t die? Or die the way he did? What if he just ascended to heaven? Or was swept away in a chariot at the last second? Or if on Palm Sunday he was actually crowned the King of Jews, and the Romans all converted while Jesus leapt, unwounded and undead, into paradise? Or if he had to die, why not at home with his loved ones all around? Or had a leader-hero’s death, mourned throughout the Mediterranean world?
When I was young, I think I would have liked that. When I was a child … But now I’m a rather old man. Echoing St. Paul, I long ago put away my childlike schemes. Now I don’t think I could bear to have it any other way.
The death of Jesus clearly isn’t the kind of story we humans would make up. In fact, scholars like Rene Girard insist we couldn’t dream it up. No other religion or region would embrace a suffering God. The cross subverts the entire violent system of the earth. God is not found in power, armies and success, but in the victim, the powerless, the rejected and broken.
Who else would accompany a mother in the loss of her newborn? Who else could walk with Mother Teresa through her years of dark nights? Who else might heal the wounds of Gaza, Auschwitz, or Nagasaki? Who else would enter the poverty of a great man or woman diminished and disarmed before Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinsonism?
Physical pain is not what Good Friday is about. A case could be made that other men and women have undergone much greater and more prolonged pain. It’s the total loss, the futility, the lostness, the smashed hopes, the helplessness, the disarming of every power but love and trust. Are there some things so raw you dare not look at them? He looked at them. He is there. Are there some futures you fear to think of, and so hide your eyes from the prospect? He is there.
The great old song tells only half the story: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The other half is sung by God: “I am there, when you suffer, as your Lord.” That finishes the story.