As we gather on the Friday in Holy Week, we always wonder who has ever decided to call it “good”. Indeed, “good” in this context does not imply “pleasant”, but in its old-English sense “holy” calls us to set apart this day specifically to meditate on the Cross -- the focal, yet most difficult aspect of our faith. In general, most of us do find it difficult to look upon the suffering of another; but is it because we feel each other’s pain or that we don’t quite know what to say?
And so we might, in John Donne's words, feel that “this spectacle is of too much weight”. But let us remember that everything that Jesus suffered was for us. It was for us, who once chose to leave the garden into the turmoil of the broken world, that he was led out of the garden into his Passion. His face was disfigured, so our divine image was restored. His hands were stretched on a tree, for us, who had once reached for the tree. (To ponder a few more of such powerful analogies, you might wish to make the reading of "An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday" part of your annual Holy Week observance).
While I don’t believe that on the cross God took out his vengeance on Jesus in place of a punishment reserved for us, I think that much like Job, he was given over into the grip of the evil powers at work in this world and suffered the full consequences of all evil as we do because that’s what becoming fully human truly involved. Good Friday, by forcing us to look directly into the face of the suffering Christ, is an opportunity for us to learn the simple, unawkward empathy, with which we are called to relate to one another.
Jesus’ own central quality, it is epitomized in the 7 utterances he spoke from the cross. Considering what we know about the physical effects of a crucifixion, I can imagine just how difficult it was for Jesus to speak at all. How much of his waning energy it must have cost him to express such depth of love through them.
The first phrase was "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do," in which “they” extends to the whole world: to those who have denied and deserted Jesus, sentenced, mocked, and tortured him; to the criminals on either side of him -- and to us as well. The Cross stands for every moment when we, too, have cursed God, or worse, simply forgot him. Today, let us spend some time reflecting on God’s forgiveness in a fresh way, whether or not we know the full extent of what we have done and left undone. God forgives us, as well as those who hurt us, even when we can’t. What Jesus said to the criminal on his side, likewise, rings of infinite mercy: "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Despite the darkness of today’s meditation, we know that this crucified criminal and the rest of humanity will be returning to the Garden of peace and eternal communion with God, unhindered by impulses to separate them from him.
Our knowledge, tradition, and theology are never as important as a simple trust in that Jesus always thinks of us upon the Cross, and upon the throne. Yes, Jesus is always with us, but like his disciples, we want to flee from him. Even those who had only just declared their readiness to lay down their lives for Him were scattered. Only “the beloved disciple”, whom tradition calls John, was left standing at the foot of the Cross. He was there together with the person whose presence adds the greatest sense of both humanity and horror to the scene, and truly breaks my heart.
For it is the presence of Mary at the foot of the cross that drives home the message that Jesus was a real human being: a man, who had once been a boy, who had once been an infant; whose mother had once carried him in her womb, felt the first kicks, nursed and cared for him all these years, all the while knowing that “a sword would pierce her very soul”. Jesus’ suffering on the Cross must have been magnified by seeing John and Mary’s sorrow, and so he spent some of his precious breath and remaining energy to entrust them into each other's care with the words, “this is your mother; this is your son”.
How lonely must Jesus have felt, as though even God had forsaken him. And so a familiar psalm came to his mind, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?". Out of our compassion for Jesus, let us take a moment today to reflect on the times when we felt entirely out of touch with God -- whether it was through our own turning away from Him, or through the consequences of evil abounding all around us.
Reflect also on the times we found ourselves most lonely, rejected, forgotten. It is in these most lonely moments that we all thirst for love. When Jesus said, “I am thirsty” he meant both physically and spiritually. Think of a hot summer day, or maybe some strenuous exercise – how good the first sip of water felt then. Can we hold on to this memory as a tangible symbol of God’s love? As we do so, may we always be mindful of all those in the world who thirst where water is scarce, and spiritual expression is restricted.
Remember also what caused you to thirst for love and fulfillment; those aspects of your life that feel like they “have not been finished” -- projects that failed, dreams unfulfilled, marriage and children, and jobs unattained. And yet, as Jesus finally died, he did say, “It is finished” (John); or in another gospel, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" (Luke). He died at about 3 in the afternoon, at the same time as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple.
Yet, Jesus’ last words were of triumph not failure: salvation made possible, love shown, compassion expressed. Our own opportunities to do these very things will abound. Every day, someone needs a simple, comforting presence. And if in those moments we find that we don’t know what to say, we may think back to Jesus’ final words: an acknowledgement of loneliness and need, a word of forgiveness, a promise of care and fulfillment, and the hope of a triumph in the final reunion with God. Thanks be to God.