In March, I celebrated the 50th anniversary of my 8th birthday. I have been carrying a secret with me for most of these 50 years, and today I would like to share it with you as a confession of sorts.
For most of my life, especially when I was a kid, I really hated, perhaps dreaded would be a better word, Good Friday. Except for the promise of fish & chips there was nothing, particularly good in my mind about this Friday.
As I grew older, my dread of the day turned into a questioning of the whole crucifixion story. I was taught that Jesus came into this world, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered and died on the cross and ascended from the dead and that all of this was for the forgiveness of sins. I was taught that Jesus had to die for my sins, so I could someday have everlasting life.
My problem was that I could not imagine why God would have planned it this way. God was after-all Gods. He could do anything and there was any number of ways he could have reconciled us to himself instead of sacrificing his only son in such a horrible and barbaric way.
I will confess that my dread of Good Friday gave way to confusion and suspicions about the ways of our God.
For example, at the Baptism of our Lord, when the sky’s open and he spoke- “this is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased”, could he not have simply added the words-, and all is goodbetween me and my people and save Jesus from the events of this dark Friday.
It was about 10 years ago that two events in my life helped me to understand the Passion of our Lord in a more complete context.
First, I learned a new prayer. During the preparation of the table during the offertory, you will notice that the “Cup” is prepared. The priest or deacon pours the wine into the chalice and then adds a few drops of water. There are a number of symbolic reasons for this but it is the words that are prayed at this moment that are some of the most meaningful, in my opinion, in the entire mass, and they are silent.
By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
The prayer acknowledges that this is a mystery, and faith is required as some of our questions may well go unanswered.
If you say this prayer enough times, it starts to sink in that Jesus came to earth, that God sent us his only son, to share in our humanity. If we believe in him and follow him, we can share in his divinity.
Jesus could not escape the pain and suffering if he was, in fact, going to share fully in our humanity.
The second event that helped me understand the Passion more completely was spending time with the story. I had the opportunity over a 3-4 year period to work with a friend of mine on a version of the Stations of the Cross as seen from the viewpoint of Dismas the Good Thief.
Without going into all the details, I worked with my friend Don on a series of reflections using the “Scriptural Way of the Cross,” which differs from the traditional stations. During this period Don did time in three different jails. Working on this by mail helped to keep us connected and the reflections from this man who was in the Kingston Pen helped me more than any course I ever took when it came to understanding why Jesus came, suffered and died on the cross.
If we read the story carefully and spend time with it what do we learn:
On Holy Thursday, we have the Last Supper. I always thought this would be better titled the “Everlasting Supper” as Jesus eats with his friends and gives them the gift of his body and blood. The Eucharist is nourishment for the human journey- a gift that allows us to share in his divinity. Before the breaking of the bread and the blessing of the wine, Jesus provides one of his greatest lessons of what it means to be one of his followers. He removes his outer garment, a symbolic act warning all of us about the trappings of religion, and then he performs the work of a slave, and he washes his follower’s feet.
And then Jesus humbles himself to share in our humanity.
- He prays in the Garden, and we are told that he is troubled to the point of death. He seems afraid. His prayers seem to go unanswered.
- He is betrayed by one of his own.
- He is arrested. In a moment, he goes from “Rabbi- the teacher,” to suspect and prisoner.
- He is abandoned by his followers at his moment of greatest need and is left alone.
- He is denied by his closest friend.
- He is falsely accused and convicted and in the minds of the crowd, he is a criminal worthy of execution.
- He is humiliated by the guards who spit on him and mock him.
- He is tortured and suffers incredible pain when he is scourged and nailed to a cross.
On the cross, Jesus challenges us to share in his divine ways as we live our human lives.
- He shows us how to deal with those who have caused us pain and suffering when he looks upward and says- “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.
- He welcomes the convicted criminal to be with him that day in paradise.
- He wants us to know that we are all the beloved of his Father and a brother or sister of his when he says to the disciple he loved- “Here is your mother and to Mary “here is your son.”
- He died. Jesus shared fully in our humanity through his birth at Christmas and now his death.
But the story does not end with the Lord’s burial in a tomb carved out of stone.
It continues with Mary of Magdala, who is on her way to anoint the body. In despair, this simple woman from the countryside, experiences angels announcing that Jesus has risen and in John’s gospel, she encounters a man she thinks is the gardener.
When this man speaks her name, “Mary,” she immediately recognizes that Jesus has risen.
That brings is back to the table.
It is because Jesus shared his divinity with us at that everlasting supper, and because he suffered and died on that cross and rose on the third day that we are able to come here and mix water and wine, bless them and continue to share in Christ’s divinity, just as he shared in our humanity.
It turns out that this was a good and holy Friday after-all.