Good Friday April 2, 2010

John  18:1-19:42                                                                


 For the message about the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:18

Words of St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians; not a reading appointed for this day, but one surely that sums up what Good Friday is about:  the “message of the Cross . . . the power of God to those of us who are being saved.”

But how “the power of God”? We don’t often stop to ask ourselves that question. When I posed it a couple of weeks ago during a discussion of Paul’s teaching in the time after breakfast, there was a lot of awkward silence. What does the crucifixion of Jesus, symbolized by the Cross, mean to people like you and me today?

Volumes have been and are being written in answer to that question. But what I want to do tonight is to try to answer it in personal terms, in terms of what the death of Jesus means to me. It may not mean the same to you, and it need not, but perhaps my “testimony” will spur you to reflect on its meaning in your life.

I begin by thinking of the emotional power that crucifixes have for me. I don’t mean the triumphant ones, with Jesus depicted in kingly or priestly garb, strong and victorious on the Cross. There is theological validity in these depictions, for of course Good Friday is followed by Easter, death by resurrection. But I mean the terrible, battered, drooping, even bloody crucifixes. The ones beloved by little old women in black kneeling in churches in Central and South America, Italy and Spain.

The message of these crosses to me is that in Jesus we have a human being who suffered as I suffer – not that I myself suffer so much materially, like those women in black, the poor and sick and imprisoned around the world – but as I suffer in my soul, in my heart. Partly my sufferings are my own, personal to me; partly they are the sufferings that I take upon me in my ministry to others. I don’t want to glamorize the vocation of priesthood, but a priest who does not suffer is not a priest at all. It is experience with suffering that I think leads one in the first place to discern a call to priestly ordination.

At times of real agony in my life, holding a crucifix in my hand, gazing at a crucifix on the wall, has been of enormous comfort. If I am granted the grace to lie dying, in weakness, perhaps in pain, contemplating the state of my soul, I hope that I will be granted time to do so with a crucifix before me. For Jesus suffered as I suffer – though so much more greatly, and with such lesser justification.

He who is Man with a capital M; he who is God – he suffered. We do not have a God who is detached and distant. We do not have a theology of salvation that involves transcending or escaping suffering. Good Friday celebrates a God who is mysteriously and intimately present in and through suffering, whose salvation lies through the Cross. So that is the beginning of what the “message of the Cross” means to me.

But then I reflect a little further. There is also, in the pattern of death and resurrection, a rhythm that runs through all of life. Ours is a world that puts inordinate value on success, that banishes failure to the shadows. In worldly terms, Jesus failed. He who had preached a Gospel of giving up self, of giving all to others, was at the end called himself to give up his very life, to accept the failure of his dreams, in trust in the power of God.

I suppose I have feared failure more than anything in my life. I came from a family that emphasized success. My education prepared me to take my place among the “best and the brightest” of my generation, solving the world’s problems while winning riches and fame. But that was not to be. As they say, God had other plans. A few years ago, I participated in a community consultation at the high school. We were asked what we thought children should learn to prepare them for life in the world. The responses all had to do, not surprisingly, with equipping them for success. I said that I thought every child should be equipped to deal with failure.

And I do, for to me the message of the Cross is in some sense that only through the failure of our efforts, the failure of our selves, will the reality of God’s love, the coming of God’s kingdom, be realized. I cannot get close to people who have known only success. I am uncomfortable with ideologies founded on triumph. I could not get close to a God who did not die on the Cross. So the message of the Cross means that also to me – it is the pattern that interprets life.

In our discussion after breakfast, people made some halting attempts to speak of this and that doctrine of atonement: Jesus’s death was a “sacrifice” that “took away our sins,” et cetera. As someone said, “I believe this, but I don’t understand it.” Well, I don’t understand all these doctrines either  – or at least I don’t understand them very well. Some of them make partial sense to me; some of them don’t. But you know, as always in Christianity, doctrine is secondary – it’s our feeble attempt to explain the works of God. Primary is event and person – the connection of an event like the Crucifixion and a person like Jesus to the events of our lives and to us and the persons we know.

So for me Good Friday is not about doctrines, however wise and well-crafted and even true. It is about this person Jesus, failed and betrayed, beaten and afraid, who nevertheless stood constant before Pilate and the priests, before the mob, constant though his friends had deserted him, constant through the shame and agony of death by crucifixion – constant before his God, in trust and hope and love.

On this day above all others, I thank God that he did this for me and I pray to God that I may do this for him.

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