This is part of a syndicated series for Lent 2019 with Harvard’s Christian Journal Ichthus. Visit Ichthus at http://www.harvardichthus.org
By Aidan Luke Stoddart ’21. Aidan is a sophomore in Eliot concentrating in the Comparative Study of Religion.
We have arrived at Good Friday, the day when we are especially invited to reflect on Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. It is perhaps the most frightening, the most harrowing, the most heartbreaking story in all of Scripture—and, of course, it is also probably the most important. As we draw near to Christ Crucified, venerating his cross and taking in the weight of his momentous sacrifice, this passage from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is on my mind:
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood–Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
“In spite of that, we call this Friday good”! If you’re anything like me, you might take the name “Good Friday” for granted, passing by it without much thought. And I could imagine why! For one thing, this name is just traditional—we’ve always referred to the Friday before Easter as Good Friday. It’s just what we do. Furthermore, we already know the end of the story. Perhaps, eager as we are to jump to the Resurrection, we don’t take the time to sit with the utter paradox at the heart of the name “Good Friday.” Given that Easter is on Sunday, the name may strike us as sensible, appropriate.
But it is not Easter yet. The words of Paul in Chapter 1 of 1 Corinthians are instructive here. We do not proclaim Christ Risen, but rather, “we proclaim Christ Crucified.” The core of our proclamation of religious triumph is the cross, and lest we forget due to the its ubiquitous appropriation in our culture as a watered-down symbol, the cross is a gallows. This is truly ridiculous; to use Paul’s words, it is “a stumbling block” and “foolishness” to those who don’t understand it. And yet, this cross is what we proclaim. It is our kerygma. And we call the day when we commemorate it “good.”
So, let us abide in “Good” Friday, reflecting on the utter outrageousness of its name. Let us confront the horror of the Passion narrative and remember in spite of what we call this Friday good. And let us encounter Christ on the cross, and remember why.
Jesus was reviled, oppressed, and afflicted. We led him like a lamb to the slaughter, to crush him with pain. He who had done no violence himself became an innocent victim of our own violence, and in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
We abandoned him in the garden as he prayed in fear through the weary hours of the night. He loved us and uplifted us, and we denied him—once, and again, and again. And yet, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
We struck him, we spat on him, and we mortified him. We gave him a crown of thorns to tear open his scalp and make a mockery of his kingship. Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
We drove nails through his hands and his feet. We hammered him onto a cross, and hoisted him up on a hill to die a traitor’s death. As he bled out, we taunted him all the more. Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
We looked on as agonizing hours passed, and heard Jesus as he cried out in the words of the psalmist: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We watched as he died of the wounds we gave him. We watched as he died utterly and inexorably alone. Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
In spite of all this violence, in spite of all this hatred, in spite of all this derision, in spite of all this darkness, we call this Friday good. Why?
The answer is Love.
By suffering death on a cross, Jesus fully exemplifies and demonstrates the Love that is the living breath of the Gospel: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The Love that God is, the Love that holds all things together, the Love that created us: this same Love is the essence and meaning of the cross.
This why it is not just by Christ’s being or his life but by his wounds that we are healed. It is not just by his life but by his death that we are restored and vitalized. The cross is not an uncomfortable obstacle on the road to the joy of Easter. In a certain sense, the cross is the end in and of itself, because it is on the cross that Jesus enacts the love that draws us together and sets us free. The cross is God’s greatest act and embodiment of self-emptying grace and love for everyone. All the gruesome horrors of the Passion make this moment of Love all the more powerful, for God takes the violence, hatred, derision, and the darkness, and forges them into something new through the fire of Love:
We lead Jesus like a lamb to the slaughter, but even as we do, he leads us to himself.
We abandon Jesus and deny him, but on the cross he shows us that he will never abandon or deny us.
We strike him, we spit on him, we mortify and mock him, but he always responds to us with peace self-sacrifice.
We fill his body with nails and pierce it with spear points, but he fills our bodies with himself and pierces us with his Spirit.
We hoist him up on a cross, but as we do, he brings us up with him, drawing us to unity with God (for atonement is quite literally at-one-ment).
We look on him and mock as he suffers, but by that very suffering he demonstrates his intimacy with us, and shows us that in his great Love he will not look on our suffering from afar, but suffer with us.
