Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion
I want to reflect today mostly on the Isaiah passage (Isaiah 52:13—53:12), not because the reading of the passion (John 18:1-19:42) isn’t intensely important, but because when it comes to Good Friday and the crucifixion, I think that meditation on the cross, and the liturgy of the day, speaks for itself. What more could I possibly say? If you have a chance at all to get to a Good Friday service, go.
But perhaps I can offer some words about the Old Testament reading from Isaiah that may help deepen our reflection on the cross. This passage is read each year on Good Friday, and it really is a "hinge passage" between the Old and New Testaments - meaning, it connects the two sections and demonstrates how much Christianity depends on its Jewish roots. The "Suffering Servant" of whom Isaiah speaks is mentioned three other times by the prophet. Jewish theologians interpret these passages as referring to the suffering of Israel, but Christians have readily connected the man Isaiah speaks about here with Jesus.
I think there are three themes in the passage that are helpful to reflect on this Good Friday. First, is the theme of the unexpected. As with many passages we have been reading throughout Lent, this passage notes the paradoxical, strange character of what God does for humanity. No matter what we expect and what we see as good - life, happiness, plenty of money, freedom, etc. - God always means something different and perhaps hard to hear. The Suffering Servant will "startle us" and be what we least expect. This servant is not whole and healthy but "spurned and avoided" to the point that no one thinks he is worth much as a person, to say nothing of being a "King" or "Son of God". And today, what is named "good" is even more mystifying, for today we encounter the suffering, torture and death of someone who does not deserve this at all.
And yet, this is the one God sends to bear OUR infirmities and causes us to reflect, secondly, on the nature of our own sins and infirmities. What are our sins? What are our disappointments, and the places in life where we feel we don't quite measure up. In reading this passage, we come to realize that the one we look down on looks the way he does because of US. And so we don't quite understand Jesus' sacrifice without some reflection on who we are and how we fail. The fact that his marred appearance is due to all of our sins is intensely important because otherwise, Jesus is not the final sacrifice, nor our hope. If he were not the final sacrifice, we would find ourselves at a loss for how to deal with the fact that despite our wishes, our lives are never perfect. We never have quite the life, happiness, wealth, freedom to do things, etc. that we want or think we need. The very fact that Jesus comes as an unexpected way past our sins and imperfections means that we ourselves must learn to see life, happiness, wealth, freedom in unexpected, startling ways - ways that our culture will not necessarily understand. Many people ask why Christians bother following laws about abstaining from meat or going to mass weekly and the like, when very often going to mass doesn't "make" us happy nor do we necessarily feel "free" when we fast on Good Friday. Part of the answer to that is that our culture's vision of what constitutes freedom and happiness is different than what Jesus offers.
But if we have a sense of the depth of our own sin, then we can get the truly amazing message offered in this passage: Jesus saves us; Jesus gives his life for us, as an offering for us. Moreover, it is ONLY because Jesus takes on our sins without protest - without responding to the authorities with violence as we might easily expect of someone wrongly accused - that we are saved and that God's will is done. The passage from Hebrews (4:14-16; 5:7-9) reinforces and echoes this passage: Jesus is thoroughly obedient and saves us from our sin because he is without sin and does not respond to the world in sinful ways, even though he is tested in the ways we are tested.
I always leave Holy Thursday and Good Friday services each year feeling a bit bereft. If the liturgy is really done well, I feel much like I do when someone close to me dies, and that enables me to reflect on the enormity of what Jesus did for us, freely, on the cross, and how it was an action so different from that of the two thieves who hung with him, or from the crucifixions of the thousands of others who died under Roman rule. So though Good Friday is an appropriate day to feel bereft, it is also an appropriate day to feel engulfed by the Good that is larger than us - the whole reason this is Good Friday. This enormous act of love is FOR us, but it is so easy for that message to get lost in the hurry to Easter. Today is opportunity to really look at the cross, at Him.
- Jana M. Bennett