Year after year we, the raggle taggle followers of Jesus, come to the foot of the ritual cross wondering in our hearts how this can really be a Good Friday. This year we seem to be joined by many around the world who suddenly are very concerned to understand suffering and service, hope and fear, death and life that comes out of death.
Like the disciples of old most of us struggle to stay present to the terrifying ordeal of the cross. The physicality of such a cruel and dreadful punishment and death makes us want to look away. At best we hover at a distance like the faithful women and when safe come near enough to offer vinegar on a sponge and bear witness to the suffering of the one we love.
We feel shocked anew by the nature of Jesus’ suffering and grieved by his death. ( Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; and John 18:1-19:42.) On such a day clever theologies about why this was necessary ring hollow in the presence of his last harrowing moments.
Yet this is where we come year after year. Indeed this is where we must come – to the pierced feet of our Lord – to see for ourselves his humanity and divine unending love for us. And drawing this close we are overwhelmed by his love for us. At the feet of our Lord on the cross there are no easy answers as to why or what it means. It is the story of love so great, so vulnerable, so passionate, so bloodied, that nothing – not even suffering to death – could contain it. Love beyond reason, love beyond limit, love without end. God’s unkillable love for us.
And this year we glimpse all around us those who hide in fear, who betray, who deny and give up. We also glimpse those who turn their faces toward the disaster and risk themselves in order to serve, we glimpse those who stay near to the dying and hold their hands so that they need not be alone, we glimpse those who keep vigil even at a distance bearing witness to the story unfolding. This year Easter is happening all around us.
No I am not saying that doctors and nurses, shop assistants and truck drivers, police and teachers, good neighbours and hospitable strangers are the same as Jesus on a cross but they are living out their calling to serve in a way that is sacrificial and for the greater good and in this they are conduits for grace and living examples of “doing to the least” that which we say we would do for Jesus.
Jesus died as one of us and for us. The author of life dies. The divine become flesh accepts the way of all flesh and succumbs to ordinary human death. A cruel death, but no more cruel than many. An early death but not as early as some. A sacrificial death which at the moment of death seems to have been in vain, to quite possibly have been pointless. All our worst fears realised.
But this is the point. God meets us in our broken and killed flesh. Jesus died as one of us and for us. There is now no part of our experience, even the most terrible of deaths, that is outside the experience and embrace of God. And it is death itself that is lain to rest as Jesus’ remains are hurriedly placed in a tomb. And so with confidence on Easter Day we will be able to proclaim that love is victorious over hate, good is victorious over evil, and life is victorious over death.
Jesus’ death is not a little accident on the way to glory. Jesus’ death is the location and the occasion of glory – of grace become so particular, so focused that each agonising breath, each word offered to another, each last flicker of human life, shakes the foundation of all that is and ever will be.
Jesus died as one of us and for us, and where he has gone we must all one day go. And so as we reflect on his life and death in the knowledge that soon we will celebrate his resurrection we think about what he has done for us and of how we too suffer and die so that we might live more fully. A thousand small deaths of the self and one day the great transition. For yes Jesus died for us but the way of the cross is the way of life for all of us who claim faith.
It is spoken of beautifully by a contemporary Jesuit, Joseph Tetlow.
“I choose to breathe the breath of Christ
that makes all life holy.
I choose to live the flesh of Christ
that outlasts sin’s corrosion and decay.
I choose the blood of Christ along my veins
and in my heart that dizzies me with joy.
I choose the living waters flowing from his side
to wash clean my own self and the world itself.
I choose the awful agony of Christ to charge
my senseless sorrows with meaning
and to make my pain pregnant with power.
I choose you, good Jesus, you know.”
( an excerpt from Michael Harter SJ ed, ‘Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits’, The Institute of Jesuit Sources, St Louis, 1993)
As we allow the unquenchable love of the cross to do its work for us and in us we find that we move from shame, despair and grief to being washed clean, given meaning and being dizzied with joy. We begin to glimpse why this hard day is good news; we begin to understand the eternal unkillable power of love; and we begin to experience how it is that death is at the centre of the mystery of life.