Act of Death, Act of Life: A Reflection on Good Friday

Well, friends, here we stand, at the foot of the cross.

The crisis between the authorities and Jesus, between might and right, has been resolved, with the way of goodness, truth, honesty and love, crushed once again. As it too often seems to be in our world.

There is still hope, of course. The sign of Lazarus reminds us that the end isn’t really the End when God is at work. And, the fact that anything as beautiful and greening as Jesus’ life could grow and flower in this world is itself evidence that it can and will bloom again.

But today that hope feels distant. Today we’re overwhelmed by the anger, the injustice, the grief. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? How could this have happened? How could everything have gone so wrong so quickly for so many?

And there is time enough to contemplate our grief. But Christians have always maintained there is more to the story of Great and Holy Friday, commonly called ‘Good’, than political assassinations and suffering.

Jesus is victimized by the system, but he never allows himself to be identified as a Victim of it. He never loses himself in the injustice. He is always strong, always trusting in his identity and purpose. He is always Jesus at every moment of the story. Faithful, strong, vulnerable, loving Jesus, unto the end. As much as he may be like “a lamb led to the slaughter,” he knows what’s up, he knows the way and goes with head held high. It’s a sacrifice, but one intentionally made, like a firefighter running back into a burning house, or a nurse going into the ICU amidst dwindling supplies of personal protective equipment. It’s a sacrifice that is an offering of life and love in the midst of disaster.

Six years ago, at a time when everything was going wrong in my life — family drama, underemployment that left me hemorrhaging money, an awful part-time job, a bad living situation, and the end of a relationship (of sorts) that had been the one source of light during that season — I similarly stood before the cross, nearing the end of my hope and wrestling with whether to tend to the bright ember of faith that had suddenly reappeared within me or snuff it out. I wrote then:

“From a purely humanist perspective, the crucifixion was certainly [quoting Francis Bacon] “an act of man’s behaviour to another,” of the human capacity to inflict suffering on others, but, taking the human elements of the story at face value, the flip side is also true: … [V]iewed from Jesus’ perspective, that “act” is an act of humility and grace, not cruelty, an act that counters the human capacity for cruelty with the equally human capacity for grace.”

And this the power in the blood Jesus shed on the cross. It is the ultimate, “You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50.20), a human act of cruelty transfigured by love and grace into an act of life.

Every year during Holy Week, I read Julian of Norwich; and indeed I had planned on finishing up my Lenten series on the mystics with a reflection on her this week. In Julian’s gruesome visions of Christ’s death, blood becomes a symbol of God’s love and grace, and of life itself (cf. Deut. 12.23). Noting that there is far more blood in her vision of the cross than there should be, she says:

“Behold and see the power of this precious plenty of his precious blood. It descended into hell and broke its bonds, and delivered all who were there and who belong to the court of heaven. The precious plenty of his precious blood overflows all the earth, and it is ready to wash from their sins all creatures who are, have been and will be of good will. The precious plenty of his precious blood ascended into heaven in the blessed body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and it is flowing there in him, praying to the Father for us, and this is and will be so long as we have need. And furthermore, it flows in all heaven, rejoicing in the salvation of all mankind which is and will be there, and filling up the number which is lacking” (Showings, Ch 12).

What a beautiful (if, yes, gruesome) image: blood — love, grace, life — flowing down from Jesus, soaking the earth, seeping all the way down to flood Sheol, washing away everything sinful and dirty, and ascending with Jesus into heaven, where it continues to flow for us and for our salvation. This is exactly, in graphic terms, what Fr. Alexander Schmemann meant when he spoke of Jesus’ death as destroying death by filling it with life. An offering of life in the midst of death for the sake of life.

And so, today, we stand at the foot of the cross in grief. And yes, we ask “How could everything have gone so wrong?” But we also see the flip-side. Everything went wrong, but within that wrongness, we also see everything go right. We see death. But we also see life, life lived to the full, right to the end, poured out for many, transfiguring what was intended for evil into good. And that, ultimately, is why we “survey the cross” and call it “wondrous,” and why we keep this Great and Holy Friday and call it “Good.”

May our Good God, whose Son poured out his good life as an offering for the life of the world, bless us and keep us all on this Good Friday, and give us hope for a better tomorrow. Amen.

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