Good Friday: This, Too, Was a Gift
The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
-Mary Oliver, from Thirst
As Matthew and Mark tell it, Jesus’ final (and only) words from the cross were, “Eli, eli, lema sabachthani?,” which mean, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Luke and John tell it differently. Luke has Jesus showing loving-kindness to others even until the end, saying of the crowd, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and to the criminal beside him, “Truly you will be with me in paradise,” before peacefully giving himself over to God, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”
John’s Jesus comes to the cross without hesitation and remains focused on his mission until the end, saying emphatically, “It is finished!” before giving up the ghost. He even takes time to make arrangements for his mother along the way, saying to her and the beloved disciple, “You are mother and son, now.”
But not so in Mark and Matthew. As they tell it, the only discernible words Jesus says from the cross are, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
On the one hand, these may be the most challenging of Jesus’ last words recorded in the gospels because they ask us to consider that Jesus truly felt abandoned by God on the cross, even that Jesus was abandoned by God on the cross, and if there’s any difference between the two. Theologically speaking, these are challenging words if we prefer that our salvation be clean and uncomplicated.
But on the other hand, these words of Jesus may be the most accessible, because they’re the most human. When we consider the pain out of which they were spoken—both the physical pain intended by this brutal form of state execution and the emotional and even spiritual pain of having been abandoned and betrayed by those whom he loved, crying out to God from the pit of despair is utterly believable.
Of course, these words actually come from Psalm 22, which begins with cries of distress and despair, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” but ends with shouts of thanksgiving and deliverance, “Future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.” And this is without question meant to give us a hint of what’s to come, but by no means should we take Jesus at anything other than his word here. With apologies to Tony Campolo and others, Jesus was not thinking, as he hung from the cross, “It’s Good Friday now, but Sunday’s coming.”
As far as Matthew and Mark tell it, he was thinking the most devastating thing you can think the moment before death, I am alone. I don’t know that I’m loved.
So with all of this, how could we possibly call this day Good Friday?
The word “good” shows up at some important places in the Bible. It’s there at creation, when God put the world into motion and looked at it and blessed it and said, “This is good.” God even looked at us and said, you are very good. In the Gospel of Luke, someone addresses Jesus as, “Good Teacher” and Jesus quickly responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
And of course, this news we proclaim of the events of this weekend; Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we call the good news.
You see, in the world of the Bible and in the language of our faith, goodness takes on a special meaning. It doesn’t mean simply “right” or “well,” or even “a little less than great.” Goodness is a sign of God’s blessing, but more to the point, goodness is a sign of God’s presence. In the world of our faith, when something is good, it means God is there, or rather, when God is there we call something good, no matter how much it may seem the contrary.
You see, it’s important for us to remember, even on this dark day—especially on this dark day—that God is not present just in the good times, the easy times—God is not limited to the light of day and the laughter of children, though God is certainly in these things.
No, as we look to the cross, we can say in faith that God is most present when all is not well, when the world and our lives seem anything but good—even in those times when we don’t feel God’s presence at all. God is in the silence. God is in the pain. God is in the tears. It’s in those times that God meets us. It’s on those crosses that God hangs.
Though many had left him that dark afternoon, Jesus was not alone there on the cross. Even if in the moment he truly felt he was, we can say, looking back on it with Easter eyes, that God was as present with him then has God had been present with him every day of his life. We call it Good Friday because God was there with him. Watching, hurting, and waiting to make all things new. We call it Good Friday because God is here with us. Watching, hurting, and waiting to make us whole again.
But we’re not there yet.
For now, Jesus is still on the cross, and we each have our own silent crosses to bear. But all the same, we say call it Good Friday because we never truly bear them alone.