Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me...
Then I said, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This solemn day of Good Friday resists interpretation because there is something about the death of Christ that speaks for itself. It’s why we read the entire Passion narrative rather than the usual brief Gospel lesson that’s meant for commentary and reflection. Instead, today’s reading is for our total immersion. We are not spectators here; there is no where to stand “outside” the text, which is why we disperse the voices of the characters amongst ourselves. There is only this all-embracing narrative and the roles we have been assigned within it. The pace of the plot is hurried. It reads like someone is trying to explain an emergency that’s come up while grabbing their things and getting out the door. An extended period of time in which to reflect on the situation, to understand it what it all means, is precisely what we and the disciples don’t have right now. All we have is a string of facts that together comprise an event. First, there’s a garden across the Kidron Valley that Jesus and his disciples decide to go to and the next thing you know, there’s a tomb nearby, and they laid Jesus there.
Good Friday is what it is.
But Good Friday also pulls the questions out of us. Questions that usually start with “why?”. Why did Jesus have to die on a cross? What we’re looking for is an answer that somehow explains the necessity of such a death. Why did it have to be this way? We want some revelation of the meaning of it all, some explanation that relieves the tension and the crisis. Which is why the ever-present temptation that faces any theology of the cross is to use that theology to cushion the blow, to soften the scandal. We want to develop a formula in which Jesus + the Cross = something good. The forgiveness of sins. The redemption of the world. Etc. And many of these are good and true and worthy of our consideration. But once we’ve selected a formula to be the answer to the question of why Jesus had to die on the cross, it’s easy to then conclude that now it all makes sense. As though the cross didn’t make sense before we determined the formula, but now it does. Granted, there is a way in which the crucifixion of our Lord does make sense -- for it is in fact the only thing that makes sense -- but one needs the eyes of faith in order to comprehend it. But even then, our comprension of the cross by faith doesn’t remove the scandal; indeed, the scandal remains the point.
On the other hand, though, maybe the cross doesn’t really prompt many questions for you at all, because perhaps it’s just too uncomfortable to confront in the first place. The cross is nothing if not an indictment on the world, so maybe it’s easier just to keep it at a safe distance. Give it a sober acknowledgment, a bow of the head, and then move on to something more positive. The temptation here is to treat the death of Christ like the death of a prominent individual in society. When someone important dies, we all pay our respects and listen to the solemn tributes to the noble causes and achievements of the deceased. It’s about honoring their mission in life which has now become their legacy in death. With Jesus, this looks like just trying to remember the good times, all the signs and wonders, the teachings, the morals, the love, the vision of the Kingdom. That way, we can induct Jesus into the pantheon of other inspirational heroes. His death was tragic and regrettable, yes, something to ponder for sure, but we don’t want to give it too much attention because we don’t want to believe that it reveals anything further about who Jesus was and what he was about. Because if his death on the cross is itself significant, then all of us stand accused. I think we all get this to some extent, at least subconsciously. It’s a natural act of deflection. But the Gospel of Christ is clear: the crucifixion is not an unfortunate side note in what would otherwise have been a life so full of potential; rather, the crucifixion reveals the ultimate form of the life he lived.
This is why St Paul desired to preach Christ crucified and nothing else. The crucifixion of our Lord is in fact the only way to understand him at all. You cannot understand the life that he lived without understanding the death that he died. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
Jesus Christ was without sin, which is to say that he was so full of love that he had no need of the subtle calculations we make in order to get along in the world. That made him threatening and subversive to the powers that be, the powers that preside over a world built on fear and domination, and so eventually they killed him for it.* You could say in the most literal terms that Jesus had it coming to him. And in the murder of our Lord, the world is judged. Judged for what it is: the darkness that scorns the light, the fear that fears the love, the lie that hates the truth. And we are all implicated in the judgement because we, like Peter, invariably choose to deny who we are in exchange for self-preservation, which is to side with the sin of the world and its power of fear and domination. And any attempt to deny who we are is to deny our humanity, which in turn is to deny the humanity that Christ embraced in his incarnation, and thus to deny Christ himself. From the perspective of those who are more or less at home in this world -- those who are comfortable with its ways -- the cross is just inexplicable. How could this have happened? If Jesus was who he said he was, surely it wouldn’t have gone down like this! The extent to which we are confused by the cross is the extent to which we think that the world is hospitable to love. The cross reminds us that it is not.
And so we look upon the body of our Lord nailed to a cross, the only real human around, the one that was so human that “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” The crucifixion is meant to induce the suspicion that just as Christ’s death on the cross is the ultimate human act in an inhuman world, it is by that very act that this inhuman world is to be overcome. And death itself to be conquered with it. On this Good Friday, we wait for that suspicion to be confirmed.
Note: This reading of the cross was drawn heavily from Herbert McCabe’s essay, “He was Crucified, Suffered Death, and was Buried,” found in the anthology God Still Matters.