One of my rituals since I’ve come to Grace is to spend most of the morning on Good Friday in the empty nave of Grace Church. On this day, it is completely devoid of decoration. On Maundy Thursday, we strip the altar and the chancel bare—removing all of the paraments, candles, prayer books and hymnals. The Christus Rex that hangs from arch in the chancel is veiled in black. It’s a time for me to reflect on the day, to prepare for the drama and power of the Good Friday liturgy, to pray for myself, for our congregation and city, and for the world. It’s a time of silence, when I leave behind all of the tasks related to Holy Week worship for a few hours, set aside all of the stress and anxiety, and focus on the cross, on Christ’s great gift of love.
Of course, this year is different. The church is empty as it always is on Good Friday morning, but it has been empty for over a month, and it will remain empty for some time to come. Our Good Friday liturgy is live-streamed from my home, unaccompanied by music.
Our observances of Holy Week this year are marked not by the usual rituals and gatherings, marked not by the great hymns of the Christian tradition. Instead, our worship takes place in atmosphere of fear, anxiety, and suffering. The loneliness of our isolation is deepened when we hear the voices of friends and loved ones over the phone or see them via zoom or facetime. We are made aware daily of the suffering in the world caused by COVID-19, and all the ways in which the virus exposes the inequities and dysfunction of our society and world.
In the midst of all of this, our anxiety and fear, our loneliness and isolation, we gather virtually to remember the events of this day that occurred almost two thousand years ago. We pause in the midst of our own struggles, pain, and helplessness to remember the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
His crucifixion, a bloody, horrific death, often called “execution by torture” because the way that crucifixion caused death-by asphyxiation, often a process that could take days, was reserved by Romans for the most notorious of criminals, revolutionaries, rebellious slaves, and the like. It was public, meant as a warning to passers-by of the fate that awaited them if they challenged Rome’s power.
It’s a death that’s alien to us, even if we are familiar with its images. The sort of suffering it causes is known to us only through artistic images or Hollywood movies.
In spite of that, the crucifixion has often been interpreted as connecting Christ’s sufferings with our own, or with the suffering of humanity. One of the most powerful and most famous artistic representations of the crucifixion is that of the 16th century painter Matthias Gruenewald, whose Isenheim altarpiece depicts Christ’s suffering in visual detail, his body riddled with sores, and bleeding. Painted for a hospital for victims of the plague, the sores on Christ’s body looked very much like the sores a plague victim might have, and so, by the patients could find solace and comfort from the suffering that Christ shared with them.
Today, this Good Friday, perhaps that is the only message that we need to hear. Perhaps that is the message of the cross, of Jesus’ suffering and death. That in the cross, we see Christ suffering, but that he is suffering not for himself alone but for us. In the cross, we see Christ suffering with us.
Whatever our pain, whether it is the loss of our jobs, worry about the immediate or more distant future. Whether it is our own illness, the illness or suffering of a friend or loved one, whom we cannot support or accompany right now; whether it’s the death of a loved one, or a friend’s grief at the death of their loved one. Whatever it may be, whatever suffering we might be experiencing right now, Jesus is here with us, suffering with us, taking our pain on as his own.
We are in a dark and difficult place right now, but Jesus is here with us. In the cross, he takes on our suffering; he has taken on the world’s suffering. His great love will carry us through. Even in the death and darkness of Good Friday, and in the silence of the tomb that marks Holy Saturday, Jesus’ love bears our pain and heals our suffering souls. May Jesus’ love break through our isolation, our fear, our pain, fill our hearts, and transform our lives.