A Short Meditation on a Solemn Night, Good Friday – 1998
April 10, 1998
To read these words is to step on holy ground. One suddenly understands why the Hebrew people used to untie their sandals and cover their heads in the presence of the Holy. How can one read this story of stories of St. John’s without fear and trembling?
What great sorrow and shame overcomes us who witness the flogging of our Lord, the spitting and the hitting! The perpetrators were people who a few days before were applauding him. These are the people who followed him to hear his words, to touch his garment, to feel the strength of God that flowed through him. And now, the mob violence has taken over perfect goodness is met with perfect hate and fear. The terror of evil seems to be triumphing.
Jesus goes through the hours of horror with the composure of one who knows utterly who he is and who it is who is in charge. He has gone already agonized through his hours of sweating blood and in the Garden of Gethsemane, he has asked for the cup to pass from him. It doesn’t. Instead, he is encouraged to endure. And he accepts it. Now everything that happens he recognizes. He know the poems of Isaiah well. He knows what befalls the suffering servant. And he knows, that despite all this intense agony and sorrow, the separation from those he loves, his huge pain at the betrayal of love, he will endure it all without complaints, because of love. “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised (crushed) for our iniquities. The punishment (Chastisement) of our sins was upon Him.” Who can hear these words without also hearing the heart-rending sounds of Handel’s Messiah? Allow yourself to hear the sounds, to weep, to feel the pain. This is what this night is for. To remember and to feel. This is the sacrifice and the love that must never be forgotten, must not be ignored.
How the heart aches for those who have ignored this solemn day and night! How can one plumb the depths of His love without allowing the heart and mind to recognize the great suffering that resulted from such love.
In this magnificant chapter, one cannot help but notice the details that could have come only from an eye witness. The fear of Pilate, his struggle to appear in control. His fascination with this man who stands before him battered and bleeding, but thoroughly in control himself; these are before us as they happen. And as a counterpoint, we hear Peter, what are you doing? How can you be so faithful through this? As though in him we recognize ourselves.
Finally Pilate can’t stand it. “Where are you from?” he asks Jesus, but Jesus does not answer. Jesus knows that Pilate that would not understand the truth. And Pilate gets frustrated. How dare you not answer me? I have the power to let you go or to let you die! And here Jesus does set him straight. “The power is not yours,” Jesus tells Pilate. It was given to you for a reason. Jesus knows that God is in control, even though everything seems to have ended for him and evil is triumphing. What comfort this is for us when we are going through the agonies of the valley of death. Even in his most abandoned state, Jesus knew the God the Creator, God the Father, was in charge.
But Jesus also knows that Pilate does not have the same knowledge that the religious man who handed him over has. Therefore it is Caiphas who is far guiltier. For Caiphas knows that Jesus is not a criminal. Caiphas knows that he is dealing with the power of God, and very deliberately he sets out to crush it. Otherwise all his power, and all he has built as a career, will disappear. Power is not easily given up. And those who have religious power have an even more difficult time relinquishing it. This is what has caused so much bloodshed in the name of God through the ages.
The eye witness tells the story with a poignant simplicity: “There they crucified him and with him two others.” One sentence that has caused thousands of volumes to be written. “There they crucified him.” Do we hear the hammer on the nails? Do we see the flesh being torn, the ligaments sheared, the bones crushed? What a horrible way to die. It defies all our powers of imagination.
He went to his death willingly. Even in that agony, when every muscle of his body was stretching to the point of tearing, he thinks of others. It is the humanity of this story that tears at the heart and gives us hope that all is not in vain. In those terrible moments he thinks of his poor mother, and he gives her the gift of John, his best friend. He doesn’t want those who are left behind to be left bereft. He knows the sweetness of human contact, of friendship and of love. In those moments, Jesus affirms them.
He died quicker than the others. He was the most sensitive of beings, and he died from that severe human pain. When they come to break the legs of the crucified, they find him already dead. He who was whole, remained whole to the end. All his life, the message that came through was one of wholeness, “I and the Father are one,” he had said to his disciples. And from that oneness sprang his conviction that his mission was to do the will of the Father. In that, he was perfectly obedient, even unto death.
On this holiest of nights (days), we don’t need words. We need to feel. To allow ourselves to feel. To feel his pain, for it was real; to feel his aloneness; to feel the terrible darkness that descended on the earth when the Son of God died.
Out of that death comes life. But first we must walk through that terible death. Caiphas made the choice to stay powerful in the eyes of the world and sold his own soul. Pilate made the choice to ignore the stirrings of his conscience. Jesus made the choice to obey the Father, to enter the darkness of death for our sake.
And we must follow. Otherwise, we will not taste resurrection. Amen.
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