Years ago, in the early 1970s the church of which I was a member went on a Lenten retreat. The retreat was organized by a seminarian doing an internship among us, and with the intention of giving us a greater ecumenical perspective hired a Unitarian leader. This person had an association with the Buddhist spiritual teacher Ram Dass, so our perspective was very ecumenical.
The leader began his talk by asking the group if we knew what we were doing last Good Friday. The flow of his talk came to an abrupt halt when everyone in the group raised our hands. After the unexpected response from the group, he recovered and said most Christians don’t experience Good Friday and so can’t fully experience Easter.
Now, despite what I considered to be the leader’s condescending attitude, I agreed with him. Indeed, the whole group agreed with him, because we had no problem remembering what we were doing the prior Good Friday. This afternoon we were led us through the Stations of the Cross, commemorating fourteen events on the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow, starting with Jesus condemnation by Pilot through his death and entombment. Of the 14 stations only 3, 4, 6, 7 and 9 have direct Biblical references.
The Stations of the Cross originated with pilgrimages to Jerusalem and a desire to reproduce the Via Dolorosa, the path that led Jesus to his Crucifixion. As pilgrimages to the holy land became more and more difficult, for example the fall of Jerusalem to the Muslims in 1187, the Franciscans began to set up Via Dolorosas outside the Holy Land that eventually moved into cathedrals and churches.
The object of the Stations is to help the faithful make in spirit, a pilgrimage to the chief scenes of Christ’s sufferings and death, and it has become one of the most popular of Good Friday devotions. It is carried out by passing from Station to Station, with certain prayers at each and devout meditation on the various incidents in turn. It is very usual, when the devotion is performed publicly, to sing a stanza of the Stabat Mater while passing from one Station to the next.
It is too easy to romanticize Christ’s passion and suffering because the familiar liturgical language has been worn smooth like a river pebble as it were. It is also easy to identify Jesus as a hapless victim at the mercies of the power and principalities, or in some way he serves as a victim in our stead. By entering into the Stations as victims, we blind ourselves to our complicity in violence, and others that may suffer from our blindness as a result. It is good to remember that Jesus was in control throughout his entire Passion. At his trial, he was both accused and judge, and at his death it was he who gave up his spirit.
In his Passion, Jesus laid bare the way that God’s children have used the death of the innocent to distance ourselves from our own dependence on violence. By removing the scales from our eyes, Jesus has broken forever the power of violence in our lives. We will never again be able to convince ourselves that we can save ourselves by violence without some concern for those who die. Without our blindness to the cost to the victim, violence doesn’t offer the salvation it once did. Instead, we have no choice but to rely on the one thing that does save us, God’s mercy.
God’s mercy… You may ask, why did Christ have to die, and how does his death effect my life? Is our God a vengeful one who requires a human sacrifice to pay for our sins? That Jesus bore God’s wrath in our place so we could go to heaven when we die? 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,” and in Second Corinthians “For our sake he made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus’ sacrifice for us is that he became sin, the only human being that knew no sin and sin died on the cross. 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 our vocation that God created us to have. As N.T. Wright said, the main task of this vocation is “image-bearing,” reflecting the Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflecting the praises of all creation back to its maker. Because of Good Friday humanity can again stand at the point where the kingdom of heaven and earth come together. We are given the courage to see ourselves as we are truly depicted in the Passion because we view it from the perspective of God’s ultimate victory over our sin, from the perspective of the Resurrection.