For several years, the pastor of my childhood church, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Montgomery, Alabama, read an article that recounted the crucifixion in medical terms. The article was quite clear about the agony that Christ suffered, hour by hour on the cross. I remember hearing about wood scraping against scourged flesh and the suffocation that crucifixion brought about. And the nails--through the wrists, not the palms, since the flesh in human hands won't support human weight on a cross.
I loved that the lights went out as the Good Friday service went on, and eventually there was the big bang when our pastor slammed the big Bible shut. I loved the drama. I loved that the service was so different. I don't understand why churches don't do more with that.
There are so many ways this service can go wrong. It's too easy to get bogged down in what I call the Old, Rugged Cross school of theology. That script can get dangerously simplistic: that Jesus had to come to pay for my sin because 2000 years later I would get into fights with my baby sister.
Of course, my theology of the cross can get dangerously simplistic too. I focus on the fact that Jesus was crucified. Ancient Rome had many crimes that warranted death as punishment, but crucifixion was reserved for those who were seen as a threat to the State: terrorists and insurrectionists and such. Jesus was seen as such a threat to the social order that the government had to kill him. But of course, the crucifixion of Christ was about so much more.
I may say more on this later, once I've finished N. T. Wright's latest book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. I've just gotten to the third section where he proposes to bring the "kingdom Christians" and "cross Christians" together: "We have lived for many years now with 'kingdom Christians' and 'cross Christians' in opposite corners of the room, anxious that those on the other side are missing the point, the one group with its social-gospel agenda and the other with its saving-souls-for-heave agenda. The four gospels bring these two viewpoints together into a unity that is much greater than the sum of their parts, and this is mostly what Part III is about" (159).
I will have some reading time today because I will sit out at the labyrinth for those who want to do a self-guided Stations of the Cross today. I will greet people and give them the booklets; I will answer any questions that they have about the labyrinth. If past years are any indication, I'll have plenty of time to read. I'll read the N.T. Wright book and Diana Butler Bass' latest work, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.
Another quote from the new N. T. Wright book: "God himself will come to the place of pain and horror, of suffering, and even of death, so that somehow he can take it upon himself and thereby set up his new style theocracy at last. The evangelists tell the story of Jesus in such a way that this combination of Israel's vocation and the diving purpose come together perfectly into one. This, I suggest, is the reality behind the later abstractions of 'humanity' and 'divinity.' The humanity is the humanity of Israel, the divinity is the divinity of Israel's God" (page 196, emphasis Wright's).
Tonight I'll go to my church's Good Friday service. We will end with a procession and adoration of the cross, something I'd never seen before being part of this church. Some of our congregation are visibly moved. I find myself feeling awkward, unsure of what to do.
I want to have an experience like the one that Nora Gallagher describes in Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith: "I kneel down in front of the cross. I've come full circle from Ash Wednesday, on my knees for the imposition of ashes, to kneeling here to kiss the cross. I am marked here, in the same way I was marked with ashes, in the same way I was marked at my baptism. As my lips met the wood, I'm pierced by a shaft of pain so tender I sob. A last layer cracks" (page 128).
Good Friday reminds us of all the ways our hopes can be dashed, of all the ways that we can be betrayed and abandoned, of all the ways that it can all go so terribly wrong. N. T. Wright says, "The greatest religion the world had ever known and the finest system of justice the world had ever known came together to put Jesus on the cross" (How God Became King, page 208).
It's good to remember on Good Friday that God can make beauty out of the most profound ugliness, wholeness out of the most shattered brokenness.