Growing up, I often heard preachers intone that my name was on Jesus’ lips when he died on the cross, that, in between spasms of excruciating pain, Jesus was thinking of me. In more macabre sermons, pastors would point a finger at the audience and explain that it was I that drove the nails into Jesus with all of my terrible sins.
It was a powerful, seductive message. It was also a lie.
Jesus didn’t die for me. I wasn’t even on his divine radar when Roman soldiers drove nails through his body. None of us were. Jesus wasn’t crucified for my sins—whatever lie I might have told last week, that pack of M&Ms I nicked as a 7-year-old, those years of my life I look back on with shame. Instead, Jesus died for the simple reason that the Romans wanted him dead, because overturning tables full of money, preaching about the Reign of God and proclaiming a new, eternal kingdom that would trump Rome’s didn’t promote good, imperial social order. Indeed, Rome had a regular habit of making gruesome examples out of subversives who challenged—or even might have challenged—the empire’s status quo.
But Christians, especially on Good Friday, tend to lift the death of Jesus beyond the bounds of reason, imbue it with too much cosmic meaning, and brand it with a singularity that strips it of profound meaning. To me, the death of Jesus isn’t significant because it was different or special. Rather, the significance of Jesus’ death is in the everyday violence of it, the tragic mundanity of humanity. When we survey that wondrous cross from across 2,000 years, we should remember this, the jarring normalcy of the event, just how unexceptional it was.
And in that moment, Jesus’ death was pointless. That is the deep, dangerous power of the cross on Good Friday. Too often we experience Good Friday with Easter on our minds, visions of a honey-baked ham, pastel-colored eggs, cream-filled chocolate, and a trumpet in the choir loft. Too often we tiptoe past the cross on Friday, humming “I Know that My Redeemer Lives,” so we don’t have to remember that he died, profoundly.
So, in this Good Friday moment, resist the temptation to dwell on the hope of forgiveness through the cross and to fast forward through the dark parts. Don’t assuage guilty consciences borne of imperfect, incomplete—human!—lives with sycophantic notions that Jesus died specifically for you and me. There is no power in such saccharine fatuousness. In this moment, don’t wrench the cross from the earth, wet with blood and sorrow, and perch it so high in the heavens that we cannot smell the sweat and pain, so high that we cannot see that in his death, Jesus is not unique. Rather, it is in his death that the Jesus of the Gospels becomes one with human, becomes one of us.
Jesus had done all he believed God had asked him to do. He had given up his friends. He had become a vagabond. He had preached and healed, been run out of town. He had forsaken his own mother and brothers in public. He had been called insane, by the woman that bore him, the family that reared him. He had given up everything, and was on the verge of giving up in the garden.
And Jesus, heavy with despair, finally asks God for relief—that the cup of suffering, the cross, might pass. It is a lonely prayer, perhaps the most fervent recorded in the gospels. It is the only prayer in the gospels in which Jesus asks for something only for himself. With prayer, he has raised the dead, driven out demons, healed the sick, lame, and mute, multiplied food and wine, all for others, and all answered with efficacy and immediacy by God. But in the garden, Jesus prays solely on his own behalf, begging God for a different path than the one that leads to the cross. And it just so happens it is Jesus’ only prayer that God ignores. There, with sweat like blood falling from his head, the only answer he receives is silence.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Jesus experiences the human crisis of meaninglessness at the cross, the unraveling of his life and of his life’s work. This meaninglessness echoes in our world every death at the iron-fisted hands of institutional violence, all the deaths at the unrelenting hands of hunger and preventable disease. In the war-torn bodies that water the earth with their blood, we see the tragic futility of the cross.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?
Today, we mourn with Jesus. We sit in the darkness. Pray into empty silence. Stare into the abyss and dare it to consume us. This is the sobering, daring call of Good Friday, to extinguish the light from our lives, as in the liturgical Tenebrae service. Good Friday challenges us to allow ourselves to experience the forsakenness of Jesus, of humanity, of our lives, that we try our damnedest to ignore every other day of the year. It is one of the few moments in the Christian year that we can admit those feelings in the sanctuary, that the sanctuary welcomes the darkness, the rupture of the death of God. It is the one day that the church opens its doors to those foolish bridesmaids whose lamps went out, who scattered in darkness just like the disciples did at the death of their master. It is the one day when we can scream:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?
Every other day of the year, I might pretend to be like the wise bridesmaids, with my lamp trimmed, burning brightly with a reservoir of oil to keep the night at bay while I wait for the bridegroom to finally show up, fashionably, brutally late. But today, I can admit that I have heard but silence in response and that my candle burns only dimly, smoldering, suffocated by doubt, pain, life. Today, I can admit my own God-forsakenness.
O God, our lives too often seem like a collection of Good Fridays mercilessly strung together with overflowing cups of suffering. There always seems to be more confusion than coherency and more of a faith that seems ripped in two. The dead, tortured savior, the nihilism of a forsaken crucifixion, a scramble for meaning, a scattering of God. Let us not turn our heads away from the cross for fear that we will see ourselves there as well.
David Henson is a writer who lives in Augusta, Georgia, and is currently working on a novel. His meditations on scripture have appeared in Ready the Way: A Walk through Advent (2009), the Christian Century web site, and numerous other blogs. He authors the blogsUnorthodoxology. Read the rest of David Henson’s Holy Week Meditations here.