In the long history of the church, few issues are as controversial as the atonement theories underlying our understanding of Good Friday. Why did Jesus die? How did Jesus’ death accomplish our salvation? How is it that one man’s death atoned for the sinfulness of humanity, even those yet to be born?
As much as I’d like to tackle these big questions, I can’t. I’m afraid I have nothing new or meaningful to add. However, I would like to pose a different series of queries. Good Friday is a day about death. We can all agree on Jesus’ demise. As in the countless of funerals I’ve presided over; Jesus dies and is buried. The dominant emotion of the day is grief. His relatives mourn his passing. My questions arise from Mary’s grief, Peter’s remorse, John’s sorrow, everyone’s misery; the universal affection to which we all relate.
I am unable to fully explain, beyond the theoretical, how Jesus’ death accomplishes the work of salvation. Yet, I am certain of the bereavement and anguish felt by his family and friends. I have witnessed this response on untold occasions as families gather to bid mothers, fathers, sons, sisters, and brothers goodbye. This pain has taken up space in my soul. The melancholy caused by death is not static. Despair works in a continual spin cycle, reluctant to release the mind of the grieving. Within our despondency, basic questions begin to form; “why”, “what next”, and “how”. These, I believe, are the most important questions we can ask on Good Friday. As we witness the death of Jesus the human being, we should not shield our humanity from the pain of the cross.
If we’ve been there since the beginning, you need to be there at the end. Allow me to put it bluntly: you came to the manger, now go to the funeral. Good Friday is not the time to walk away and shield your eyes. In fact, we make too much of the Stations of the Cross, the journey from the site of Jesus’ trial to the place where he was executed. Nobody talks about the journey from the cross to the tomb. There are no crowds, stations, or programs to remember the walk to the grave. Where do you think the family needed people most? Where was their grief greatest? As we know from our own lives, it’s after everyone’s gone home and the funeral is over. We know from our own experience. We’ve been there. This is why Good Friday matters.
Good Friday is a strange day. It’s a day where God feels absent and nonexistent. By the end of it, even Jesus feels forsaken and abandoned. We’re left with one of the most difficult tasks possible, keeping promises to the dead. When you believe God broke his promise by dying, nothing seems more difficult. We are reminded on Good Friday, as CS Lewis tells us; the consolation of religion and the truth of religion are two different things. To the latter we will listen and to the former, no one understands. Today, there is nothing anyone can say to make anything any better. Jesus is dead. The bad guys won. There are no consolations on Good Friday.
Richard Lowell Bryant