When we make our way to the foot of the cross, to that lonely hill outside of Jerusalem, our sense and reason often fail. This holy and sacred day always inspires deep questions among those of us who follow after Jesus. Foremost among them is “why?” Why did the worst elements of our humanity drive Jesus to the shameful death of a criminal? Why would a loving God have his Son die in order to save humanity? Good Friday is a day that seems to inspire many, many questions, but few answers. The cross is, it seems, truly scandal.
We face two dueling temptations every Good Friday, and we have faced them over and over again throughout the centuries. The first temptation is to lash out in anger and revenge, seeking out those who we believe to be responsible for Jesus’ death on the cross. But to do so is always to set up a straw man to receive our own guilt, rather than face the fickleness and brokenness that lies in the depths of our own humanity. And, as often happened throughout history and still continues to this day, such an inclination only creates more hatred and more violence. This is not where we are called to dwell on this day. And this inclination misses a larger truth: that the story of the cross is not simply about the process that led to Jesus’ death – but about the glory of God.
The second temptation is to impute all guilt to ourselves, and plumb the depth of our own souls in guilt. We recall our own sinfulness, our own brokenness, our own violence. To look inward is a far more noble response than to lash out in violence against our neighbors. And to be sure, as humans – imperfect, and sinful – we can always see outright signs – of the fear, hatred, and anger that we hear echoed in John’s passion today as Jesus moves toward the cross. But this, too, is not where we are called to dwell on this day, for the story of the cross, is not simply about the process that led to Jesus’ death – but the Glory of God.
The cross is the Glory of God, and Jesus’ ultimate glorification. “The message about the cross,” Paul writes, “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The cross is not Jesus’ shame, but his glory. The cross is not Jesus’ weakness, but his power. The cross is not Jesus’ defeat, but his victory. In John’s passion, Jesus is fully in control as he moves toward the cross. In the garden, Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword and orders Peter to allow him be taken away by soldiers. He stands in silence in front of Pilate knowing that death lay before him. And even from the cross itself, Jesus’ life does not end with a loud cry, but in three quiet words: “It is finished.”
With those last words, we hear a Jesus has truly seen all of our humanity. He has seen humanity its best: the love of an official for his sick son who begs for Jesus to heal him, his disciples who have tried to follow after him as best they could, of Mary and Martha weeping at the loss of their brother Lazarus. And he has seen humanity at its worst on his way to the cross: our rage, spite, jealousy, mistrust, and fear. And finally, at the cross, Jesus, the Word made Flesh, encounters that last defining element of our humanity – our mortality. And in the face of death, he radiates love. As he is lifted high on the cross, Jesus draws all people to himself.
This truly is the foolishness and the power of God, that Jesus, the word made flesh, should face what the theologian Frederick Buechner called the ‘magnificent defeat’ – where Jesus’ wounds are “the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.” It is the foolishness and the power of God that Jesus, the Word Incarnate, should meet us here as we are, even though were we are is already place of death and shame, a place where, if we would have our way, we would never allow God to come and meet us. Yet God comes there anyway. At the cross, the place where we think we are sure to keep God far away from us, God shows true glory, meets us, and raises us to a new life of grace.
And so as we look to the cross on this day, even as we see death, we receive the stuff life itself. Even as we see our own hatred and evil, we see the love of God expressed in its fullest measure. We look at the cross, and we see God incarnate, God fully with us, God fully for us. And our response can be simply to adore. Here we glory in the Cross, by which joy has come into the world. We sit, we adore, in wonder and in awe of the embrace of Jesus’ arms of love, stretched out for our lives, and for the life of the world.