Dark is the only way to describe Good Friday. Cold, raw, bleak, dreary. We hear the account of Jesus’ last 20 hours or so on this planet, and it’s overwhelming. He’s betrayed by a friend, and disowned by another. His countrymen push him off as an outsider, demanding his execution. The judge sees that he’s being set up, but doesn’t intervene. He’s stripped naked, flogged, spit upon, and mocked. He’s forced to carry the means of his execution across his shoulders, the rough hewn wood digging in to his skin. When he gets to the place called The Skull, the soldiers string him up, and then gamble away the remnants of his clothing. As he teeters between life and death, he sees his mother standing nearby taking this all in, and he asks a friend to treat her as his own mother, and that she receive him like her own son. He sips from a sponge saturated with wine just to wet his parched throat, and then he bows his head and dies. Upon closer inspection from his executioners—who can see that he is already dead—they add one last insult and pierce his bare side with a spear. This day is utterly and painfully dark.
Pastor James Lamkin calls Good Friday “the winter solstice of the liturgical year.” He describes it in this way: “On Good Friday, the light disappears. The Light of God appears to be snuffed out. All of the church’s busyness to fan the flames of the Spirit not only does not work; it leaves us weary. The End.” “On Good Friday the darkness wins… or so it seems.” And that isn’t far from our own Good Friday experiences in this life. When relationships end, or addiction wreaks havoc. When our mental health flags or financial struggles grow. Times when we lose a loved one or face a pandemic. You know it too well, I suspect, what a Good Friday feels like in your own life. When the darkness creeps in and it feels to you like it wins.
And I believe one thing we do too quickly is to try to brush over all of that. We giddy-up on our way to Easter. I’ve heard many a preacher say we can’t get to Easter without a Good Friday experience, but nary a one wanting to dwell too long sitting in that darkness. Perhaps it’s because we’re purveyors of hope, and we’re afraid that if we don’t move quickly to the signs of new life then your faith will falter, and you’ll chuck it all in when it comes to the things of God.
But even though we know the end of this story—we know about the tomb and the folded burial linens and the angels sitting in the place where Jesus’ body had been laid—we don’t know the end of our own Good Friday stories yet. We don’t know what’s on the other side of the broken promises, or the horrible diagnosis. We aren’t privy to the chapters of those narratives that have yet to be written in our own lives. And so while we desperately want for there to be glimmers of hope, sometimes it feels like all that remains is the smoke wafting up from a snuffed candle.
But then John reminds us that the Good Friday story is a part of a much bigger one. Pastor Lamkin recalls that two times actions at the cross were done in order “to fulfill scripture:” the soldiers dividing Jesus’s tunic among themselves and when Jesus asks for a drink. You see, the story of Good Friday is only a part of that larger story that God had been telling since the heavens and the earth came into existence. When the Pleiades and Orion were flung out into the dark sky and the flora and fauna sprang up on this planet. Our lives too are just pieces of that glorious story that God has been weaving from the beginning of time. And the arc of that narrative bends toward justice and love and hope, and, ultimately, it bends toward light. It is John himself in the prologue of his gospel who reminds us of that truth, saying of Jesus: “In him was life and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
In a few moments we will sing once more that haunting spiritual “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The hymn, born out of the African-American slave experience, reminds us of Good Friday. But it also invites us to recall the lynchings and beatings and terror of African-Americans in our own country. What those first singers of this song believed was that Jesus “knew their suffering and stood in solidarity with their oppression” as one commentator put it. That just as Jesus had once been lynched himself, God remained with him, and similarly God would be with them in the midst of their own darkness. While they didn’t know what the next chapter in their own story would bring, they saw that God held Jesus in those deep arms of love and would not let him go even when he experienced his darkest days.
And so it is with us. The darkness does seem to win on this day—and on similar days in our own lives—but that is not the end of the story; it is only the end of the chapter. God continues to weave in new strands of the story in that magnificent narrative that has been crafted since the dawn of time. God was there on that first Good Friday and will be there with us on ours. We just need to remember the words John has told us: that the darkness did not—it could not—overcome the light. The light continues to shine. So while it may appear that all seems lost, we must trust that even here God abides. We are never alone. Amen.