A photo from the aftermath of Tuesday’s bombings in Brussels moved me deeply. Two women were sitting on the ground, their backs leaning against a building. One woman was on her cellphone. The other was dazed, her legs splayed, her clothes in tatters. She seemed to be in shock, robbed of her dignity and humanity, utterly vulnerable. In her body, weak, frightened, vulnerable, I was reminded of Christ’s body, stretched out on the cross.
By now, we should have built up emotional defenses against the images of suffering and pain that fill the airwaves in the wake of such attacks. And in some respects we have. We take little note when bombs are set off in Lebanon, or Turkey, or cities of Africa, as happened last week. But when it happens in Western Europe, or the US, the attacks and the suffering still matter to us.
By now, we should be accustomed to the spiral of venomous rhetoric that occurs after such attacks. Beginning last fall, there were calls to ban Muslim immigration to the US, or to deport all Muslims. This week, presidential candidates called for patrolling and making secure “muslim neighborhoods” in the US, whatever that term might mean, and for torture and waterboarding. We are afraid, deeply afraid, and our visceral reactions are to lash out in anger, hatred, and violence, against our enemies and against those we perceive to be our enemies.
All this takes place in a week when Christians remember and re-enact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and today, Good Friday, is the emotional nadir of our commemoration as we gather at noon, when John’s gospel tells us that Jesus was crucified, to remember and reflect on the events that led to his death. To remember the events of that Friday in the context of our own violent, fearful, and angry world is itself fraught with danger.
Fraught with danger because of our own emotional response to this day, this text, the drama and power of the liturgy, the bleak austerity of our space. Fraught with danger, too, because of the violence and hatred in the text itself. We cannot close our eyes to the anti-Judaism of John’s gospel, his demonization of Judas, his portrayal of the blood-thirsty religious elites. It is a portrayal that has had pernicious and evil consequences throughout the history of Christianity, contributing to riots, pogroms, especially in Holy Week, and of course, to the Holocaust. But that anti-Judaism is not a historical relic. It persists. Only a couple of weeks ago, students at a Catholic high school in suburban Boston chanted “you killed Jesus” at fans of another high school, with a large Jewish population, at a basketball game. On this day, we must also confess and lament all of the ways the church we hold dear has instigated, been complicit or participated in hatred and violence throughout the centuries.
All of this must be in our hearts and minds today: our political and cultural context, the terrible legacy and present tragedy of religious violence and hatred, as well as our own personal brokenness, the brokenness of our relationships with others and with God.
We look back at these events in Holy Week so long ago, the betrayal, arrest, and execution of a Galilean preacher and rabble-rouser. We remember him, even though he was only one of thousands that the Roman Empire crucified in its history, one death at the hands of imperium. In somewhat the same way, we mourn the deaths by bombing in Brussels, or Paris, or San Bernardino, and overlook the hundreds and thousands of others killed in bombings in Turkey, or Yemen, or Nigeria. And we’re even less likely to notice, and certainly not to draw parallels, with the deaths by drone strike of hundreds in Somalia.
We have learned that some lives matter more than others; some deaths matter more than others. So the questions become: Why does this death matter above all others? What does this death say about all of those other deaths, about our reactions to those deaths, and about our complicity in violence and in creating the conditions for violence?
Hard questions on a difficult day. Hard, too, because the liturgy, devotions, and tradition surrounding this day focus on our individual experience and our individual standing before God’s throne of judgment. Seeing Christ’s suffering and death, we think about our own sins, our participation and responsibility in a world and system that executed him. We think about our guild, and need for repentance. We ponder and pray for God’s gracious mercy and forgiveness.
As we meditate on all of this, I invite you to reflect on something else. Today is March 25. It is the feast of the Annunciation, when the church celebrates Mary’s yes to Gabriel and the conception of Jesus Christ. In the west, we delay our observance of this feast until the week after Easter, but today, when Good Friday falls on March 25, it may be meaningful to draw a connection between Christ’s birth and death. A text from early Christianity says this about March 25: “Our Lord was crucified, and conceived, and the world was made.”
In the cross, we see a new world coming into being, being born. It is God’s kingdom, God’s reign, the beginning of a new age. This new beginning, this new age, is signaled by Jesus’ last words from the cross in John, “It is finished.” Not in the sense of being over and done, but in the sense of being completed. His words bring to full circle and renew God’s work of creation, recapitulating the text of Genesis, On the 7th day, “God finished the work that he had done and he rested.”
In the cross, on this day, we see God’s creative and redemptive power at work. In the cross, on this day, we see the birth of a new age, the beginning of God’s reign. In the love that brought Jesus into the world, in the love that he offered to his friends, in the love that he showed when he stretched his arms on the hard wood of the cross, we see signs of this new kingdom.
The signs of that new kingdom may not be particularly comforting, for they are not the trappings of power, wealth, and violence. They are signs rather of vulnerability and love. We see signs of the new kingdom in the “yes” of a first-century Palestinian peasant girl, and of a crucified Christ. We see signs of that new kingdom in the body of Christ, the community of the beloved, sharing and spreading that love in the world, being that love in the world. Christ’s broken body brings the body of the new community, the new kingdom into being, knits it together in and through love. Christ’s broken body heals us, knits together our brokenness, and even in the vulnerability of our weakness, gives us the power to love.
As we remember, and reflect on, the death of Christ, let us experience the healing love of his embrace. Let us see the signs of the new creation of God’s kingdom, a kingdom of redemptive, forgiving, creative, and vulnerable love. Let us be that kingdom. Let us be that love.