A clergy friend sent me a meme this week. It’s of an imagined conversation between the author, a man named Keith, and Jesus.
Keith: “We commemorate the day you died every year.”
Jesus: “Thats nice; what’s that day called?”
Keith: “Um, Bad Friday.”
We can appreciate Keith’s conundrum, right? What’s “good” about this Friday when we come to gather once more at the foot of the cross? What’s good about Jesus’ execution by the powers that be? Why do we insist on calling this day “good” when “bad” seems like a much more appropriate moniker?
Let’s be blunt, there is nothing good about violence. There’s nothing good in state-sanctioned executions. No good comes out of convicting innocent people to die. That’s what we’ve seen unfold here this evening: an innocent man accused, tried, and strung up simply because powerful people wanted to do away with him. Because they were afraid he would stir up the crowd against them, and they feared retribution by the imperial powers over them. And so they did what groups and societies have done for millennia, they made Jesus a scapegoat and murdered him.
Often the answer to this question of why this day is seen as good can only be found with the events early on Sunday morning. It’s the resurrection that makes this palatable. And in a sense I get it. But that feels a little bit like we’re cheating. That only when we know the outcome can we jump ahead to the good. But then what about those whose lives are decidedly more like the crucifixion right now? What about the people who live on the margins? The ones we’ll remember in our prayers in a few minutes, those who are destitute, hungry and unhoused? Or the lonely, the sick, the wounded, and bereaved? What does this day mean to all prisoners and captives and the ones in mortal danger? Can we explain their pain without skipping ahead past Holy Saturday? Can we see any good at all?
The Prophet Jeremiah explores this in his writings found in the book of Lamentations, a portion of which was assigned for Morning Prayer today. As might deduce, these writings are squarely a lament, a cry for when things have gone wrong. After saying that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, that God’s mercies never come to an end, the Prophet writes, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth, to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it, to put one’s mouth to the dust (there may yet be hope), to give one’s cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults. For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” (Lamentations 3)
Did you catch all that? It is good to wait for salvation. It is good to bear the yoke, and sit alone in silence. It is good to eat dust, and to allow your cheek to be smitten, and to be filled with insults, for there may yet be hope. While God causes grief, God will ultimately have compassion according to his steadfast love, for God does not grieve any willingly. God doesn’t cause affliction from God’s heart, rather God eventually offers compassion. Those times of trial, they can be seen as good because they arouse in us hope that God will act with compassion. That God won’t forever be far from us.
Is that enough though? Is it enough to say to someone experiencing a tough time that God will eventually have compassion? To hang in because it cannot last forever?
We read Psalm 22 tonight. It’s familiar during Holy Week because Jesus utters the opening words to this Psalm from the cross according to two of our gospelers. He cries out in Aramaic, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachtani.” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Psalmist continues, “You are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress. O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer, by night as well, but I find no rest.” Jesus is encountering the tremendous pain that the Prophet Jeremiah details. Obviously the Psalmist encountered it too. That pain has been felt by the the 3200 black people who were lynched in the history of this country. It’s being felt by the Ukrainian refugees. It’s known by those who received a cancer diagnosis this week, and by the teens struggling with anxiety and perfectionism.
Jesus, true God from true God, experienced God-forsakenness on the cross. Which means that God experienced God-forsakenness too. Because of that moment, God in human form truly experienced the pain that so many in our world face causing them to cry out to a God who seems to have forgotten them. And that God-forsakenness pierced God’s heart. It gave God the ability to empathize with us. God understands firsthand what it feels like to be forgotten by God.[mfn] I’m indebted to Tony Jones who explores this in his book Did God Kill Jesus?[/mfn]
And because of that, we can know that we are never alone in our pain and grief. God does not stand off in the distance from us, because God has experience the same thing as us. And that is so good because we have a God who understands our sorrows. God feels our grief at God’s very core. God remains with us so that even when we feel forsaken, we can know that we are not. That when we believe that our sins have driven us away from God, God is there offering forgiveness and a way back.
This day is Good because we have a God who suffers with us. It is Good because we are never truly alone no matter what the world throws at us. It is Good because on this day Jesus offered himself in order to bring us a fullness of life and salvation. May we know this deep in our souls, that there is never anything that can drive us from God’s love, and no situation in our life which God cannot comprehend. God will never leave us or forsake, and that is very, very good.