I went to a Good Friday service yesterday at an Episcopal church. Sometimes I like going to churches. I always hope that the experience will be rich and deep and meaningful. I long to be transported back to (my admittedly idealized version of) an older time when things were simpler, when people who gathered together in a church were a caring community, when priests were wise and services were conducted with dignity and reverence.
The church is a beautiful one, and the interior space did evoke the promise that all that I hoped for could be realized.
Then the service began. Kneeling, standing, sitting; juggling two books, the bulletin, and another booklet (created for a special portion of the service: the stations of the cross) made it a little hard to keep centered in the right spirit, but I’ve encountered all of this before and was able to handle it with reasonable grace. Racing through the hymns unsettled me a little, but I realized that this was a long service and they were trying to make sure it did not go over the two hours it took.
Then there was the sermon. A high-ranking church official gave it. Palm Sunday reflects back on Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem, he told us. Jesus came in riding a donkey, and the people cheered. But Good Friday, and the stations of the cross, reflect back on a very different scene: Jesus’ carrying the heavy cross upon which he would be crucified. The same people lined the streets to watch this procession too, but this time, these very same people were now yelling, “crucify him!” Yes, the bishop said, we must face up to this sad truth, that is was we who crucified Jesus.
We crucified Jesus, because we are sinners. While God loves us and is a merciful God, God is also a God of justice, and so, in effect, could not just let us get away with our bad behavior. But there’s a problem: we are so depraved that there is absolutely nothing that we can do to make amends. We are not capable of it. So how can justice be restored? In only one way: that God would send His Son, His only Son, to suffer the punishment on our behalf. Since we in ourselves are not capable of what it takes for our own sinful nature to be redeemed, Jesus is a stand-in for us. In His perfection, redemption is possible. His sacrifice alone has the power to redeem even the depths of our own sinfulness.
“Why did it take this?” the bishop asked with obvious pain. “Why did Jesus have to suffer so?” God’s ways are mysterious. We will never really be able to understand, he said.
After a brief prayer, another rapid hymn; then the Veneration of the Cross; communion; final prayers; and then the service ended with a silent procession. Standing with head slightly bowed, I stole furtive looks at the faces of the many priests and deacons who had come to participate in this special service presided over by this bishop, and of course, I also studied the face of the bishop himself as he passed. How did they all feel about how this went? Did the bishop really believe the version of the story he just told? His face looked thoughtful; his manner reverent. But did he really believe this version of the story?
Maybe I should have gone to the fellowship hall afterwards. I would have positioned myself near to where he was, to observe how he interacted with the people. That would have told me a lot. Maybe I would even have summoned the courage to ask him some questions.
But other forces drew me away from that scenario, and I did not mind too much.
I thought about Kierkegaard. I wondered if any true Knights of Faith had been present, and if so, what they thought of it all.
I myself just felt a deep, resigned sadness. I understand why most of my students “write off” Christianity, feeling it does not speak to them. Those who have gone to Christian churches mostly feel beat up. No wonder they keep associating Christianity with violence. The message of love does not get through to them when juxtaposed with images of crucifixion and a punishing God. They hear sermons in which priests and bishops tell them that they are the ones who crucified Jesus. They learn in school the history of the crusades and of Galileo’s persecution by the Church. Christianity feels to them like a big bully—it’s a healthy response to just slip away from the big bullies we encounter, if we can.
My sadness in this is an appropriate way to reflect on Good Friday. This is what this part of the story is all about.
It is a story about killing the wrong person. (Whenever we take it upon ourselves to kill anyone at all, we kill the wrong person. It is not by killing anyone that anything good can ever be accomplished.)
It is a story about radically misunderstanding who Jesus was and what he was trying to do. (People still radically misunderstand Christianity.)
It is a story about the nature of suffering. For a long time, people took all suffering to be a sign of God’s punishment. But if Jesus himself could suffer and even die, then suffering and death after all must not be God’s punishment, because God surely wouldn’t punish Jesus. It must mean that suffering is not the end. It must mean that death is not the end. It must mean that we should stop punishing each other. It must mean that Jesus was serious in urging us to stop judging each other, and in urging us to establish different kinds of relationships with each other instead: relationships based on caring, compassion, and love.
It is a story about redemption: even though we as humans can get things very wrong and do terrible terrible things, it is impossible for us to destroy God. It is impossible for us to destroy goodness, justice, truth. Our very worst moments turn out not to be the end of the world. When we lash out at each other in punishing fury, we are utterly incapable of destroying goodness itself. After we’ve played ourselves out, and lie gasping and wounded on the battlefield, healing energy quietly steps in and begins its work. The injured are taken to hospitals. The dead are mourned, and mourning is love. The memories of the goodness that their lives had manifested live on in the stories friends and relatives tell.
Sometimes I suggest to my students that maybe Christianity is really all about redemption.
They give me puzzled looks.
“What is redemption?” they ask. They honestly don’t know. No one has ever explained to them what this word means.
And so I meditate on all of this in these days leading up to Easter.
6 years ago