There are days when it might be possible to imagine that we are basically good people and that our society is much more humane and compassionate than during the time the Gospels were written. It might even be possible for us to feel confident that things are mostly all right between ourselves and God, and that we are doing all we can to make our world a better place.
But not today.
Today cannot be one of those days because we are called upon to struggle with the stark reality of the cross. Good Friday is often a difficult day for Christians. On Palm Sunday we were waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna”! Today, the atmosphere is somber. We are much fewer in number than we were on Sunday. We gather in the shadow of death, perhaps already longing for Easter morning with the church bright decorated and celebrating life. We are tired of listening to the thundering cries for repentance that have been a staple of our Lenten readings
On Good Friday, a few people gather in our churches to mourn and pray and listen to a terrible story of betrayal and death. Even on this side of Jesus’ resurrection, knowing how it all turns out, we need to consider how this could have happened. To recognize that it happened because powerful people wanted Jesus to die, and because most ordinary people turned silently away from what was taking place. People turned away. People like us.
And that is part of the difficulty. We look upon Jesus as the Lord of life, the one ever willing to give, to care, to love, to show us a better way, the way to the reign of God. The one who offered and invited others to share his vision, his way of living. Good Friday was a day that both ordinary and powerful folks, people like us, took back the love and compassion that might have been in them, and by voice or inaction said it was quite all right that Jesus be executed like a common criminal. And that’s exactly what happened.
From the moment of his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane by the forces of power, to the time when the crowds roared for the release of Barabbas, to the moment of his death, Jesus was abandoned to his fate by everyone. It has been said that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. And over the ages humanity has become very good at doing nothing…
No matter how much we wish that this terrible drama of Good Friday were just a tragic play, the fact is that Jesus, who embodied all that is good, and right, and compassionate, was betrayed, beaten, spat upon, humiliated, paraded publicly through the city as entertainment to the masses, and then finally, nailed to a piece of wood and left to suffer a slow, agonizing death. What depravity humanity possesses that a political system could so turn on this rabbi and healer using an illegal trial, political pressure, false charges, and fear to control the citizenry?
I suspect most of us think that “I could never do such a thing to another human being” but the painful truth is that we are all participants in this story. It is a truth too great for some of us to contemplate. Our response is to simply decide not to think about it. We turn away from the cross and direct our gaze longingly at the empty tomb. But we must look, look at the cross and at ourselves in order to understand the power of resurrection.
It is easy to turn away and blame others – criminals, politicians, and religious fanatics who betray and destroy life. How simple it is to pick up a newspaper or turn on the television and feel the indignation that we all experience when we hear about a great evil or injustice that has been done. And yet every day each one of us, in our own little way, gives quiet assent to the persons and policies that bring despair and death to humankind. There is a prayer of confession that says “we repent of the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf”. There was and is evil done by our government, by corporate America, by the powerful wanting to maintain the status quo or bend it to their benefit that, unless we intentionally stand against it, is essentially done in our name and on our behalf.
Like the crowd that tormented and mocked Jesus or simply stood silently as he staggered through the Via Dolorosa on the way to his death, all of us play our roles. We do not encourage evil, we simply do nothing because we are afraid, because we don’t want to be unpleasant, or stir up trouble. Or we may just be tired and despondent, ground down into indifference by a lifetime of witnessing the tragedy and injustice in the world. Beaten down, just like the Jewish population of Jesus’ time, held captive by Roman rule. After all, who in our present day does not despair at the thought of the kind of atrocities our species has shown itself to be capable of inflicting on others. How can we not flinch when we think of Dachau, Hiroshima, Columbine, The World Trade Center, Abu Ghraib, or the Sudan? And we react “But what can I do?” And we turn away because we believe we are powerless, just like the ones lining the road as Jesus walked by, carrying his cross.
Our own silence to evil condemns us. We want to be done with this bloody business of Good Friday, so we avert our eyes from the misery laid out before us. But for our own sake we must look, because it is in contemplating the death of Jesus that we can begin to learn about true compassion and love.
We know that Jesus did not have to walk this awful road. It was an act of his own choosing, his choosing to witness to the power of love over all else.
At the last moment of his life Jesus cried out, “forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do,” and if the events of Good Friday teach us anything, it is that we now know what love means. We can apply this lesson to our own lives and the lives of those around us.
We know how the story will end. Jesus will rise from the dead, overcoming the cross, death, and the grave. He has gone on before us, and will return for us on the last day. But while we hope in the resurrection, we still live under the reality of the cross. The condition of the world testifies to this awful truth, and the brokenness of our own lives gives further witness. God is still being crucified day by day, still suffering on the periphery, still on the receiving end of human evil and callousness in places as far away as Darfur and as close as Louisville. Our salvation is a gift of God, but our responsibility for overcoming evil lies within ourselves, now liberated by God’s grace.
Today, we come face to face with the profound knowledge of the nature of God and the disquieting disclosure of the nature of human beings. We are an Easter people in hope, but a Good Friday people in the reality of our human condition. We are given hope, but that hope is offered only by entering into a consciousness of the cross and all it discloses. Of intentionally choosing to live in a different way that opposes evil where we find it and that makes no peace with oppression. This is a way that we may tangibly take up our cross and follow where Jesus has led the way…