Good Friday – April 10, 2009



Scripture readings for Good Friday:

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Psalm 22

Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9

John 19: 17—30

Leighanne Gideon, Michal Graczyk, Wayne Sorge, Carroll Pickett and Fred Allen were participants in a documentary on the subject of execution. All of them, in their various capacities as guards, chaplain or journalists, have witnessed numerous executions. I quote from the documentary:

Leighanne Gideon says: “I was twenty-six years old when I witnessed my first execution. After the execution was over, I felt numb. And that’s a good way to explain it. And a lot of people will tell you that — that it’s just a very numb feeling afterwards … I’ve walked out of the death chamber numb and my legs feeling like rubber sometimes, my head maybe not really feeling like it’s attached to my shoulders. I’ve been told that it’s perfectly normal, everyone feels it, and that after a while that numb feeling goes away.”

Michael Graczyk (a journalist): “I had a mother collapse right in front of me. We were standing virtually shoulder to shoulder. She collapsed, hit the floor, went into hyperventilation, almost convulsions.”

Gideon: “I’ve seen family members collapse in there. I’ve seen them scream and wail. I’ve seen them beat the glass.”

Wayne Sorge: “I’ve seen them fall into the floor, totally lose control. And yet how do you tell a mother that she can’t be there in the last moments of her son’s life?”

Gideon again: “You’ll never hear another sound like a mother wailing whenever she is watching her son be executed. There’s no other sound like it. It is just this horrendous wail. You can’t get away from it. That wail surrounds the room. It’s definitely something you won’t ever forget.”

“My name is Reverend Carroll Pickett. I’m a Presbyterian minister . . . I’ve had guards — lots of guards — quit. Even those tough guards you talk about. A lot of those quit. Some of them couldn’t take it. Some of them couldn’t take it.”

Fred Allen, who used to be part of the tie-down team, participated in about 120 executions before he had to stop: “I was just working in the shop and all of a sudden something just triggered in me and I started shaking. And then I walked back into the house and my wife asked ‘What’s the matter?’ and I said ‘I don’t feel good.’ And tears — uncontrollable tears – was [sic] coming out of my eyes. And she said ‘What’s the matter?’ And I said ‘I just thought about that execution that I did two days ago, and everybody else’s that I was involved with.’ And what it was, was something triggered within and it just – everybody — all of these executions all of a sudden all sprung forward.”

Their reactions are powerful, and yet these are reactions to the executions of guilty men – men convicted of horrendous crimes like murder and rape. It’s interesting that, even so, the witnesses don’t walk away unmoved, or smug, or feeling the slightest bit good about anything.

On Good Friday, we purposely place ourselves in a strange and uncomfortable place — in front of an execution, as it were – as we recall the Crucifixion. “Behold, the wood of the Cross,” the liturgy says. We just set it there – simply to “behold” it – to consider it and ponder it, not as an idea or a theological concept, but as an historical fact. Even though we may choose to see it primarily in devotional terms, it is difficult to avoid the fact that it happened, that this is a real event that we reflect on and pray about today. Our religion is not rooted primarily in myths about paradise or power, but in a moment of history we call Good Friday. Our religion is rooted in a moment of sacrifice, and a profound and total act of faith. The simple fact we honour today is that the death of Jesus is the most significant death in history.

“And there they crucified him.” All the Gospels say much the same thing – simple, very restrained statements of fact. No explanation was needed, apparently, because such executions were commonplace and no doubt the details of Jesus’ execution were well known to early Christians. Unlike the modern executions witnessed by the people I named, the execution of Jesus was not intended to be quick and painless, or to be in any measure “humane” (if any execution could be called humane). Crucifixion was intended to be a slow, lingering, excruciating and humiliating death – an intimidating act aimed at others who might think about stepping out of line, a brutal demonstration of power and domination that showed how terrible the consequences could be. It should strike us at a visceral level – in the gut. If that kind of thing no longer has an impact, as it apparently didn’t for the hardened soldiers and rabble who surrounded Jesus during his final hours, then we are in serious trouble. Moments like this make biblical concepts of human sinfulness very plausible.

