So this is good Friday?
There are so many ways to reflect on the Crucifixion… where do we start? The magnitude of this event has been written about ever since it happened, it has filled countless books and sermons and yet at one level, it continues to defy our descriptions.
Why the Church has made this Friday, good, continues to be somewhat confusing to me. This Friday is only made good, only becomes a victory, in light of what we now know to have happened on Easter Sunday. But like all good stories, rushing to the end may give us the facts, but does not welcome us into the story to be a participant.
“A Total Crisis of the Biblical Narrative…”
The crucifixion is a bad ending. It is not what Jesus’ first disciples had in mind. It was a failure in the eyes of all who would describe kingship, messiahship and victory in 33 A.D. in Jerusalem. Good Friday is the crescendo of the emptiness of the Church Calendar’s wilderness journey through Lent, as we are led to gaze on the crucified God.
If we are to say the cross is glorious, it is only glorious in retrospect, only when we blur our vision from the horrific reality of what took place. How are we to make sense of this act? How does this suffering, shame and humiliation create the hinge of God’s story and of all human history?
Even many Romans, its chief employers, denounced the cross’ cruelty. Cicero famously called it a ‘plague’ in the empire. Although the cross was deployed as a tool of the empire, there is no original literary description of it more detailed than in the gospels. It seems, even the Romans themselves were too sickened to immortalise its existence in words.
So, Jesus is hung on the Roman plague (keep in mind the original Passover narrative here), and He hung on a tree (a Jewish curse). The Word, who was in the beginning, has come in the flesh and been killed on a cursed tree. A tree is in the garden, and a tree is at Calvary.
Up until the life of Jesus, the biblical narrative could be read as a progression towards the nation of Israel’s success against all the odds. Jesus enters as the one who should deliver this goal, but instead creates what theologian Robert Jenson calls a ‘crisis of the total biblical narrative’.
Jesus, as the God-Man for us, enters into the darkest, most forsaken experience of His rebellious creation and reveals that glory and beauty are found in the middle of it. The Story of God begins in the innocent beauty of the garden and ends in the consummated beauty of the garden-city. But, the glory of God is manifest not just in innocence or completion, but in the process. The earlier wilderness experiences that Lent lead us through seek to teach us that God has entered the desolate places of our creation, the middle of our suffering, and as Kuyper says: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ…does not cry, Mine!”
Many of our intuitions about how to reach God, including the basis for many religions, is how to ascend to the place where God is. The cross, however, reveals that it is not through our holy ascent but by God’s own descent that we find communion with God.
Jurgen Moltmann, says it this way;
“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness.
In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father.
… God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.”
Just as in our own wilderness experience, the cross of Christ seems to obscure the God we have come to know. Where is God? Surely God cannot be present, even participating, in this hell-on-earth existence. And yet, here we find the God-man on a tree.
There have been echoes all throughout the God story that God will return as a King, one who will recover what was lost in the garden, returning the Priestly and Kingly vocation that the original image bearers threw off. As we look at Jesus’ journey through Holy Week, we can see it as ascendency to the throne. He is mockingly given a royal robe, a crown of thorns and sceptre. The Romans insist a King is strong enough to save himself from a cross. If he can’t save himself, how will he save his people? Like servants at a king’s table they offer him wine, but it is the sour wine of the poor, not the sweet wine given to kings. This is not the coronation anyone would have expected. Jesus is mockingly called King of the Jews, yet this ironic declaration becomes shockingly true.
His Priestly vocation is fulfilled as His death initiates the destruction of the temple with the veil being torn, the Holy of Holies is unveiled for all to see. Jesus is the temple, He is the stream of living water, He is the bread of life. He is the Great High Priest.
I could go on and on unpacking and meditating on Jesus death. Indeed, it has been done before. But the needful thing for the road of Christian formation is not simply for us to analyse Jesus death from a distance, but to engage and enter it. This is the road of formation, that we would join Jesus in His death in order that we might find communion with Him and share the joy that was set before Him.
Instead of rushing ahead and interpreting Good Friday through the lens of Easter Sunday, dwell on the cross today. A place of forsakenness and despair with only the smallest chink of hope offered through Jesus’ words:
“Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Consider spending time dwelling on this video today which uses visuals to dwell on the last words of Jesus.
This video is unusual, it is slow moving, hard to understand. It is not straightforward. Allow it to open up an imaginative space within you for how the early disciples experienced Jesus’ death. Push back against the modern preference for jumping to the end of the story and allow yourself to meet God right here.
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Watch this bleak scene, as fire begins to appear.
Like the bush in Moses wilderness is Jesus’ cross in our history.
A strange fire.
Then clouds, as clouds leading the Israelites through the wilderness.
Then Finally, we see the Father.
“If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”