Good Friday remembers a time that wasn’t good. It remembers the torture and execution of Jesus. The passion accounts we have in the gospels of the New Testament are liturgical fiction based on the fact of Jesus’ death, like others’ deaths, on a Roman cross. The first reading from the book of Isaiah was used by St Paul in the ‘50s to begin to construct a restorative narrative to give his death meaning. That’s what we humans do when faced with tragedy and death. We try to find some meaning, some hope, to go on with.
That’s what the author of Isaiah 52 and 53 did. He was a captive in Babylon, far from his homeland. He wrote out of his sense of isolation – geographical and spiritual. It is hard in that context to know who the suffering servant was. Some have argued that it is an anonymous individual, others that it is Isaiah himself, or a king or other significant person. There are reasons to argue that it might be some group of people among the exiles in Babylon or even the nation Israel itself. In such contexts we might see the episode as one in which, as the onlookers in exile observe this suffering one, they see a parallel to their own experience.
The question of God and us and suffering permeates both the Isaiah discourse and the Passion narratives. Why we are suffering? What does it mean? Have we committed some wrongdoing that warrants this punishment? Where is God? And why can’t God, if God is all-powerful and all-loving, rescue us from our suffering?
There is an old story told about a journalist who was stationed in Jerusalem. The journalist’s apartment overlooked the Western Wall which is the holiest site in Judaism. Every day when the journalist looked out towards the Wall, she saw an old Jewish man devoutly praying. One day the journalist went down and introduced herself to the old man.
As a journalist, she couldn’t resist interviewing the old man. “You come every day to the wall. How long have you done this and what are you praying for?”
The old man replied, “I have come here to pray every day for 25 years. In the morning, I pray for the health and wellbeing of humanity. I go home, and I have a cup of coffee, and I come back and I pray for the eradication of suffering from all the earth.”
The journalist is intrigued and asked, “How does it make you feel to come here every day for 25 years and pray for these things?” The old man looks at the journalist with great sadness and replied, “It feels like I’m talking to a damn wall!”
[Western Wall, Jerusalem | Jerusalem | Israel | AFAR]
The question of suffering has no easy answer. Yes, there are things governments and leaders can do which are better than other things they can do. And we’ve seen some of these things in this current virus time. Yes, there are things we as communities and individuals can do which are better for us and others, including non-human life, than doing nothing, or thinking we can do nothing, or building a wall, a bunker, to shut everyone but us out. Yes, we can do something, many things, to hold suffering at bay and give hope to others.
But suffering still comes. It is like the night falling upon us. It was not incidental that Elie Wiesel called his holocaust recollections ‘Night’.
One of the stories created by those early Jesus followers was about prayer. Mark’s account of it, probably the earliest, tells of Jesus going to a garden called Gethsemane. It was the last free choice of movement in his life.
The fiction puts three male disciples with him - friends to accompany him, watch over him. But, to fit with the theme of guilt and later forgiveness, they fall asleep not once, but thrice.
Jesus, for the only time in the gospels, is described as ‘distressed and agitated’. And he prays to an omnipotent being, whom for Jesus is known as compassion (or Abba), to intervene. Seemingly Jesus knows things are out of control, out of his control, and are about to get worse, much worse. So, like us in extremis, he cries out to a God, like we cry out to a God (even if we don’t believe that God exists), to rescue him, to rescue us. If God is there, God is omnipotent, and God can deliver.
Instead of facing the idea that an omnipotent God is not there, Jesus, like many Christians since, gave the deity an escape clause: ‘yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ In other words, if I’m not rescued from suffering it must be God’s will for me to suffer. That is the entrance way to a very dark rabbit hole.
I would frame this Gethsemane episode as struggling with the silence of God, or to quote the old Jewish man, ‘the damn wall’.
I’m not talking about the silence that heals and restores. I’m talking about the silence in Hiroshima the day after the bomb fell, or the silence currently on Fifth Avenue, New York, or the strange silence of a site where a massacre once occurred in history. Some of you will have been to such sites and felt such silence.
In the liturgy called Holy Week it is the afternoon of Good Friday when silence descends, ‘night’ (before it is due) comes upon us, when the all-powerful God is impotent, when the God called compassion – the one we’ve known in Jesus - is dying.
Thomas Cahill in his book ‘Heretics and Heroes’ suggests that one of the things that changes in the time of a pandemic is the meaning we attach to the word G-o-d. He writes from his research in the 1300s and the time of the bubonic plague when a third of European population died. Many places struck by the horror of suffering and death tried unsuccessfully to bargain with their God to spare them.
One of the shifts we need to make in God language is from understanding God as an existing object to understanding God as a movement in which we participate. So it’s a change away from God existing, like deities of the Roman Empire, and residing in temples. Those temples were not only spiritual centres but economic centres. There one engaged with the deity in transactions - like presenting an offering to God in order that you will receive a favour. Or, in a modern version, offering to change your behaviour in order that God will help you. God as existing, God as an objective reality, and God with a fixed centre of patronage for adherents, went together.
The Jesus movement got into trouble early on. Instead of having a fixed centre of patronage, namely a temple, they expressed an understanding that every person was a temple. God did not dwell ‘over here’ or ‘out there’ but rather was the relationship holding all things together. God was a network of relationality interwoven with all being. So ‘God’ was something in which we not only lived but participated in. God was a movement, an insistence, towards compassion, justice, and mutual connection.
That has ethical implications. Like: I cannot harm you without harming myself. If I work for your good, I’m working for my good. Our goods are inexplicably knitted together by divineness. There is no ‘us and them’. So everything that divides – racism, sexism, war – are denials of this participatory movement (called God) and of our own, and everyone’s, wellbeing.
That has ethical implications too when it comes to suffering. When one suffers in a sense we all suffer. When one person feels excluded, alone, and fearful it affects the wellbeing of all. Suffering can be thought of as fractures, tears, in the network of relationality. And those fractures, even when they can’t be avoided – and that unfortunately is often the case - can be repaired, restored, by acts kindness, selflessness, and caring.
Torture and suffering, and resulting death, are fractures in that movement of life and goodness in which we participate. And resurrection is the repairing and restoration of those fractures through the hope of the movement in which we participate – the very movement we call God.