Through Holy Week this year, details from the Gospel accounts jumped out at me, things you might skip over because the Gospels don’t dwell on it, but also because it’s painful stuff to stop and consider. It says several times that the soldiers “struck him.” I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced being struck by a fist – the fist of someone who knows how to hit and wants to do you harm. It’s not a pleasant experience! The sound of it alone is sickening.

The fact that Jesus was just left to the mercy of a bunch of soldiers, who would have seen him as a criminal, a terrorist, a lunatic, someone who was a threat – you can bet he got very rough treatment. Soldiers today, who tend to be under much more scrutiny and restraint, still perpetrate terrible atrocities upon prisoners – mental, physical and sexual abuses – torture – humiliation. We continue to hear terrible stories of mental and physical torture carried out by soldiers of all kinds (including our own).

The rough treatment of the soldiers echoes for me in other acts of violence today – the oppression of the poor, the abuse of the weak, family violence, gang wars – because whenever we condone violence or worse, celebrate it, it quickly becomes the primary means of dealing with situations because it’s the easiest, and “might makes right” is no way to create a civil and good society.

Those who have a certain reverence for the person of Jesus, and can imagine what it must be like to have a great spiritual leader paraded out, falsely accused and condemned, and exposed to the ridicule and abuse of the mob, find it deeply offensive and painful that Jesus was spat upon.

I was at a zoo many years ago, when I was about 13, and I saw a group of juvenile delinquents (15-16 yr olds) spitting at a Great Horned Owl – they had managed to literally cover the beautiful bird with saliva. As a bird lover, I was horrified, but there were five of them and I was alone, so to my shame I did nothing. Was the scene at the trial of Jesus fundamentally any different?

Imagine revered figures like the Dalai Lama or Martin Luther King or treated that way by the authorities and by the crowd! But then realize that this sort of humiliation continues to happen, as it did happen, to the famous theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum, to Nelson Mandela, and many others. When we think of the spitting, does it represent the rejection of God? Is it painful for us to consider that there are many who spit in the face of even the most profound and good and peaceful people? It should be! I like to think that awareness should be a kind of catalyst.

It says Pilate had Jesus “flogged,” and the word can pass by like a car on the highway, virtually unnoticed, but this year it struck me forcefully. The word “scourging” better suggests the process that left a person so brutalized he or she might have wished for death. The Romans used a kind of whip that had barbs and lead weights at the end of the leather thongs, so it had a clubbing and ripping effect when it hit. It became customary for a person to be struck 39 times – some weird sense of fairness – but apparently Roman soldiers were allowed to decide when the person had had enough. In this case they were flogging someone condemned to death anyway, so you might imagine the soldiers had a bit of fun with it.

Another detail: the wine that was offered Jesus in an attempt to wet his lips and revive him a bit so he might be able to speak. Were the spectators drinking? Had these people gone there on a kind of picnic? Were the executions of their own people – their fellow citizens – simply considered as acts of entertainment? Then I consider TV reality shows like Survivor, Fear Factor, Jerry Springer, where people humiliate and even injure each other, and compromise their values and ethics – for money, for a few moments of fame — while the audience becomes a screaming mob egging them on, and I think, yes, that is probably what was happening at the Crucifixion. But what happens to the souls of people who allow themselves to get to such a point of callousness and indifference, to the point where a dying man’s last moments are treated as a kind of joke?

Another detail: they stripped him of his garments and cast lots for his clothing. Few of us care to re-visit moments of our own humiliation. The naked figure hanging on the cross is our worst nightmare. To be singled out, exposed, bullied and abused – to be deprived of justice, abandoned by friends, to have our life ended by execution – is a mental place we naturally prefer to avoid. What Jesus faced and suffered was horrific. The normal reaction is revulsion, horror, shock, which is what we see in those prison officials obliged to attend at the executions of criminals. Their reactions make the taunting, the ridicule of Jesus, seem even more grotesque. No wonder people don’t want to spend time reflecting on what the Cross means!

Why expose ourselves to this horror? Why remind ourselves of the dark side? Why not entirely shift the focus to the success side of the story?

