A Good Friday Reflection
The following is a reflection presented by Diana Macalintal at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Joseph, in San Jose on Good Friday, 2007.
Is there anything beautiful about suffering?
Year after year, for two thousand years, millions of people around the world gather on this day to commemorate the suffering and torture of one man. Why is his pain and agony so attractive to us?
O bleeding head so wounded, reviled and put to scorn.
No comeliness or beauty your wounded face betrays.
Yet angel hosts adore you and tremble as they gaze.
A 12th century mystic named Bernard of Clairvaux wrote those words as he meditated upon the image of the dying face of Christ. What is it about this human, fragile, bloody face that makes even the angels tremble?
On a fall day in October, 2006, I think the angels trembled.
On that day, in a small town named Paradise, Charles Roberts entered an Amish schoolhouse at around 10:00 AM carrying a shotgun, a handgun, wires, chains, nails, and flexible plastic ties which he would use to bind the arms and legs of his hostages. He ordered the hostages to line up against the chalkboard and sent away from the classroom a pregnant woman, three parents with infants, and all 15 male students. The gunman, a father of three children, remained inside the school house with the remaining ten female students. The youngest was six; the oldest was 13.
The first police officers arrived about ten minutes later and attempted to communicate with Charles through the PA system in their cars. Charles ordered the police to pull back, and if they didn’t within two seconds, he would begin firing. They did not comply, and he began shooting.
Charles killed three girls, and then he shot himself. Two more girls died the next morning. The youngest victim was six. The other five girls were in critical condition.
News reports stated that most of the girls were shot “execution-style” in the back of the head. But according to Janice Ballenger, the deputy coroner in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, she counted at least two dozen bullet wounds in one child alone before asking a colleague to continue for her. Inside the school, she said, “there was not one desk, not one chair, in the whole schoolroom that was not splattered with either blood or glass. There were bullet holes everywhere, everywhere.”
There is nothing beautiful about this. Suffering, pain, and death are not God’s will for us, nor was it the Father’s will for his Son, Jesus. Just as on that day on Golgotha, heaven surely must have wept on that morning in Pennsylvania.
The angels wept. But the next part of the story is what made them tremble. What happened next could only have been the will of God, for no human could have done this alone.
Barbie Fisher was one of the girls who survived the massacre. She told the story of how her sister, Marian, the oldest hostage in that school room, had begged Charles to shoot her first so that he might spare the younger girls. So he did. After seeing her sister shot, Barbie asked Charles to shoot her next. She received bullet wounds in her hand, leg, and shoulder.
Two days later, the grandfather of Marian stood in their home with her lifeless body laid on her bed being prepared for her burial. He called over the youngest of his family to come and stand next to Marian. Speaking to all those in the room, he looked intently at the children and told them, “We must not think evil of this man.”
Later that day, a reporter asked this weary, grey-bearded grandfather, “Have you forgiven this man who killed your granddaughter?” He turned his face away from the camera not wanting the attention. “Yes,” he replied. “How can you do that?” the reporter asked. “With God’s help,” he answered.
What made the angels tremble was love—absolute, complete, love.
Here at the cross, we encounter the ultimate revelation of God’s love. It is where God proves that God will do anything for us, even die, no matter what we do, just so he could love us. God takes this instrument of torture and death and turns it into a throne of mercy and grace. God takes defeat and despair and turns it into triumph. God takes the death of one and turns it into life for all.
At the cross, God takes our pain, our desperation, our horror, our hate, our confusion, our fear, places it all onto a cross and transforms it into beauty, truth, and goodness. God takes death and turns it into forgiveness, mercy, and peace.
That grandfather and the Amish community attended the funeral of Charles Roberts who killed five of their own. They took in his widow and their three children into their own families. They helped them pay for Charles’ funeral expenses and have even begun a fund to support the killer’s family now that they are left with no father.
The cross given to that community and their response to it doesn’t make sense, does it? How can something so heinous, something so ugly turn into something so beautiful? Because God is God…and God is Love…and the act of the cross is no longer a matter of reason and logic, but a matter of love.
We who follow Christ do not shy away from the pain and suffering of the world. As Jesus did, we embrace it with open arms. On this day, most especially, when we gather to tell the story of Jesus’ passion and death, we stare it in the face together, we do not look away, and we respond—as best we can, trembling not with human fear and hatred but with the incomprehensible, immense love of God.
Sometimes, try as hard as we might, we can look into the pain and suffering of this world, of our own lives, and not see the beauty. The ugliness can be so unbearable that we can’t see or feel God’s love.
At these moments, it’s so easy to lose hope and despair. But there is another choice.
Maria Thompson is a spiritual director in Seattle who counsels people who are grieving because of death or loss. She describes her work like this: “Standing at death’s door is the most intimate and sacred space to stand. It is an act of being, not an act of doing.” She continues, “I am a person who stands at death’s door; that is my job. I am a person who helps people in the darkness of death find the movement of eternal life. So, I sit on the ash heaps. Patiently. As long as they need me to, that is where I sit.” (from Presence manuscript)
When we face the cross and promise to remain there “in the ash heaps,” no matter how absent God seems, we also enter into a promise with each other—a promise to bear the cross together. For the cross requires relationship.
For Christians, relationship is always the cross—the intersection, the interaction, the giving and taking, the forgiving and sacrifice—between people and between God and God’s people. The cross is a struggle of opposites and differences—but a struggle that gives birth to new life, to new and renewed relationship.
