As I write this, it is the afternoon of Good Friday, in New Zealand. Liturgically, symbolically, Jesus has been betrayed, handed over to an angry mob, beaten, mocked, and crucified and then buried in a tomb. It is that time of tension, waiting, sad but anticipating the joy of Easter Sunday. I spent the morning doing a variety of “worship” activities. The first was a contemplative worship service at St. Mark’s Anglican, the church I have tentatively called my “home” while I’m here. Following that, members of most of the congregations in town gathered outside St. Mark’s for a procession in which a large wooden cross was carried to each church in town, some readings and prayers were offered at each place of worship, and then we ended at the Town Hall, where there was an ecumenical service for Good Friday. That was much more contemporary and, frankly, a bit jarring. However, the whole experience was quite powerful for me. It engaged all of my senses in the process of reliving Jesus’ final journey and act of overwhelming, all-encompassing love and grace. And I have been left with a feeling of sadness, of emptiness deep down inside. I think that feeling is meant to be there…when I reach in and examine it; I find that it is a sense of profound loss and grief, of rejection, fear and guilt. And then I find that all of that is encased in a deeper feeling of hope. All of that grief and fear and emptiness is being laid to rest in the tomb. It is what Jesus took upon himself so that I can finally be free of it all.
That raw feeling of grief must be what Jesus’ mother and the other women who were there with him at the cross felt. It is likely what the disciples felt before they fled in terror. It had all come down to this. They had placed all of their hopes and trust in this man. Hope fed by the miracles, the acts of mercy and justice, now all broken to bits as their hero, their saviour allowed himself to be unjustly condemned to die a horrible, shameful death. In their grief, they didn’t know the ending of the story. They should have, given all the hints Jesus dropped. They should have been able to trust, to hope, to believe that this could not be the end of it all. And, as I sit with these feelings, I know what they could only dare to hope for. I know of what lies on the other side of the cross and the tomb. I know, but it’s not time to go there yet.
These spiritual exercises are far more than just memorials or nice things to do. When I allow myself to turn inward and examine what happens when I take this journey with Jesus to the cross, it becomes real for me. I think that’s what is meant by a “Sacrament.” Somehow, the real presence of God comes into my heart and my soul in a real and tangible way. And I have to sit with it. I have to stay here and experience what I would be feeling if I were literally there with Jesus at Golgotha. We live in a “fix it now” world. We find it almost intolerable to sit with pain, with fear, with uncertainty. And we are not alone in that. Jesus begged his closest friends to come with him to his darkest hour. “Watch and pray,” he said, and then he found them sleeping. They couldn’t tolerate the intense loneliness, fear and pain that Jesus was about to endure. Perhaps they didn't believe he would really go through with it. Perhaps they were thinking that this time, like all the others, Jesus would pull a well-timed miracle out of his hat or find just the right searing words to say to his persecutors to put them in their places. Ultimately, of course, Jesus forgives them of their lack of fortitude and their unbelief. That is indeed good news, but it doesn’t let me off the hook. In due time, I will get to rejoice in the glorious celebration of the resurrection, when all of the pain and suffering and death is turned upside down. But if I jump the gun, I miss out on a critically important part of the process. I miss the point entirely. Easter means nothing if Jesus was not crucified. And Jesus’ death means nothing without Easter.
I think there is a bigger, broader lesson here. We are often taught that Jesus took all of our guilt and shame and suffering upon himself and did away with it, once and for all. I believe that is true, to a point. However, there is more. See, when Jesus was with his disciples, both before and after his death and resurrection, he didn’t tell them that life was going to be easy for them from then on. He told them that they were going to be left behind on earth to continue Jesus’ work. They were promised everything they needed for their work but they were also promised that they would suffer immensely, just as Jesus did, for doing that work. So what was the point, then? I think the point is that in walking with Jesus, in taking that journey into Jerusalem, to Gethsemane, to Golgotha, to the tomb and beyond, the disciples and we can see to what lengths God has been willing to go for our sake. We have seen Jesus take on ALL of that sin, despair, hatred, and fear. Our lives and our hearts have been split wide open. Jesus has seen into the deepest, darkest places in our souls and has said, “I forgive you, I love you, I want to be with you forever and I want you to walk with me and continue my work.” In the resurrection, we know that we will never be alone and that we have the strength to go to those hard places, wherever they may be.
Jesus didn't simply take away all of that grief and pain and suffering. Instead, he gave us the assurance that we are clothed in God’s grace, we are forgiven, we are PART of Christ’s body and we have been given the strength to bear each other’s burdens, to suffer with the oppressed, and to cry with the broken-hearted. This is “compassion:” "feeling with." As we do this, we are healing the wounds of sin and separation from God, in whose image we are ALL created. But, I believe, we can’t truly do this unless we spend some time with Jesus in that place of emptiness and isolation. In order to know joy, we must walk through sorrow. In order to fully appreciate the joy of the resurrection, we must suffer some of the grief and pain of death, knowing that nothing we suffer comes close to what Jesus went through for us. It is through the hope of the resurrection that we are able to endure such suffering and pain. Like Advent, this is a past, present, and future event. I must live in the present reality, while at the same time celebrating the past event of Jesus’ death and resurrection and anticipating the future promise of eternal life with Christ in Glory. Watch and pray.