We watch as he dies. But, just as he gives himself to suffering so that we may be healed, he gives himself to death so that we may live, because he loves us so greatly and so fully.
Because of all this, we call this Friday good.
I want to conclude by offering three brief reflections. First: the cross is for everyone. No matter who you are, where you come from, what you’ve done, what you will do, or what you believe, you are included in the great movement of Love that led Jesus to the cross. God’s Love for you is abiding and infinitely deep, and it will never let you go. The miracle of the cross is not reserved for the people who do the right thing, or say the right words, or formulate the right doctrine, or have all the right answers. It is God’s will that everyone be saved, and by the cross, God draws all people to God’s self.
Second: the cross is not actually about punishment. Many of us have heard the pervasive interpretation of the Passion narrative that renders Jesus’ death as a story of penal substitution: humans are depraved sinners who offend God in abhorrent ways, and God needs to punish. So God kills Jesus instead of us, saving us from violence that we actually deserve. This take on the Passion is prevalent in some Christian traditions. But this is far from the only interpretation of the story, and it is actually a relatively recent development in Church history. Therefore, I wonder if it might be life-giving to think about the Passion from a different perspective. After all, the God we meet in Jesus the Incarnate Word is a God of Love, and Love does not delight in violence or punishment. Furthermore, if we cast Jesus as a separate object of Divine retribution, we may fail to recognize that the Father and the Christ are One, and that the truest justice is not necessarily retributive. In light of this, I invite you to consider another theological paradigm: the Passion is not God enacting violence as a substitutionary punishment. Rather, the violence in the story is our own human violence, to which God gracefully and peacefully responds with Love. This Love, embodied by Christ on the cross, breaks the cycle of sinfulness and hate, and conquers the forces of darkness. Through his loving sacrifice and radical forgiveness in the face of evil, we are healed, redeemed, and set-free.
Third: the cross is God’s delight. The point of Good Friday is not, despite the poor theology many of us have been fed, to make us feel guilt and shame about the Passion of Christ. Rather, the cross releases us from guilt and shame, and invites us to rejoice in God’s great Love for us, a Love that metamorphoses even the cruelest human sin and violence. God longs for us and desires to be in communion with us, and it is God’s joy to sacrifice God’s self for us.
As I said earlier, the cross is a gallows. But, we proclaim it because, in God’s hands, even a gallows can become the gate by which we return home. We proclaim it because, in God’s hands, even a gallows can become the throne from which a new reign of Love begins: unfailing, infinite, redemptive, delightful love for every human being on Earth.
I close with a passage from the writings of St. Julian of Norwich, a 14th century English mystic who experienced a powerful vision of the Lord’s Passion:
With a kindly countenance our good lord looked into his side, and he gazed with joy, and with his sweet regard he drew his creature’s understanding into his side by the same wound; and there he revealed a fair and delectable place, large enough for all mankind that will be saved and will rest in peace and in love. And with that he brought to mind the dear and precious blood and water which he suffered to be shed for love. And in this sweet sight he showed his blessed heart split in two, and as he rejoiced he showed to my understanding a part of his blessed divinity, as much as was his will at that time, strengthening my poor soul to understand what can be said, that is the endless love which was without beginning and is and always shall be.
And with this our good Lord said most joyfully: See how I love you, as if he had said, my darling, behold and see your Lord, your God, who is your Creator and your endless joy; see your own brother, your savior; my child, behold and see what delight and bliss I have in your salvation, and for my love rejoice with me.
And for my greater understanding, these blessed words were said: See how I love you, as if he had said, behold and see that I loved you so much, before I died for you, that I wanted to die for you. And now I have died for you, and willingly suffered what I could. And now all my bitter pain and my hard labour is turned into everlasting joy and bliss for me and for you.
We have arrived at the end of the Lenten season, at the Friday of the Crucifixion that we call good, in spite of the violence, the hatred, the derision, and the darkness we throw at God and each other. For all I have written, the name “Good Friday” might best be explained in this single phrase: by Christ’s passion, God cries, “See how I love you!”
This Good Friday, and indeed at all times, I invite you to gaze upon the Cross and see how deeply, how tenderly, and how sweetly God loves you.