Good Friday resists interpretation, because there is something about the death of Christ that speaks for itself. It’s why we read the entire Passion narrative rather than the usual brief lesson that’s meant for commentary and reflection. Instead, today’s reading is for our total immersion. We are not spectators here; there is no where to stand “outside” the text, which is why we disperse the voices of the characters amongst ourselves. There is only this all-embracing narrative and our places within it. The pace of the plot is hurried. It reads like someone is trying to explain an emergency that’s come up while grabbing their things and getting out the door. An extended period of time in which to reflect on the situation, to understand what it all means, is precisely what we don’t have right now. All we have is a string of facts that together comprise an event. First there’s a garden across the Kidron Valley that Jesus and his disciples decide to go to and the next thing you know, there’s a tomb nearby, and they laid Jesus there.
Good Friday is what it is.
But Good Friday also pulls the questions out of us. Questions that usually start with “why?”. Why did Jesus have to die on a cross? What we’re looking for is an answer that somehow explains the necessity of such a death. Why did it have to be this way? We want some revelation of the meaning of it all, some explanation that relieves the tension and the crisis. Which is why the ever-present temptation that faces any theology of the cross is to use that theology to cushion the blow of the cross, to soften the scandal. We develop a formula in which Jesus + the Cross = something good. The forgiveness of sins. The redemption of the world. Or any of the other accounts of “what happened” on the cross. Most are good and true and worthy of our consideration. But once we’ve selected one or more of these to serve as the answer to the question, “why did Jesus have to die on the cross?,” it’s easy to then conclude that now it all makes sense. The implication here is that the cross didn’t make sense before we determined the formula, but now it does.
Alternatively, perhaps the cross doesn’t beg many questions at all because perhaps it’s just too uncomfortable to confront in the first place. The cross is nothing if not an indictment on the world, so maybe it’s easier just to keep it at a safe distance. Give it a sober acknowledgment, a bow of the head, and then move on to something more positive. The temptation here is to treat the death of Christ like the death of a prominent individual in society. When someone important dies, we all pay our respects and listen to the solemn tributes to the noble causes and achievements of the deceased. It’s about honoring their mission in life which has now become their legacy in death. With Jesus, this looks like just trying to remember the good times, the signs and wonders, the teachings, the morals, the love, the vision of the Kingdom. That way, we can induct Jesus into the pantheon of other inspirational heroes, as he rightly deserves. His death was tragic and regrettable, yes, something to ponder for sure, but we don’t want to give it too much attention because we don’t want to believe that it reveals anything further about who Jesus was and what he was about. Because if his death on the cross is itself significant, then all of us stand accused. I think we all get this to some extent, at least subconsciously. It’s a natural act of deflection. We do something similar with those radical individuals closer to our own time like Martin Luther King, Jr. There’s this ongoing project to somehow abstract his dream away from the inconvenient truth that such a dream got him killed. The world hated the dream, which, if we’re honest with ourselves, was actually the point of the dream all along. So too with Christ: the crucifixion is not an unfortunate side note in what would otherwise have been a life so full of potential; rather, the crucifixion reveals the ultimate form of the life he lived.
This is why St Paul desired to preach Christ crucified and nothing else. The crucifixion of our Lord is in fact the only way to understand him at all. You cannot comprehend the life that he lived without the death that he died. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
The Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe once wrote that:
This is no world for love. There is a twist or contradiction in our human life that means we build a world unfit for humans. The only way to get by in it is to restrict your humanity rather carefully, otherwise you will get hurt. [...] We live in a world that cannot afford too much humanity, too much love.
“Too much humanity” and “too much love” is precisely what Jesus brought with him into such a world as this, being of course the perfect human, God in the flesh. He was without sin, which is to say that he was so full of love that he had no need of the subtle calculations we make in order to get along in the world. That made him threatening and subversive to the powers that be, the powers that preside over a world built on fear and domination, and so eventually they killed him for it.* You could say in the most literal terms that Jesus had it coming. And in the murder of our Lord, the world is judged. Judged for what it is: the darkness that scorns the light, the fear that fears the love, the lie that hates the truth. And we are all implicated in the judgement because we, like Peter, invariably choose to deny who we are in exchange for self-preservation, which is to side with the sin of the world and its power of fear and domination. And from the perspective of those more or less at home in this world, the cross is just inexplicable. How could this have happened? If Jesus was who he said he was, surely it wouldn’t have gone down like this! The extent to which we are confused by the cross is the extent to which we think that the world is hospitable to love. The cross reminds us that it is not.
And so we look upon the body of our Lord nailed to a cross, the only real human around, so human that “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” The crucifixion is meant to induce the suspicion that just as Christ’s death on the cross is the ultimate human act in an inhuman world, it is by that very act that this inhuman world is to be overcome. And death itself to be conquered with it. We wait for that suspicion to be confirmed. Amen.
*Note: This reading of the cross was drawn heavily from Herbert McCabe’s essay “He was Crucified, Suffered Death, and was Buried” found in the anthology God Still Matters.