Friday, April 10, 2009
No Way To Play It Safe
It's a fact of life that in our time the media, particularly TV, will present any tragedy with lurid and gruesome detail. So much our our electronic entertainment is devoted to the graphic portrayal of violence; we seem compelled to show the violence which actually occurs in real life in all its horror.
That's not true of those who wrote about Jesus' crucifixion. Mark, the first of the evangelists to write about it, is the most quiet about what actually took place. He writes simply that Jesus was crucified. Matthew and Luke are also quite restrained in their descriptions. Only in John's Gospel do we have a record of Jesus' side being punctured with a soldier's lance. If we didn't have vivid descriptions of crucifixion as a means of punishment from other sources, we'd probably know little of the terrible torture it actually involved.
Some have suggested that the evangelists' restraint was deliberate: to ensure that all generations who would read of this moment wouldn't concentrate on the physical sufferings of Jesus, because the physical suffering, however real and horrible, isn't the key to the meaning of Good Friday. Graphic descriptions of Jesus' physical suffering is likely to produce pity; and pity is far too shallow an emotion to cope with Jesus' saving death. Jesus doesn't ask us to feel sorry for him. Jesus asks us to see in his crucifixion and in the Paschal Mystery the depth of what it means to be truly happy. Absurd as it may sound, Jesus death and resurrection are moments of great joy: joy in the knowledge of a great task completed, of freely accomplishing the work his Father sent him to do. "It is finished" are words of joy that triumph over pain. If we overdramatize the physical suffering of Jesus, we're apt to misunderstand the events of Good Friday and of the whole Paschal Mystery.
One of Jesus' words from the cross suggests that true happiness isn't inconsistent with suffering, that even in the midst of suffering love for others can remain. Even in the moment of his death, the focus of Jesus' love was on others: his mother, Mary, and John, the only disciple courageous enough to stand with him when he died. "When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved, standing near, he said to his mother, 'Woman, behold your son!' Then he said to the disciple, 'Behold your mother!'"
The perennial emphasis on male courage seems a gross overstatement of reality when looked at from the perspective of John's Gospel. Certainly men can be and are brave and courageous, but no more so than women. Good Friday suggests that the women were far braver than the men. Only one of the Twelve stands by Jesus as he dies, outnumbered by women three-to-one. Does this, possibly, hint at a joy which is deeply felt despite pain? The Letter to the Hebrews says, "Jesus...for the joy that was set before him endured the cross." Undoubtedly, some of the women around the cross knew firsthand of a similar joy that comes in bearing a child, a joy so great that a woman "no longer remembers the anguish."
By his concern for his mother and John, even from the cross, Jesus demonstrates that happiness isn't possible without concern for others. The responsibility for that care and concern rests squarely upon each of our shoulders. You and I can't ask God to make us happy, or to make this a happy world, if we're not prepared, even in the midst of our own suffering, to do for others. It is our responsibility.
When the death camps of Nazi Germany were liberated after World War II, one of those who was among the first to enter the camps is reported to have said in utter disgust and horror, "Where was God, to allow this to happen?" To which question came the reply, "Where was man?" People continually cry to heaven to be made happy, yet will not themselves lift a finger to work for justice and peace. Millions seek happiness through diversion, amusement, and/or chemical escape from reality. They refuse to see that their own happiness is inextricably linked with others' well-being. That's the heart of Jesus' words on the cross concerning his mother and the disciple. That's the heart of his self-giving love on the cross. That's the meaning of Good Friday and of the whole Paschal Mystery.
Kit Kuperstock has composed this wonderful Good Friday prayer:
God, who shares our most painful hours,
At Cana, Jesus turned water into wine.
At Calvary, Jesus turned blood and agony into joy.
We haven't begun to understand --
Perhaps we never will.
And even thinking aabout that kind of pain hurts.
Birth seems somewhat like that:
Blood and agony eventually bring joy.
Is this some kind of universal rule?
We don't know.
One thing we are beginning to see --
There's no way to follow Jesus and play it safe.
Please give us courage to live with
The risks of our Good Friday faith,
The risk Jesus took for us. Amen.