April 18, 2014, Good Friday – In Labor for a New Creation
In my own life, one of the more mysterious and profound experiences of being human has been that of bearing children. It is an experience that is difficult to describe or explain to anyone who has not shared it. The average pregnant woman experiences several months of back pain and heartburn and swollen legs and sleepless nights, and then it gets uncomfortable. The pains of labor can last a few hours or even days, and they are overwhelming at times. And so, a sane person might ask, “Why on earth would you deliberately choose to go through all that?” But the answer is easy. Almost any mother would be able to tell you that she chose to go through it all for love, and that the joy of that new life was worth any amount of pain, for one birth or two or ten.
During Lent we spend a lot of time contemplating the physically and emotionally painful experience of our Lord’s Passion. We come each Friday to make the Stations of the Cross, and we walk through the betrayal, and the cruelty of the guards who mocked and beat him and spat upon him. We remember the weariness and the shame of the long walk to Golgotha, and the crushing weight of the cross that he was forced to carry. And we face, every time, the sorrow of that unthinkable moment when Christ breathed his last breath. And then, twice in Holy Week, first on Palm Sunday and again tonight, on Good Friday, we read through the whole story again. We immerse ourselves in the suffering of Christ.
To an outsider, that must surely seem less than sane, less than healthy, to dwell on the pain and suffering of Christ year after year after year. It sounds more than a little morbid, like maybe we are trying to punish ourselves, or to make ourselves super-spiritual by virtue of being being miserable. And yet, the prayer that we offer when we gather for the Stations of the Cross, and then again when we gather on Palm Sunday, doesn’t speak of guilt or shame or misery. We pray:
Assist us mercifully with your help, O Lord God of our
salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation
of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life and
immortality; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It’s an important prayer, because we do need help in contemplating the Passion of Christ. We need the merciful guidance of the Spirit to look unflinchingly at the full extent of what Jesus endured for our sakes, so that we can believe without being crushed by it, and so that we can remember without having our hearts hardened by repetition so that it no longer horrifies us – because it should horrify us. It should always horrify us that such cruelty and unfaithfulness and ingratitude exists in the world, though it should not surprise us because if we are honest we recognize these things in ourselves as well.
And that is the very reason for the mighty acts of Christ. He delivered us out of the living death that is humanity without God, by taking on himself the condemnation for every cruelty and every betrayal and every dishonesty, and putting it to death in his own person on the cross, so that everyone who comes to him might receive forgiveness and grace, and be reborn into a new and abundant and unending life. And that is cause for great joy.
On the night of his last supper with his friends, Jesus comforted them with these words:
“Truly, truly, I say to you,you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
So we might ask why, if Christ has finished his work on the Cross, and new life is available to every man and woman and child that lives or that has ever lived on this earth, why do we still contemplate the terrible events of his Passion and death? Wouldn’t we much better just focus on the positive? Easter joy is a lot more fun than the sorrow of Good Friday. But we remember the Passion for the same reason Jesus chose to enter into it, because this world we live in is still full of the cruelty and wickedness that nailed our Lord to the cross.
All around us, our fellow human beings are suffering the consequences of sin – their own sin, or the sins of others. Whole countries are ravaged by war and in-fighting, cities are plagued by murders and rapes and domestic violence. In the past couple of weeks alone hundreds of people have been killed in catastrophic accidents, a plane crash and a mudslide and the sinking of a ferry boat. Cancers and diabetes and autism and mental illness seem to be proliferating. And always, everywhere, the poor suffer, for lack of food and adequate housing and lack of security and lack of respect. The suffering that Jesus endured he endured willingly, out of love and compassion for a world where suffering is commonplace. He became a part of his own corrupted creation, not to condemn it, but to breathe new life into it, by sharing even in its suffering.
And we are called to follow our Master by being servants to our brothers and sisters in the world as he served, sharing their suffering with love and compassion, bringing with us the fragrance of life, the good news of grace and new beginnings in Jesus Christ. We contemplate the suffering and death of Christ with joy because it is our birth story, and the birth story of our whole creation, and because it is the love song of our creator, who was not willing to leave us alone, to rot away in the dungeon of our sin, but who became a prisoner right alongside us, so that he could lead us out into the light of day.