As a fourth grader, during my first penance, I confessed: “I think that Good Friday should be called Bad Friday because Jesus dies.” Since that time, I’ve come to love Good Friday, especially the 3-plus hour Mass that I attend each year with my three less-enthusiastic children. I appreciate the earthy focus on death and suffering, and the somber physicality of kissing the cross, which at first is an uncomfortable gesture in a world more wedded to virtuality.
This morning, I read an excellent blog post asking us to re-imagine the spectacle of Good Friday. The author, Kathryn House, writes: “I suppose if I am anywhere on the topic, I am just no longer sure that Jesus paid a debt he did not owe because I owe a debt I cannot pay. I am unconvinced that suffering redeems, that blood atones, that the death of a son – of anyone’s daughter or son – brings satisfaction.” She also notes that Good Friday has traditionally been a rejection of the flesh through suffering. And, this is certainly a dangerous narrative, especially for women who have been punished for millennia precisely for the presence of their bodies and encouraged to see suffering as atonement for their human existence.
The blogger asks us to reconsider the words of Jesus on the cross, when he encourages his mother (“Woman, behold your son”) and his friend to behold each other, and to see these words as a reclamation of the flesh and the physicality of human connection in the face of suffering. Such a beautiful thought!
Late last week, I caught a glimpse of the much-talked-about show The Bible on The History Channel. I grew up, of course, watching the Ten Commandments and Jesus of Nazareth on network television each year around Easter time, so I was intrigued by this newer version. The show infamously has a Satan character who looks like an older and wrinkly version of President Obama. While the show creators have rejected this notion, portraying Satan as a black man in a mostly white cast is certainly offensive enough.
In the show, after the Last Supper, we see Satan – hooded and black — lurking around the streets of Jerusalem. This image struck me for several reasons, somewhat for its Trayvon Martin imagery. But, I also realized that I have never considered that Satan was present or part of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Theologically, as a child, I always viewed this story of the Passion of Christ as a fulfillment of prophesy.
Even more than this prophetic explanation, I have really viewed this as a story of power and an explication of how power is constructed. The Sanhedrin crucified Jesus to protect and project the small amount of power they did have within the Roman-ruled kingdom. The story is full of moments of Jewish high priests begging Pilate to kill Jesus. What an illustration of how power runs through hierarchy and is used to reify the hierarchal structure!
I have a good friend who says that most of the Catholic world lives in a Good Friday reality. She also says that in the U.S., we are hung up on Palm Sunday, which is a celebration that is ignorant of the impending doom. I think that in many ways, we in America are more oriented to the Easter story; it fits our notions of meritocracy and exceptionalism. Think of those “No Pain, No Gain” t-shirts depicting Christ’s suffering as a ticket, a stepping stone to the good stuff we deserve.
I agree with my friend, so much of the world lives in a world of suffering and pain for no other reason than the power structure uses people’s lives to reinforce their power. And, within this unjustifiable imposition of power and suffering, it is affirming, like Kathryn House writes, to heed Jesus’ encouragement for us to behold each other in all of our fleshy earthliness.