The pull of Good Friday
Some years ago a woman giving birth in an Irish hospital spied a crucifix on the wall. She asked that it be removed on the grounds that it was difficult enough to give birth without having a man nailed to a cross looking down on her. She had no faith, no sense of the culture of Catholicism, no vocabulary of belief, no idea what the crucifix represented.
For that woman it was incongruous, even barbaric to have a crucifix on a hospital wall. Yet, probably for everyone else the crucifix was a comfort and a strength, a reminder of the extraordinary love of God for us and an assurance that, in times of need and difficulty, God is with us.
For her, Good Friday was just another Friday. For people of faith, it’s where we begin to sense, through the ravages of pain and suffering – as if through a glass darkly – God’s uncompromising love for each one of us.
Three o’clock on Good Friday. A day and a time that resonates with something deep within us. An echo of a belief – however diluted or compromised – that what happened on Calvary, at that time and on that day, is at the cross-roads of human history and at the epicentre of human experience.
For anyone who believes in Jesus Christ, time stood still on Good Friday and, like Christmas Day, the mood of Good Friday creates in us a need to somehow affirm its importance in our lives.
This is why so many find themselves drawn towards a church on Good Friday. Even those whose faith may be uncertain and whose religious practice may have ceased can find themselves in reflective mood on Good Friday.
One reason is that the Cross of Jesus, that elemental image of the suffering Christ that reverberates down the centuries, has indelibly imprinted itself on our consciousness. It is part of what we are. If it was possible to unpack the Irish psyche, we would find that the cross is part of the basic furniture of our minds.
Crosses, of course, are everywhere. Yet, even though the very familiarity of the cross should lessen its impact, somehow this hasn’t happened.
Even though we have, in a sense, domesticated the cross, the warm texture of its wood and the piety in which we embed it, anaesthetising us to the awful reality it represents, it retains the capacity to impact on us.
Even though we have turned an implement of retribution and torture into a fashion icon that we wear around our necks rather than an emblem of human suffering that we carry on our backs, its message retains its awe-inspiring clarity, especially on Good Friday.
Even though we have sanitised the cross by removing the body of the dead Christ and even sought to diminish the impact of the graphic image of a man nailed to a cross, Calvary has survived.
The other reason, I think, for the ‘survival’ of Good Friday is that the older we get the more we realise the connection between the Cross of Christ and our own struggles, especially our own sufferings, the more we realise that to make any sense of the human condition we have to travel by way of Calvary.
Calvary sets in consoling relief the experience of all who suffer: whether the nightmare of physical pain or the emotional trauma of significant loss or the prospect of imminent death. The human Jesus, struggling to come to terms with the reality of his predicament, echoes every human experience of suffering and of loss and reflects the complexity and confusion of emotions that attend all those caught in the slipstream of pain and loss and death.
This Friday, in homes and in hospitals all over Ireland, those who experience pain and desolation in whatever form, all those who like Mary stand at the foot of the cross, will sense something of the complexity of emotions that were present on Calvary: the same confusion, the same disillusionment, the same desolation, the same anger, the same reproach.
How many indeed this Friday will, in whatever shape or form, echo the great lamentation of Jesus as he died on the cross: My God, what have you done to me, answer me?
This coming Good Friday, as we remember the timeless moment of Christ’s crucifixion, many of us will find ourselves focussing on the human Jesus, the God-man who discarded divine immunity by entering into the human struggle of dealing with pain and loss.
All who are suffering in whatever form this Good Friday, all who struggle to make sense of what, by any human estimate, seems to be senseless will find an echo of their pain in the sufferings of Jesus because the contradiction of the cross is that what it represents – the sufferings of Christ – continues to save and to heal and to comfort.
Contemplating Jesus on the cross brings comfort, resilience and strength to those who need it; and it reminds us that it is through his suffering that everyone and everything is redeemed, that the power and the presence and promise of God are now accessible to us in our suffering and in our need.
Contemplating Jesus on the Cross won’t raise the siege of loss or pain or serious illness but the sufferings of Jesus afford a context and a vocabulary to help us find slivers of comfort and consolation through our belief a God whom, despite our present predicament, we believe loves us beyond all telling.
Contemplating Jesus on the Cross reminds us that in our present frail and redeemed bodies we carry the saving power of God.
Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!