This is not a day to mince words, or spare delicate feelings. Good Friday calls us into the very depths of our faith and ourselves.
Crucifixion is a horrifying means of death, of course, not as speedy as the electric chair or as medicalized as lethal injection or as instantaneous as hanging. Today we must acknowledge our national complicity, that we, too, execute supposed criminals in 31 states of this country.
Crucifixion was designed to interfere with a person’s ability to breathe, due to the weight of the body pulling down on the arms. Since this usually followed a beating, the body was already in distress. The pain in the tender palms of the hands alone was agonizing. As the thigh muscles gave out, all of the pressure was on the hands and the victim could not raise himself up to get a breath.
Its very public nature was designed to humiliate; there was no place to hide, no privacy in your pain, nothing to give relief except sour wine on a stick. The writer Mark Osler observes that “Crucifixion was a form of Roman terrorism”.
I suppose that the most graphic news footage from the Middle East today is comparable, or that of children gunned down in a classroom.
Today is a day for tears and there is a lot to cry about. The most gentle of men, the rabbi whose message was love and justice, the brilliant teacher who respected women and men alike, the tender healer who made the broken whole with his touch was too big a threat to a small faction of Jews and to the mighty Roman empire and had to be murdered. His cross was one of dozens at Golgatha that day.
Besides the horror of the Crucifixion – or of executions in general – a second thing that appalls me is the way the story is framed, especially in regard to the Jews.
I have a little television in the bedroom and I only get one channel (long story). So getting ready early on Sunday mornings I turn it on to wake up and I always encounter a 6:30 broadcast with “Pastor Judy” from some northern suburb in the Twin Cities. I’ve heard a few interesting ideas from Pastor Judy but usually not. Palm Sunday she was really worked up about the Jews: The Jews crucified Jesus; the Jews refused to believe in him, and so the Jews suffered the Holocaust.
I don’t have much faith in Pastor Judy’s analysis of anything but she’s not alone here: A recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League determined that 26% of Americans still believe that “Jews were responsible for the death of Christ.”
Reza Aslan, a religious scholar and author says this: “We see a steady progression from the earliest Gospel of Mark to the last Gospel of John, in which, little by little, blame is removed from Rome and placed directly upon the Jews.” This is largely because of what was going on at the time. In 100 CE when John was written the followers of Jesus were under intense persecution by the Romans. So John switched as much blame as possible from the Romans to the Jews, to lessen the heat?
Last Sunday we read from the earliest Gospel – Mark (70 CE) which described Joseph of Arimathea as “a respected member of the Jewish council (the Sanhedrin); but in John the last Gospel (100 CE) we read today that Joseph “was a disciple of Jesus though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews.”
The Lutheran pastor David Lose: “John’s Gospel has been used throughout the centuries to justify anti-Semitism. Because those who followed Jesus and those who opposed him are all Jewish, it is something of a historical anachronism to call the whole of the Gospel anti-Jewish, and yet if we deny how it has served those who have despised and persecuted the children of Israel we are indulging in a dangerous kind of denial.”
Another element of anti-Judaism is called super-cesionism. That is the idea that the Christian Scriptures “fulfill” the Jewish ones or replace them some way, instead of viewing them as the separate Scriptures of the Jewish faith. That’s why the labels “Old” testament and “New Testament can be so disrespectful. They are the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures.
For example, today’s reading form Isaiah speaks of the Suffering Servant, which many Christina see as a prediction of Jesus. Certainly it can be read this way but writer and pastor Charles Aaron says this:
Even though this passage has many parallels to Jesus’ experience, we should not see it as a “prediction“ of Jesus’ passion Isaiah wrote to the people of his own time, presenting the suffering servant as a means of redemption for the Jews exiled in Babylon in 500 BCE. The value of proclaiming this passage on Good Friday is that it shows the consistency of God in redemption through suffering (continuing with Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King). But we have to be careful how we handle texts from the Jewish Scriptures, and not interpret them solely for our own, Christian purposes.
Finally, today is about wounds…. The poet Christian (no I’m not tired of him yet) Wimans relates this:
“My wife and I learned something strange recently about our already-strange dog, Mack, the mid-size black and white mutt we’ve had for almost a decade. With his barrel chest and stubby legs, his hunter’s nose and soulful eyes, he looks like a black lab crammed into the body of a beagle. He was on doggy death row when we got him from a shelter in Alabama, and he was so odd and nervous that you could never tell what was going to turn his terrors on. More than once we returned home to find him paralyzed (for how long?) on a small rug or even a piece of newspaper as if he were stranded on an island amid dangers we couldn’t see. Mack has been having some troubling health issues lately, and in the course of the vet’s investigations there was an incidental finding: Mack has a bullet in him.
I can’t overstate how disturbing this news was to my wife and me. It’s not just the obvious disgust: to think of some miserable man …taking aim at this utterly docile and probably mentally-impaired dog and blasting away. And then to think of Mack crawling off to die somewhere and then, somehow, not dying—for Mack is not only docile but, as our vet has told us, unnaturally tough.
Dogs hide pain, they do not want you to be aware of it, but Mack will try to hide even his reaction to extreme procedures at the vet’s office, as if he’d learned that it does not pay, no matter what, to let a human being know what you feel.
But it wasn’t just the act itself that so disturbed us. No, what was really gut wrenching…. was thinking about Mack carrying around this memento of that violent moment for all these years. All the life that we had lived with Mack: the births of our daughters, my dire illnesses and miraculous recoveries, new cities and new careers. And to think of that sweet odd dog all the while dragging around that unspeakable—in both senses of the word—pain.”
Like Mack, like Jesus, we are all wounded. Sometimes we hide our wounds because the cultural standards of the day make them unacceptable. It took me a while to admit I had had cancer ten years ago — it’s not a comfortable admission in today’s society when health and fitness and wellness are exalted; when one person even asked me “what I thought I did” to bring it on.
As a result of four months of chemotherapy, I have a scar beneath my neck from a port – I used to cover it with make-up but I don’t any more.… and ongoing neuropathy in my feet. When it flares up, it can be painful and affect my walking. It’s embarrassing and makes me feel anient.
I have wounds, but so far at least, I’m alive. We all have wounds, scars. Some of us, like good-dog Mack and me try to hide them but it doesn’t make them go away. After the Resurrection, the wounds of Jesus – the scars in his hands and his side –are the way he identifies himself to doubting Thomas.
But today is also about transformation. On the Cross, God in Jesus enters into the pain with us and then, after a long three-day labor, births it into new life. The Cross is as as much about atonement as it is empathy.
Now I invite you into this meditation with me:
There is no wound so shameful
No betrayal so scathing
No pain so searing
No loneliness so enduring
No exhaustion so total
No regret so bitter
No sadness so unending
No fear so terrifying
No anxiety so crippling
No disappointment so complete
No cross so high
No grave so deep
That he will not have been there before us
To mark the way back.
Charles Aaron, Commentary on Isaiah, Working Preacher, March 26, 2016
Reza Azlan, Huffington Post.
Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain 1998.
Christian Wimans, “Issues of Blood,” Commonweal, March 9, 2018.