Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Horror-Marked God: Good Friday 2017

On Palm Sunday, in Los Alamos, we festively marched around the church, waving our palm fronds as we proclaimed with a loud voice, “All glory, laud and honor, to thee Redeemer King.” On Palm Sunday, in the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria, Coptic Christians festively marched near their churches, waving their palm fronds and singing songs of praise.  Yet, their songs were interrupted by the horror-inducing sounds of explosions.  In total, 44 people were killed and 126 were wounded.  A day later, in a San Bernardino classroom, an angry man with a gun murdered his wife and one student, injured another, and ultimately killed himself.  All of this, even before the horrific images of gassed children in Syria have faded from our eyes. To say that our world is full of suffering and horror would be an understatement.

But horrors have always afflicted us.  Tribal warfare in prehistoric times; the perpetual cycle of conquest and enslavement; the insidious theories of eugenics that led to the atrocities of the Holocaust.  Even in an age where violence and warfare have been deemed civilized through the use of precision weaponry, the deaths of innocent civilians, often deemed collateral damage, stand as an affront to the notion that violence will ever be something other than horrific.  Perhaps the relative comfort and security of our community shields us from the crushing weight of the world’s horrors.  Nevertheless, many of our sisters and brothers in the wider human family daily experience the existence-shattering horror of violence and pain.  And so, for the sake of those who experience horror and suffering in ways I do not, I say “Thank God for Good Friday.”

“Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” It’s easy, year after year, for the crucifixion of Jesus to play out in our minds like a scene from a cold and calculating documentary film.  We observe the events.  We ponder them.  And then we move along with our day.  But here, in this space, on this sacred day, I have very little interest in simply pondering the crucifixion of Jesus.  I want to feel the absolutely crushing weight of just what it meant for Jesus, the God-man, to suffer in abject horror upon a Roman cross, an instrument of humiliation, torture, and shame.  And if what the Church has taught throughout these last 2,000 years is true, that in Jesus Christ the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, then what we bear witness to in the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is the descent of God into the deepest recesses of the horrors and sufferings that human beings know all too well.  This is a God who got his hands dirty…the hands that placed the stars in the heavens, now clawing at the dirt and blood of the pavement on which he was scourged by blood-lustful Romans.  This is a God who didn’t merely observe the punishment of an earthly prophet…this is a God who deigned to join us in the pain and suffering we, as a people, endure throughout our lives.  This is a God who embraced the horror of a lonely, senses-shattering death.  And that is why I say, “Thank God for Good Friday.”

The passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ is God’s answer to the question, “How can we call God good when evil plagues the world?”  We desire the end of suffering, and the end to the horrors that crush us.  Yet, every new day seems to bring with it news of another horrific evil befalling the innocent and vulnerable.  These horrors, the things we suffer…they’re done to us by human hands, not divine will.  Though filled with wondrous and beautiful things, humanity’s story is also marred by the never-ending saga of humans being brutally terrible to one another. And while be beg and plead for an end to suffering and evil, it remains an inescapable reality for humanity. Yet, into this cycle of violence, this horror-filled world, God comes to us in the flesh of Jesus Christ, sharing in our suffering, feeling the crushing weight of torture and death.  And though it doesn’t put an end to suffering, it does indeed show us a way through such horrors.  As one of the prayers in the Daily Office says, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace.” The inglorious death of Jesus on a Roman tree is not merely the murder of an innocent man, but is the complete and total embrace of human suffering by a God willing to be subjected to the same horrors and evil perpetrated against us and those we love.  By making good on the desire to redeem humanity, a redemption that comes only through and within the horrific suffering of the cross, God offers to us the ability to find some shred of meaning in the suffering and horrors that we experience.  Because of the willingness of God to suffer in the crucifixion of Jesus, we know that the one to whom we pray hears us with ears of compassion, a word that literally means ‘to suffer with’.  We know that the one to whom we pray stands in solidarity with those who suffer in the world, not above them or at a distance.  In the broken body of Jesus of Nazareth, God has opened up the way for us to express the depths of our anger and frustration at the horrors we bear witness to, and we know that God will not abandon us, judge us, or become angry with us on account of our anger or inability to make sense of the world.  For God was once their too, hanging on a cross, knowing personally the horrors of violence and pain.

And when we come to the Eucharist, the place where we joyfully meet Jesus in the bread and wine which becomes his flesh and blood, we can also bring all our anger and disbelief, our pain and suffering, and let God once again become one who shares in the suffering of the world.  For this is the body we chomp and bite in the Eucharist: the body of a God who endured horror and suffering, the horror and suffering we so frequently endure as humans living in a horror-filled world.  And all of this to bridge the gap, to make a way through the suffering possible, not an avoidance of it. And so, once again, I say “Thank God for Good Friday”.  Not because it put an end to suffering, but because it gives us the chance to find a way to endure our own suffering, clinging to the goodness of a God who suffered on our behalf…clinging to the goodness of a God who impressed himself so deeply into the human experience that he died once too. “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

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