Good Friday 2015
I have been struck by Mary the Mother of Jesus this Lent. I’m sure it began by walking the new Stations of the Cross these past many Fridays with her presence at the Fourth Station, when Jesus meets her, and at the Thirteen, when the body of Jesus is placed into her arms. But then just last week we celebrated the Annunciation, reminding us of Mary’s willingness to say yes to God even though she didn’t fully know what such a response entailed. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” she sang, “and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” And now, some 30 years later, she weeps at the foot of the cross as her son slowly loses his life, and it feels nothing like the Lord’s favor.
I cannot begin to imagine the pain of losing a child. This past week we experienced our first broken bone in over ten years of parenthood—Olivia fell and has a small fracture in her hip, which should be completely healed in a few weeks—and that is hard enough. Her tears over intense discomfort and a need to sit for hours on end when she’d rather be doing gymnastics cause my heart to ache. Seeing our kids in pain, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, is incapacitating; we want nothing more than to take away their hurt. But watching a child carry a means of torture to their own execution is not fathomable. There are not words.
And Mary herself says nothing in our narrative from John—nor in the other gospels. In the Way of the Cross, the writers of that devotion have her borrow language from the Hebrew Scriptures to give her voice: “My eyes are spent with weeping; my soul is in tumult; my heart is poured out in grief because of the downfall of my people. ‘Do not call me Naomi (which means Pleasant), call me Mara (which means Bitter); for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.’”
This sentiment is also felt by others in our own day. The ones who experience a miscarriage and the loss of hope for the joy that new life can bring. Those whose children are diagnosed with a serious illness or have significant special needs. Those whose teens have wandered far from home or the values we hold dear. The ones who’ve buried a child, whatever the reason. All these rip out our hearts as parents.
“Woman, behold your son,” Jesus says from the cross as he struggles for breath. His thought is to care for his mother, to provide for her. He acknowledges in his words that this isn’t how it is supposed to be; parents are not meant to hold the death of their children. So he does for her what he can in those last hours. He ensures that she is both cared for by this beloved disciple and has someone to care for as well.
The documentary film “A Long Night’s Journey into Day” follows four of the stories from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission, headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, looked to uncover the truth behind the atrocities carried out under Apartheid. If guilty parties came forward and spoke truthfully taking responsibility for the violence they had committed, they would be granted amnesty, but they needed to do so in public and before a tribunal. If the council felt they were being forthright, then they could go free and receive forgiveness. If not, or if they didn’t come forward at all but it was discovered that they had in fact been involved, they would face consequences. Both black South Africans and Afrikaners came forward to account for their past.
In one of the stories, we learn about a black South African named Thapelo Mbelo who directed an undercover operation for the government police, and with two others earned the trust of a group of angry black youths. Ultimately, these young men are set up by Mbelo in March of 1986, encouraged by him to raid the local police headquarters. They were killed before the raid took place while a school bus full of children look on. After their deaths, they became known as the Gugulethu 7.
The mothers of these young men endured ten years of misinformation and denial about the events leading up to their sons’ deaths. The film shows their immense anguish as they learn the truth. They hear how Mbelo oversaw the operation and provided their boys with weapons and the plan. We hear them retell how they learned of their sons’ deaths—on the evening news with their sons being called terrorists by the news reporters and that they were justly killed.
One of the mothers, after hearing Mbelo’s lengthy testimony, asks him in Xhosa—their shared language—how he could have done this. How could he have entrapped their sons? He looks down and unshed tears fill his eyes. He tells them that he is sorry. The he did do wrong. One of the mothers yells at him, saying that his apology will never bring back her son. And then, almost miraculously, there is a turn. “ Just a minute, my son,” another mother says to him. “Doesn’t the name Thapelo mean “prayer”? I see what your name means, and I don’t know whether you follow it or not. Speaking as Christopher’s mother, I forgive you, my child. Because you and Christopher are the same age. I forgive you my child, and the reason I say I forgive you is that my child will never wake up again. And it’s pointless for me to hold this wound against you. God will be the judge. We must forgive those who sin against us, even as we wish to be forgiven. So I forgive you, Thapelo. I want you to go home knowing the mothers are forgiving the evil you have done, and we feel compassion for you. … So for my part, I forgive you, my child. Yes, I forgive you. Go well my child.”
“Woman, behold your son.” “Behold your mother.” Immense pain encountered and endured on that first Good Friday so many years ago. Good Fridays are very much a part of our lives as much as I wish it weren’t so. I know many of you, like me, have experienced something—perhaps not involving your children but some painful event—that has you echoing Mary, “Don’t call me pleasant, call me bitter, for the Lord has dealt bitterly with me.” You look on as death enters in and you feel that there is nothing you can do. Emotions wash over you, and you are numb.
Jesus understands. He looks down from that cross wanting to take away the pain. And while hope and resurrection and new life will emerge, we are not there yet. At this point he can do nothing more than to make sure his mother is cared for now and into the future. He cannot take away her grief; he can only ensure that there is one to grieve with her.
And now he offers the same to us. To see one another in the midst of grief and to offer comfort. To recognize his deep love and care for each of us. To know that the overwhelming pain Mary endured ultimately provided healing and resurrection for us all. So we pray that we might see and know things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, even Christ our Lord. Amen.