We hear on this day the telling of Jesus’ Passion – those things that he suffered and bore, those things that he endured between the Last Supper and his body being placed in a borrowed tomb.
Throughout the ages artists and musicians have sought to portray this story, each in the idiom of their own day. Some of these pictures seem calm, almost serene, while others are full of energy, shadow and light, and details of blood and pain. And yet, more often than not for contemporary Christians, these portrayals seem to be coming to us from a distance, as if seeing them behind museum glass. It’s certainly safer that way; if we hold Jesus’ Passion at arms-length we can be somewhat detached, dis-passionate in our response.
And yet the Gospel tells the story in words that are powerful, if spare. What do we read there?
We read betrayal, bribery, denial; we see injustice, mockery, power, violence, control, indifference; there is fear, anguish, debasement, pain; suffering, humiliation, agony, death, and grief. It is no wonder that we want to put distance between ourselves and Jesus’ story.
Except that this is our story – our human story, and all too often our personal story. In this past year we have been so aware of the way these elements have been present and visible in our society. That’s nothing new, those elements are always there, but they have come into the foreground of our vision in so many ways – here at home, and in the world at large.
What Good Friday calls us to do is not to look away; but neither are we to be swept up in a gratuitous fascination with the evil of which all these human behaviors are an expression.
Instead, we are to remain grounded in Jesus. The Passion opens with Judas delivering the soldiers to Jesus’ place of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. The protocol of the arrest required that the right person was in hand. Jesus asks the soldiers who it is they are looking for. “Jesus of Nazareth”, they say. And he answers them, “I am he.”
I AM. We are to hear in that statement the echoes of Jesus’ earlier statements to the disciples:
- I am the bread of life
- I am the light of the world.
- I am the door.
- I am the good shepherd.
- I am the resurrection and the life.
- I am the way, the truth, and the life
- I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser
- Before Abraham was, I am.
At Christmas we rejoice in the announcement of the Word becoming flesh and living among us, coming into his own. And now on Good Friday we see the full extent of what that means. Jesus the Messiah, the Sovereign Lord, the agent and Author of Creation had come into our midst, to take upon himself our human nature. And in doing so he takes on the very worst of human experience – the crushing weight of sin and state-sanctioned execution.
Why word Jesus do this? Why would God do this? If he was to truly inhabit human nature, then there was no going around, no side-stepping, no being whisked out of harm’s way at the last moment. There was only “through”, only going through the worst of who we human beings can be. If Jesus had not gone through this, we could not have been redeemed, and there would be no hope.
There is a striking series of black and white paintings on Jesus’ Passion made this past year by a Brooklyn-based artist named Doug Blanchard. They seem to be part-Edward Hopper and part- graphic novel. In the series he imagines Jesus as a dark-skinned young man in contemporary New York. The painting I find the most arresting is the one that art historians would call the Pietà, the Pity – Jesus’ dead body being embraced by his mother. In Blanchard’s picture Jesus is on a gurney in the morgue, Mary having thrown herself over him, and several followers collapsed on the floor, weeping.
This is every parent’s nightmare – the death of their child. What the Passion story tells us is that even here, in the nightmare, God is. Even in our worst nightmares, God is with us, Emmanuel.
And in going through the Crucifixion, going through the sin and death, Jesus opens for us a way to God’s New Life and New Creation. The powers of sin, and violence, and death have been exposed for the lies they are. Their power is not ultimate – only God, the one who is I AM, holds that power, and it turns out to be the power of love and healing and forgiveness.
By coming to us in the Incarnation, by inhabiting our human nature and our human dilemma, Christ has changed it and changed us from the inside out. There is hope, and New Life, and resurrection, and joy – for us and for all that God has created.
And for now, we pause here; we look, we do not look away. We see Jesus’ humanity and our own, and we pray for God’s mercy for the whole world.
Let us pray. Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
April 2, 2021