It comes as a jaw-dropping surprise to many people that I even go to church, let alone play the piano for mine. (It must be the frequent f-bombs, which I really am trying to curb.) My church is Memorial Christian in Ann Arbor, and it’s about to close down; we just don’t have enough people to keep it going.
In preparing for what will be my last Good Friday there, I’m struck, once again, by the beauty of the two main stories that frame the Christian faith: the birth and death of Jesus. The events are so simple, right from the very beginning. A poor woman living in an occupied country gives birth to a baby in a stable; as the great pastor and teacher at my church, Dr. Irvin Green, points out, it’s not that there was no room at the inn, it’s that there was no room for them. Those two words make the difference. Who hasn’t been barred from a place because there was no room for her, even as there was plenty of room for everyone else?
In fact, loneliness and rejection carry throughout the gospel narratives. Jesus’ life is marked not only by those emotions, but by sadness, exhaustion, and a sturdy work ethic. The accumulated portraits also show a man with spectacular critical thinking and communication skills, a sense of humor, but most of all, extraordinary compassion. He treats fishermen, tax collectors, women, children, and foreigners with grace and dignity. He sticks it to The Man frequently, The Man in this case being the Pharisees, who frankly sound like they could use some stickin’. John Cleese said in an interview about The Life of Brian that the real Christ must have been so light and flexible; certainly, the writers paint a person of rare alacrity and resourcefulness.
Unlike Mel Gibson’s torture manifesto, The Smashin’ of the Christ (I refuse to see it because I don’t need to let that lunatic into my head), the passion narrative is not sensational or spectacular. It’s the record of a tragedy, and, except for the folks who knew the man, was not a particularly red letter event. Executions and torture took place every single day in the Roman Empire, and of course had before its existence, and continue with no end in sight. The seven last sayings of Christ, around which many a Good Friday message is based, are not screams of agony. They are powerful because of their simplicity, because they are naked and raw. All are short, gasped out by a man stretched beyond the limits of endurance; crucifixion and excruciating have, after all, the same root. In them is distilled the entire human condition: thirst, despair, resignation, but also hope, forgiveness, and love. Like everyone else, Jesus died as he lived.
After the death, the world screams in protest. The sky turns black. The curtain separating God from the people in the Holy of Holies rips from top to bottom, an extraordinary image. It’s the one place in the gospels (as well as the later Christian writings) where the God of Israel, so poetically described and powerfully realized in the Jewish Bible, shows his face, and it is as majestic and awful, in the true sense of the word, as anything in Genesis or Isaiah.
And then comes Saturday. I always imagine it very still, Emily Dickenson’s hour of lead. The Easter story in the Bible is exceptionally quiet – “Tell no one” says the risen Christ to the first person he sees, Mary Magdalene. But by Sunday, all bets are off, and it’s a raucous, even hilarious day in churches, with bells ringing like crazy, loud sopranos, and what appear to be mandatory hunts for candy. Easter Sunday has, in my mind, become conflated with eggs, bonnets, Fifth Avenue, and the bizarre phenomenon known as Peeps, which really should have stayed yellow.
So, in a statement that may be weirdly sacrilegious, Good Friday remains my favorite.
In the icy dark, a glimmer of light is much more beautiful. A man in inhuman pain uses some of his last breath to comfort his friend, his mother, and a stranger. That is, at once, true humanity and God with us. Grace, not belief, is what matters.