We have to re-visit it so that we don’t ever forget the victims; so we don’t avert our eyes and pretend there is no violence or prejudice or poverty, or just walk away when we feel helpless or outnumbered. It’s important so we persist in recognizing that there are injustices and that we need to find our voice and stand against them, and not just allow the darkness to take over. Maybe when we can face our fears, we are less likely to be driven by them.

We keep the Cross as part of our spiritual life so we remember the importance of providing young people with adequate ethics, values and vision in their social, educational, and spiritual development and acknowledge what can happen when we fail to do so.

We sit (or kneel) before the Cross because it’s a painful yet necessary reminder about human fickleness and how quickly we ourselves turn on people when they inconvenience us, or challenge our ways of thinking, or simply are different. I would echo John’s famous statement, “If we think we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and devoid of the truth.”

The Cross is important because it reminds us that life is not just about success and being in the winner’s circle: so we see the significance of struggle and suffering, and the value of moving through the Cross rather than denying it or avoiding it altogether; so we appreciate the cost of things, and stir ourselves to make our own contribution to the greater good rather than living in the wake of others’ greatness.

Today it is about Passion – passion in its most powerful sense, of being motivated to the point of suffering and even death for something you believe in, something that’s crucial to you. Chicago mega-church pastor Bill Hybels asks: “What ‘wrecks’ you”? What is it that bothers you, disturbs you, troubles you to tears or rage, because for him that is a sign that you’re being prodded by God to act on it — that’s your passion! We need to pay attention to those things, because stifling them results in no good in the world, and it’s certainly not good for us either!

Today is a powerful dose of reality for Christians, a painful and sometimes embarrassing reminder that church is not an adult version of “Mr. Dress Up” – not a place where we make a bunch of safe, token gestures that go no further than the church door. It’s a reminder that our job as Christians is to turn the world upside down – not to create what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “a spiritual sanatorium.”

Good Friday is for me a reminder which says: Get serious! It was a phrase we used as kids when we were trying to tell someone to get real – to stop joking around or being a fool. Many prefer to avoid facing the Cross. Like the person who tells jokes at a funeral, they do so because something this hard to face is just easier to deny, and it takes courage and toughness to face into it instead of skipping over or around it. Good Friday is not for triflers or the immature.

In the modern era, we liked to delude ourselves into thinking that we were advanced, sophisticated, superior to people of previous eras, that this kind of thing was barbaric and could never happen in our time. Yet the 20th Century was the most violent century in recorded history! My hope is that the 21st Century will be different. My fear is that the 21st Century HAS to be different!

We may be an “Easter people,” and maybe the hard labour has already been accomplished, but it begins here, on the path that leads to the Cross, and I believe it’s a part of the path that we largely avoid, by taking a “Jesus did it for me” kind of approach, rather than seeing the redeeming value in “doing the work” of integrating darkness and light, death and life.

We remember and even revere the Cross and continue to observe Lent and Good Friday, because it’s a story that has the power to inspire. It is the almost unbelievable story of how one man stood up against tyranny and injustice – against entire institutions and even against a whole society (you might say he stood up against the evils of humankind in general, but that’s a statement of faith). His story teaches us about the good that comes from making that sacrifice, going that extra mile, doing what we know in our hearts to be the right thing, regardless of the risk and the cost.

Obviously, I’m somewhat “old school” about Good Friday. For me, this is a contemplative day, a day when there is a lot to ponder and pray about. It has often been a day of fasting, as people made the effort to come alongside Jesus in his deprivation and suffering, as an attempt to stand in solidarity not only with him but with all victimized and oppressed and poor people of the world. It is a day for contemplation and deep reflection, and one of the things we may reflect on today is what life would be like without Christ, because it is the world’s callous rejection of all that he represents that is before us today. For me, the prospect of a world devoid of Christ is almost impossible to imagine.

We persist in observing Lent, in walking the way of the Cross, and in honouring Good Friday so that we have an opportunity to wonder about the Passion and to allow the difficult questions to continue to come to the surface in a creative way. I think is important to continue to ask: Why did Jesus do that? Why did he make that choice?

“Behold the wood of the Cross.” When you see that innocent lone figure suspended there, what do you think of? What does the Cross mean to you?