Good Friday. What on earth is good about it; in what possible non-ironic sense can it be called anything but utterly bad?
This is a day of deepest tragedy, of horror and casual (even routine) brutality, of humiliation and suffering, of abandonment and rejection, of loss and death. It is a day when the earthly and universal powers that be have triumphed; when the powers of chaos and darkness, of greed and vested self-interest and state control have risen up as one to crush out hope and life and goodness and beauty forever. It’s the day when all human frailty, weakness, selfishness, pride and stupidity – and yes, wickedness – is exposed in all its shamefulness. It’s a day when liberal humanist optimism in the innate goodness and self-perfectibility of human nature is crushed beyond repair.
The best and truest human ever to have walked the earth has been betrayed, denied, abandoned, mocked, humiliated, beaten and nailed up to die a terrible death. None have stood by him; the only one in all the world who will speak out for him is the dying thief crucified beside him.
This is tragic Friday, terrible Friday, the worst Friday in the history of the universe. There’s nothing, nothing good about it. It’s all gone as wrong as anything can go wrong.
If it had all ended here would we still call it good? If there were no rumours and reports of resurrection, of an empty tomb and a risen, vindicated, glorified Lord could we still have dared to say Good Friday?
In a sense, perhaps we could. The film The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas gave me a glimpse that the very act of one person dying for another is redemptive; and the innocent dying for the unclean and unworthy is even more so. Of course, the resurrection seals this redemption and turns it into the gateway into a new kind of life. But even before the resurrection, the redemption is meaningful, if not yet fully complete.
Martyrdom and suicide
In an earlier discussion on assisted dying I compared the deaths of the martyr and the suicide. I said that a friend had once called Jesus’ death suicide, because he could have saved himself but instead chose to die. There is an element of truth in this; you could call this kind of self-chosen martyr’s death a form of suicide, but the difference is in the motive and (in a sense) the outcome.
Yet perhaps this is a day to remember suicides too, and to reinstate them from where the medieval church cast them out onto unhallowed ground. I too have felt the terrible draw of the desire to be dead, to be out of this sometimes too-painful, too-cruel world. I can say with full meaning, there but for the grace of God go I.
We often call suicide cowardly, the easy way out; I’m not sure that it is easy – I certainly found I wasn’t brave enough to face it (thank God). We also call it selfish, and in a sense it is, terribly and tragically so. But we need to understand that this is because it the last resort of the person who rightly or wrongly feels themselves to be utterly alone and without hope in this life.
And in some cases, the suicide is driven to it by the cruelty and evil of this world, the innocent suffering for others’ wickedness. There was a recent case of a Somali girl who took her life after she was forced to marry the man who had raped her, because in Somali law the crime is negated if they marry. At this point, suicide and martyrdom start to draw a little closer together. But it’s only in Jesus’ death – and that of the martyrs who have followed him – that is truly converges.
Dying to live
The truth of course is that some things have to die in order to truly live; in order for new life to flourish. The suicide perhaps sees this more clearly than the rest of us; but what they have tragically misunderstood is that this death does not have to be literal and physical. Occasionally, as in the case of the martyr who sacrifices him or herself for the sake of others, it may be. But overwhelmingly it is rather the symbolic and metaphorical submitting to death, the sacrificing, of those parts of our selves and our lives which in their current form are injurious to our life and health, and to the life and health of others.
The way to true life is always only through death; we have to die to rise again. Every part of us has to be reborn, baptised into Christ’s death, or it will militate against God’s true life in us. We have to surrender everything, good and bad alike, up to death with Christ; only then can we hope to receive it back transformed and renewed in the new kingdom. What we cling to, we will ultimately lose; what we let go of we will ultimately regain, redeemed.
Lingering in the shadow
Hardest of all perhaps are the ‘deaths’ we haven’t chosen but have to go through nonetheless – bereavement and loss, relational break-up and emotional breakdown, the loss of a job or of some other security or certainty. These again are our Good Fridays, the dark night of the soul when all hope seems to have vanished. We rail and rage against God and the universe – ‘why?’ – and we hear no answer.
Looking again at the crushing defeat of that first Good Friday, of course we know the story does not end there; we’ve read on and seen the next chapter. But perhaps we need to remember sometimes what it must have felt like without the benefit of hindsight, to those first friends and followers of Jesus who had betrayed, denied or simply abandoned him to his fate; who had seen the terrible result and had no inkling yet of what was to follow. Perhaps in this often dark and brutal world we need at times to see and feel again the full impact of the first Good Friday; of Love impaled, destroyed, defeated. For after all, that is what either we ourselves or many around us experience day after day; the loss of hopes, the death of loved ones, the brutal, cruel crushing of dreams of something better.
Jesus will return, but for now it’s still Friday; his body is broken and his life has departed. Let’s dwell for the moment here in the shadow of death, in the dark of loss and grief; the dark and grief that will come to its fullness in the waiting and watching of Holy Saturday.
- Good Friday – the death and triumph of love
- Love yourself or die to self?
- The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
- More to Christ than just the cross
- Finding God in the rubbish
- Getting angry with God
- Jurgen Moltmann and Universalism