He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord.
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.’
[Wisdom 2:13, 16b-20]
Yesterday, Jesus prayed for his disciples. Today, we stand at the foot of the cross.
Death confronts us on this day. The death of One who is well loved. The death of One who is condemned unjustly. The death of One who is young and who dies horribly.
How many of us have faced such pain?
How many parents the world over can identify with the sorrow of his mother because they, too, have lost a child?
How many mothers and fathers have seen a son or daughter destroyed because of war, gun violence, police brutality, pandemic?
And how many of us have lost beloved friends?
On this day, let us confront the reality of death and let us think of all those who are suffering because of the death of a loved one, because of the death of an innocent. Today, we remember, we pay attention, we grieve.
God gave us the capacity to grieve. We are allowed to shed tears and to cry out in anguish.
For those of us who grieve over the world’s suffering, this teaches us not to expect miracles but to be reassured that we have a God who hears our cry and understands our pain.
This, after all, is the Christian message of the Cross – that God entered our human experience fully, even unto death. A God who hears us is a God who shares in our suffering.
Yet the relationship of the cross to our salvation, the connection between the suffering of Christ and human suffering, the need for God to become physically entangled in the world’s evil and pain – this is too great a mystery for intellectual comprehension.
We human beings live by the pleasure principle. We can do no more than avoid pain, whatever its source – illness, hunger, poverty, neglect, other people, the economy, failure, risk, truth. We are all practical self-indulgent to the core, asking no more of ourselves than to, “have a nice day.”
So what can we understand, intellectually speaking, of a twisted body hanging from a cross?
It is not by understanding that we are saved. The theologian Karl Barth says, “Here is a truth we cannot understand — we can only stand under this truth.”
In the Latino culture, the crucified Christ is a powerful symbol. In many cathedrals in Spain and countries south of our borders the body remains on the cross, pierced, wounded, bleeding, suffering. Alas, many of those of European and North American background would strip the body off the cross, embalm it and cover it with cosmetics, render the cross in bronze, polish it, make it triumphant and clean.
Today, we see the cross made so explicit.
Today, we hold the nails in our hands.
Today, we hear the word of God lay out our failures and shortcomings as a people.
But overall on this day, we are drawn to the simple truth that “Jesus did it all for me.”
† † †
I delivered a version of the preceding reflection for a Good Friday Tenebrae in 2009. The date was April 10. Later that evening, my mother died.
Since that night, I have always seen Good Friday in a starkly different light. When I first delivered these words they were just that – mere words. But since the events of that Good Friday, April 10, 2009, the words above have taken on new meaning.
My mother’s death made the death of Jesus real for me on that Good Friday evening of 2009. My mother’s death gave me a much more profound understanding of that cruel death that proved God’s undying love for us.
Because of that first Good Friday, we can now gather at the foot of the cross each subsequent Good Friday, not to grieve, but to strengthen and renew our faith.
And for that we say, “Thanks be to God!”