Good Friday, 6 April
Elizabeth J. Welch, Pastoral Associate
I see the cross as a symbol of God’s eternal love and of our calling to love as Jesus loved. For me, the cross represents the refusal to bow to the evils of domination, violence and oppression, the faith that even in the midst of these evils, the God of Love is with us to the end. Christians all across the world use the cross to represent the heart of our faith, and thus I would like to believe that all people, in seeing the cross on the doors of our churches and above our altars and around our necks, see the cross as a symbol of submission to God’s love and commitment to justice in the name of God’s love. But I wonder? If all the people of the world were asked to describe what they think of when they see a cross or a crucifix, what would they say?
After all, the cross in the form of the Chi-Rho has adorned the shields of crusading warriors furthering the reaches of oppressive empire, has burned with flames of hatred in front of the homes and churches of black Americans, and has decorated the Bibles of Christian pastors who, long before the concentration camps and mass graves, systematically re-interpreted scripture to strip Jesus of his Jewishness and present him as Aryan.
For some the cross represents selfless love, the mystery of God’s grace, and the possibility of new life beyond death’s gates. For others the cross represents forced conversions, violent oppression and the denigration of non-Western cultural practices and values.
The cross is a symbol weighed down by its own history. At times the cross has been a symbol used to call for the release of all people from injustice and violence, at other times the cross has been a symbol used to oppress and dehumanize. And thus, we who strive to be bearers of the cross must bear the heaviness of its real history, not just the feather-light weight of an ideal.
And when we gather year after year to hear again the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, we must hear not just the words on the page; we must also hear the uses these words have been put to – in particular, John’s use of the phrase “the Jews” has at times been a weapon in the service of hatred.
John’s use of the term “the Jews” is complicated. Who exactly is John referring to? If he’s speaking of some particular group of Jewish people, why does he use this blanket term? How would listeners in John’s time have understood this phrase? There is significant scholarly debate regarding whether John’s Gospel is anti-Jewish and if it is what that even means given the vastly different ways we now understand religious and cultural identifications. We can never fully understand the original meaning or intent in John’s use of the phrase “the Jews” – our cultural and religious distance from that time is simply too great. We can be clear on a few points – Jesus himself was always part of the Jewish community and always identified positively as a Jew, even though he may also have had gentile followers. Jesus was a Jewish teacher and leader who engaged actively in public conversation and debate within his Jewish community about the interpretation of Scripture and the particulars of religious practice. And finally we must acknowledge that John’s Gospel in numerous places employs stark language of us versus them, light verses dark, and good versus bad, and these words have been used to sow hatred – especially against our Jewish brothers and sisters.
In reading John’s gospel, I am reminded of how we humans like to reduce complex realities to clear categories; I am reminded of how seductive it is to see our perspective as right and others’ perspectives as wrong, how bewitching it is to view ourselves as righteous and others as evil. I am reminded of dangerous scripture is in the hands of those who either do not love it or do not seek to bring love from it.
One of the primary ways human beings have of justifying violence towards one another is by stripping individuals of their uniqueness and describing them by a group label – the Jews, the Muslims, the blacks, the illegals, the welfare moms, and then with words, images and silent complicity, we dehumanize that group until hatred and violence against them is widely accepted. Violence nearly always begins with the pen and the mouth, with the video and the internet, before it is realized in crucifixions and fists and bullets and bomb-carrying drones.
And so I come back to the cross, back to Jesus trudging the path to Golgotha forced to carry the instrument of his own torture and death. It is difficult to understand how this could have anything to do with love; it is difficult to understand how this could have anything to do with justice. For us as Christians, Jesus was not just a human being who gave up his life in an attempt to free others from oppression; he was and continues to be the Christ, God incarnate in a human body, a human person, a human soul. But it is not enough to conclude with a statement about Christian faith in the divinity of Jesus, for even this doctrine of incarnation, a radical expression of God’s love for humanity, has been used to destructive ends.
To understand the relation of Jesus’ crucifixion to the love of God we must experience the cross as both a mirror and a window – a mirror in which we see our own fear, our own loneliness our own distrust of the fullness of God’s love, a mirror in which we truly see the suffering of our neighbors, a hard surface against which we hear the echoes of their cries for help, upon which we hear the reverberations of our own words of fearful distrust or even hate: “no I cannot help you,” “we have to make a preemptive strike,” “they should just help themselves,” “they should just go back to their own country.” In the cross we must see how we are exactly like those we condemn, no more worthy of God’s love than those we label “enemy.”
But we must also experiences the cross as a window – an open window through which we feel God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy – we must feel their reality, the way fresh air rushes into a closed-off room when the window is suddenly thrown open. Saint Augustine addressed God saying, “You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though the only one in your care, and yet for all as for each individual.” If I truly believe that God can and does love me with total abandon, as if no other existed and loves all people in this same way, then I do not need to convince myself that I am somehow more deserving of God’s love than others nor do I need to lament that God does not have enough love for me In the mirror we see our need for God’s grace, through the open window we receive it.
We cannot have one image of the cross without the other. If we experience in the cross only a mirror in which we see our own or others’ sinfulness, then we are too apt to think redemption is found in seeking our own suffering or causing others to suffer. This is to worship a God of punishment. If we experience in the cross only a window open to God’s grace – we are too apt to distance ourselves from or own and others’ suffering – we easily convince ourselves that God’s love is something we’ve earned and others have not, we become easily convinced of our own righteousness and others’ sinfulness.
This night our souls bow or kneel before the cross, before the body and soul of Jesus, sagging and suffering from the heaviness of his flesh and the weight of his longing. We (look) at our souls to view the deep corners where we hide the resentments and hatreds of self and other, where we stow the desire to dominate and dehumanize others, where we file away the instances of turning away from our own and from others’ suffering. We listen for the echoes to find hard places in our hearts – the hard places that treat the message of God’s love for ourselves and for others as foolish, the hard fearful places built up against hope. But our souls also bow and kneel before the cross, before the body of Jesus as before an open window, inviting in God’s grace and love into the deep corners of our souls that we might be renewed, that we might remember the truth we have forgotten, the truth about how opening ourselves to the endless depth of God’s love enables us to pour love out without ever being emptied.
On this night especially we are reminded that we are to be bearers of the cross. But I have come to believe that I must study the cross I’m bearing – I must know its size and shape, its dimensions and its density, lest I nail things to it that I am not meant to carry, things that are contrary to the love of God. The only cross we are called to bear is the one that compels us to hand ourselves over the love of God again and again– and this handing ourselves over to the love of God is a form of submission –it is a submission we choose – but it is a submission nonetheless, for it is contrary to some parts of our human understanding. And so on this Good Friday the question I’ve come to ask myself is not, “am I carrying the cross?” but “Is the weight I’m carrying truly the weight of love or is something else?” And I think I’ve learned that sometimes I have to put the cross down and gaze and listen and wait to feel again the rush of God’s love coming in before I can sure that cross I’m carrying is really the cross of the love of God in Christ and not some other cross that needs to be laid down, like a shield laid down in the battlefield where we finally realize that we do not have to go on fighting.