Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday: The Interplay of Sorrow and Joy

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 of our electronic entertainment is devoted to 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 evangelist to write about the event, is the most restrained about what actually happened. He writes simply that Jesus was crucified. Matthew and Luke are also circumspect in their descriptions. Only in John's account do we have a record of the Roman soldier's lance puncturing Jesus' side. If we didn't have vivid descriptions of crucifixion as a means of punishment from other sources, we'd probably have known little of terrible torture it involved.

Some have suggested that the evangelists' restraint was deliberate, in order to ensure that all generations who read of this moment wouldn't focus on the physical sufferings of Jesus. The physical suffering, however real and horrific, isn't the key to the meaning of the event. Graphic description of Jesus' physical suffering is likely to produce pity, but pity is far too shallow an emotion with which to cope with Jesus' saving death. Jesus doesn't ask us to feel sorry for him today. 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 awareness of a monumental task completed, of freely accompishing the work his Father had set him to do. "It is finished" are words of joy which triumph over pain. If we overdramatize Jesus' physical suffering, we're in danger of misunderstanding the meaning of 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 pain, great love for others can run strong. Even in the moment of his death, the focus of Jesus' love was on others: his mother, Mary, and John, the only Apostle 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 at times, 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 woemn three-to-one. Does this, possibly, hint at a joy which is deeply felt, despite the 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 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 as his followers. 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 and pain, to do for others. It is simply our responsibility. When people in the death camps of Nazi Germany were liberated after World War II, one of the soldiers 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, refusing 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 his beloved disciple. That's the heart of Jesus' self-emptying love on the Cross. That, for me, is the meaning of Good Friday and of the Paschal Mystery.

Kit Kuperstock has composed this prayer for Good Friday:

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 about 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.

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