In Jewish tradition, the very act of creation was born out of the relationship between God and Chaos. Listen tomorrow night to the first reading. In the beginning was God, and there with God was nothingness. The union between God—the fullness of all there is—and nothingness gave birth to life, night and day, earth and water, plants and humans. And our whole life through, we are constantly placing before God all of our nothingness and asking God to again make something new out of it.
When Christ was nailed to the cross, what was born out of that union between God and all that was not God was the Church—us—people who look upon death and see life; people who experience pain together and offer in return love.
As offspring then of Christ, our first task is to acknowledge the radical love of God by having the confidence to approach this throne of grace and pray for each other, even if our prayer is only, “My God.”
The Church makes its most intense prayers on this day. Later this afternoon, after hearing again the story of God’s love nailed to the cross, our Bishop will lead us in the Great Intercessions which are prayed only today. These are ten solemn prayers for the world in which we ask God, through supplication and silence, kneeling and raised arms, to take the world’s chaos and re-create it anew. It is the Church’s way of being there, in hope where there’s only despair, in faith when it feels as if death has won.
Now you might want to stand back, because I’m not sure if what I’m about to say will cause me to be struck down by lightning.
I don’t like the song, Were You there? I think it’s a lovely song and nice to sing. But every time I hear that opening line—“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”—all I can say is, “Nope!”
No, I wasn’t there at Golgotha thousands of years ago. No, I didn’t see him nailed to the tree. No, I didn’t see him laid in the tomb.
But I do tremble.
Because I am here in 2007 in San Jose, and God knows there are enough people today being crucified right before our eyes. You only have to turn on your TV, or log onto the Internet, or go to work, or step out your door, or even just wake up in the morning.
There are people right now out there, in here, who are being nailed to trees of depression and abuse, to debt and divorce. We know real people, maybe it’s even you, who are being sealed up in tombs of unemployment, cancer, loneliness, who suffer a slow death because of the inability to forgive or to ask for forgiveness. Our world is still, after four years, being crucified to the cross of war, our Church is still being nailed to a tree of scandal and secrecy, our cities and homes are still being buried by violence, poverty, broken families, and broken hearts.
No, I don’t need to go back to Calvary to be where Jesus is crucified. Calvary is right here, right now.
But so is the resurrection. When any of us take up the cross of Christ, we proclaim our faith in his resurrection.
But what is the cross? What is your cross?
Bishop Kenneth Untener once said that the cross is that to which we say, “Anything, Lord. I’ll do anything…but that.”
That that is the cross. It’s the thing that you can’t imagine doing because you’ve been hurt too much, because you’ve been betrayed, because you’re too angry, because it feels just too good to hang on to bitterness, because you’re too busy, because you’re too scared. “Anything, Lord. I’ll do anything…but that.”
The reason we remember the day Jesus died at the Place of the Skull is because on that cross—on Jesus’ “anything-by-that”—we learn the way to resurrection, because when we embrace Christ and his cross, we never embrace it alone. We embrace the cross together, with this community. It is through individual people that we see up close the body of Christ for ourselves. But it’s through the community—when we gather to tremble at the love of God and offer our meager, imperfect prayers—that we receive strength and faith enough to live as the body of Christ for the world.
It’s hard to follow Christ; it’s hard to embrace the cross. Tomorrow night thousands of people around the world who have decided to follow Christ will stand at the edge of a dark black pool of water, a deep chasm of nothingness, and just before they are submerged into that abyss, they will be asked, “Do you believe in God, in Jesus, in the Spirit?”
I guess it would be pretty easy for them and for us to say “I do.” But if we heard those words for what they really mean, we all might hesitate in our response. Those seemingly-simple questions mean this: “Will you proclaim God’s justice even in the midst of persecution?” “Will you welcome the stranger?” “Will you follow the example of the saints and martyrs who gave their lives for the faith?” “Will you allow yourself to be nailed upon your anything-but-that?”
If we and those preparing to be baptized tomorrow night dare to say, “Yes, I believe,” we really have no choice but to love, but to serve, but to give our all. We have no choice but to give our lives to the poor, the weak, the sinner, the criminal, the adulteress, the tax collector, the unwed mother, the AIDS victim, the drug addict, the homeless man, the coworker who annoys us, the father who abused us, the friend who betrayed us, the stranger who scares us, the person who terrorizes us, the person who is most unlike us.
For on Good Friday, we do not pretend that Christ is not risen. We stand here before the cross and bow low before it precisely because we know and believe that Christ is risen. We venerate this instrument of death, embrace it with trembling hands, and kiss it with timid lips precisely because we believe that the cross is not a dead end, but a sign pointing to God who is the source of our salvation and the community in which God lives.
The Spirit that was breathed upon us from the cross when Jesus commended his spirit into the hands of the Father drives us to turn to each other—to turn to those who are not our mother and take them into our lives as if they were our own. That Spirit of Christ calls us to turn toward those who are not our children and to call them our own beloved. That Spirit of Christ handed over to us moves us to search out those who were the friends of Christ—the sinner, the diseased, the stranger, the outcast—bend down to wash their feet, embrace them and call them friend, and even lay down our very lives for them, our friends.
Behold the Cross on which hung our salvation.
Come, let us adore.