“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
During Holy Week, especially on this second day of the Church’s Paschal Triduum, Good Friday, this quote from J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Ring, resonates with me.
We are living through the peril of this COVID 19. Our lives changed dramatically with the spread of Coronavirus, thrusting us into a global pandemic that is causing dire consequences and the grief and isolation it left in its wake. One of the most heart-wrenching headlines I had encountered online was: “Amid pandemic, loved ones grieve—separately. “Now we see the specter of a new viral variant rising to threaten us. But we do see the hope of newer vaccines and treatments that may return us to the everyday life we once knew.
The dark place that we saw east of the “Iron Curtin,” the Soviet Union, is now rising again as Putin’s Russia ruthlessly attacks one of its neighbors, Ukraine, spreading terror and grief, performing genocide on its people. Bigotry, poverty, and homelessness, to name a few things, still give us reasons to grieve.
After graduating from USF, I got a part-time job in the Fairmont Hotel’s audiovisual department. I got to know one of the housemen, Manfred, who worked at the hotel and was quite a philosopher, having adopted the teachings of Lao Tzu, and I love having discussions with him.
You see, he was a man well acquainted with grief; he was Jewish, and as a young man, he and his family fled the Nazis in Prussia, or eastern Germany. He and most of his family made it out of Germany and took refuge with 20,000 other European Jews In Shanghai’s Tilanqiao district. All went well until Japan invaded, and at the behest of their Nazi allies, they turned Tilanqiao into a ghetto that became a living hell throughout the war.
One sunny Saturday morning, I was riding my bicycle up Polk Street to take photographs on the Hyde Street pier when I saw him walking down the sidewalk. I pulled over to say hello to him, not noticing that my crucifix had come out and was hanging out on my shirt.
Manfred looked down at my crucifix with a somewhat puzzled and slightly disgusted look and said, “why do you put that little man on a cross?” I answered him that it reminded me that my God would suffer anything for my salvation.
Thinking back, I believe that was pretty much a scripted answer. So, it is fair to ask why did Jesus have to die. And indeed, why do we call this Good Friday. Why did Christ have to die, and how does his death affect my life? Is our God a vengeful one who requires a human sacrifice to pay for our sins? Did Jesus bear God’s wrath in our place, so we could go to heaven when we die?
We, humanity, were created by God to be God’s image to creation and to reflect the praise and worship of creation to our Creator. Original sin is when human actions give over our image-bearing to idols, ego, money, power, and many other idolatries that break our covenant and communion with God – Sin.
When the fully human Jesus on the cross felt abandoned by God is considered the point when God laid all the world’s sins on him to die with him, restoring humanity to the possibility of full communion in the kingdom of heaven.
St. Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I, in turn, had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” In Second Corinthians, “For our sake, he made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” Jesus was sacrificed for us in that he became sin, the only human being that knew no sin, and evil died on the cross through him. The power of sin over us was broken that Good Friday and freed us to turn from the idols we worship, money, power, etc., to God, and return us to the vocation that God created us for, to reflect God’s glory to creation and creations worship to God. By six o’clock on that Friday evening, Jesus had died, and something had changed and changed radically. Heaven and earth were brought together, creating the cosmic “new temple”: “God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah.”
Jesus’ crucifixion disclosed the very nature of God at work in generous, self-giving love to overthrow all power structures by dealing with the sin that had given them their power. God’s divine nature would now be at work in the ministry of the Gospel, not only through what was said but through the character and the considerations of the people who were proclaiming it.
John is the only Gospel with three Marys standing near the cross, Mary His dear Mother who shed so many tears, and Jesus entrusting his mother and the Beloved Disciple into one another’s care. In this simple act, Jesus also sows the seeds of the new community to come. Family is redefined in ways that are not restricted to blood kin and in which members of that family are called to be responsible caretakers of one another. Paradoxically, as a beloved son dies, a new community is born. All who stand at the cross on Good Friday, weeping over all the unjust, untimely, inhumane, and unnecessary deaths they have known, may also find comfort and hope in the new community that Jesus provides for them even in their moment of greatest grief. It cannot be a coincidence that the first people who see Jesus on Sunday morning are the same ones who refuse to look away from his death on Friday; those who watch through the whole bloody execution, who accompany his body to the tomb, and who come again to prepare his lifeless corpse for burial; they are the ones who are the first to experience the truth of the resurrection. Humanity can again stand at the point where the kingdom of heaven and earth come together. We can find the courage to see ourselves as we are genuinely depicted in the Passion because we view it from God’s ultimate victory over our sin, from the Resurrection perspective. This is a very Good Friday! Amen.