April 15, 2022
I have a keen sense of the powerful emotions that are roiling through me today. Good Friday is always a day full of emotions—of grief and sadness, shame. As we listen to John’s passion gospel with its extreme anti-Judaism, we may be reminded of all the ways that text, and Christian devotion and theology surrounding the crucifixion, have fueled anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in the church and in wider culture. The weight of that history always burdens me on this day, as I seek to lead a community of Christians into reflection on Christ’s suffering and death.
But this year there are other emotions—the reality that we gather in this place on this day for the first time since 2019. We carry with us the trauma of those years: pandemic leaving millions dead and millions more permanently affected; an insurrection that used and continues to use the imagery of Good Friday, the cross and Jesus Christ in the service of autocracy, white nationalism and white supremacy; and now a war in Ukraine that has killed thousands, forced millions from their homes. It too is perpetrated in part on behalf of so-called Christian values.
With all of these emotions and thoughts running through our heads, it is difficult to find the space, the silence to reflect on the meaning of this day. Perhaps that’s as it should be. Our pain, grief, fear, anger, and trauma have brought us to this place, to the foot of the cross, and to Christ’s arms, outstretched in love.
It may seem somewhat surprising that the gospels have little to say about the emotions of those who were closest to Jesus, as they watched the events of his last days unfold. There are hints of what they might have been feeling; certainly fear, perhaps bewilderment as they tried to make sense of what was happening, the dashing of their hopes for a restored Israel and divine intervention against the Roman Empire. Luke mentions the disciples’ grief on at least one occasion, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Luke writes that Peter, James, and John fell asleep “because of grief” while Jesus prayed.
There’s a passage that struck me this year during the reading of Luke’s passion narrative this past Sunday. Luke is describing Jesus’ walk to Calvary and in 23:27 writes that:
A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. Then Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.
It’s one of those details that may be familiar and well-known, it is one of the stations in the traditional stations of the cross, for example. But it’s a detail that can take on new significance or meaning in a different context.
Weeping women. I’ve also been reflecting on the traditional medieval hymn, the stabat mater. A baroque setting of that hymn by Pergolesi is featured in the concerts performed by Madison Bach Musicians this week, tonight, here at Grace. The Stabat Mater reflects on the emotions of Mary, Jesus’ mother as she witnesses the crucifixion of her son.
It’s a bit curious that John gives a prominent role to Jesus’ mother at the crucifixion because she’s mentioned only one other time in the gospel, at the very first miracle of Jesus, the turning of water into wine at the Wedding at Cana. Surprisingly, Jesus addresses her in the same way both times, calling her “Woman.” In fact, nowhere in the gospel of John is she mentioned by name.
Only John writes that Mary and the Beloved Disciple were at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion. In the synoptic gospels, the disciples abandon Jesus after his arrest and we’re told by Mark that the women disciples who had followed Jesus from Galilee looked on the crucifixion from afar.
John’s version has become the dominant version in the Christian tradition. Countless visual images, paintings especially, show Mary and the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the cross. In medieval churches, carved statues of the crucified Christ flanked by Mary and John were often prominently displayed atop the rood screen. And the Stabat Mater, helped to focus devotional attention on Mary’s grief and suffering as she watched her son die and asks that we share in that grief and suffering:
O thou Mother! fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
Make my heart with thine accord:
Make me feel as thou hast felt;
Make my soul to glow and melt
With the love of Christ my Lord.
Such sentiments may seem somewhat alien to us in the twenty-first century, but it is the case that much of what we do on this day, our prayers and hymns try to connect Christ’s suffering with our own and are meant to elicit even deeper emotions from us than we might have been feeling otherwise.
But perhaps instead of intensifying our emotions it might be better for us simply to name them: to name our fear, grief, despair. As we do that, we might also name the emotions that Mary and Jesus’ other disciples were feeling, and the emotions that so many humans across the globe are feeling. We may be particularly affected by them on this day as we contemplate Christ’s suffering and death and we may find it difficult to acknowledge, to process all of them.
The scene of Christ crucified, his mother and the beloved disciple at his side, is not just about his suffering and ours. It is, above all, about love, the love that brought him among us, the love that brought him to this place of execution, the love that draws the whole world to himself. It is a love that was not just present then and there, but is present with us, among us, in our suffering, as he suffers beside us and with us.
It is also a love that binds us to him and to each other. From the cross, Jesus said to his Mother, “Woman, here is your son” and to the Beloved Disciple, he said, “Here is your mother.” At the cross, Jesus was creating new relationships, new community among his followers. Even as his body was being broken, he was knitting together a new body, the body of Christ.
That may be the most important and profound message for us on this Good Friday, when we have felt the pain of isolation and separation so intensely for so long, when we have struggled to gather as the body of Christ, the community of the faithful. We are bound together by Christ’s love. His outstretched arms embrace us and invite us to embrace each other. May the cross be a place where we experience Christ’s all-embracing love and may it empower us to embrace the world with that same love.