Good Friday, April 2, 2010, 3:50 PM
The monastic community and its visitors have just finished the “Celebration of the Lord’s Passion.” We read the Passion narrative from John, venerated the Cross, and took communion. During the chanting the monks’ voices echoed through the spare, concrete Gothic church, their voices alive with history’s long reflection on what happened that first Good Friday.
As I participated in the liturgy, I was reminded that the faith is first and foremost about Jesus. What he said. What he did. What happened.
It’s about a man being struck and mocked by guards and made a victim of their sadism. They enjoyed hurting him.
It’s about power politics, as the Jewish authorities threaten to go over Pilate’s head. “We have no other king but Caesar.” Those words must have caused bile to rise in their throats, but they were willing to emphasize Israel’s humiliation as a client state of Rome in order to maintain their own authority.
I hear Pilate’s “What is truth?” as throw-away cynicism, except for its underlying self-disgust. Pilate is a troubled man.
Jesus stands in the midst of this horror we recognize as our world and speaks of his Kingdom being beyond its realities.
Contemplating the scene, one has to wonder who would want a share in the kingdoms of this world? In the sadism, rage, cynicism and self-hatred produced.
Still, we angle for our own kingdoms of this world.
Venerating the Cross — walking up to a miniature sculpture of Jesus fixed on cruciform oak slats and kissing the wood — releases sorrow and gratitude. The action enables me to feel what I should be feeling, and I’m grateful that our faith gives us such gestures. Without them I’m not sure I’d ever realize so powerfully that in some sense, yes, I do get it. Those tears starting to my eyes are genuine.
Jesus’ suffering is horrible, but its horror, so recognizably a part of human affairs, keeps Christianity from becoming merely a sophisticated theory. This happened. You have to reckon with it.
I’m thinking of Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit. (There are still some here in Conyers who knew her.) Her notorious serial killer in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” says, famously, “Jesus thrown everything off.” The Misfit claims there’s nothing left except to believe in Jesus or go find some “meanness.” “No pleasure except in meanness.”
That may seem merely hyperbole, but look at Christ’s Passion. He was the truth incarnate, and everyone around him derived pleasure from treating him cruelly. They relished asserting their wills, even though it meant another man’s death.
During the readings, this line from Isaiah came home in a new way.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed him stricken,
struck down by God and afflicted. (v. 4)
We can accept that Jesus allowed himself to be killed, in order that we might be reconciled to God; or we can believe that Jesus was wrong about his mission — that he was justly executed, “struck down by God”; or that the cruel ways of this world finally had their way with Jesus, as they do all of us in the end.
Was Jesus the Son of Man and Son of God — or a mistaken Jewish prophet who was crushed by the wheel of history?
Why has this man’s death fascinated the world for more than two centuries? It’s the stark choice it presents.
This journal will conclude with additional reflections after Easter.