Death on a Friday Afternoon
In the weeks leading up to this Easter, the events of the first Good Friday have been discussed and analyzed in a way that I can’t recall in my lifetime. Thanks to “The Passion of the Christ,” and the controversy surrounding the film, millions of Americans have come face-to-face with the paradoxes that are at the heart of Christianity.
These paradoxes are the subject of Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus by Father Richard John Neuhaus.
A paradox, as G.K. Chesterton famously put it, is “Truth standing on her head to get attention.” Our aversion and resistance to the truth is so strong that God often finds it necessary to employ extreme measures to get us to see past the lies we’ve embraced.
Never was this more true than on what Christians call “Good Friday.” As Neuhaus writes, “If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything.” “Everything that is and ever was and ever will be, the macro and the micro, the galaxies beyond number and the microbes beyond notice—everything is mysteriously entangled with what happened . . .”
An essential part of “what happened,” of the “everything” was telling the truth about the human condition. How? By punishing the offended, instead of the guilty, party.
As Neuhaus tells us, we are all aware that “something has gone terribly wrong with the world, and with us in the world.” It’s not just history’s well-known list of horribles: “from concentration camps, to the tortured deaths of innocent children.” It’s also the “everyday forms of the habits of compromise, of loves betrayed, of lies excused, of dreams deferred until they die.” We all know that “Something very bad has happened.”
Yet, instead of acknowledging our complicity in the world’s evil, we minimize our own faults and regard our sins as “small.” Good Friday puts the lie to that claim. If the Son of God had to suffer such a horrible death, then our sins cannot have been “small.”
The Cross reminds us that “our lives are measured,” not by us or our peers, but “by whom we are created and called to be, and the measuring is done by the One who creates and calls.” Instead of glossing over our sin with an understanding nod, the cross renders “the verdict on the gravity of our sin.”
Our unwillingness to see our sins as they really, as God sees them, leads us to embrace another falsehood: we can make things right. Even though our culture is, in many respects, post-Christian, it still clings to the idea of redemption. However, just as with our ideas about sin and guilt, our ideas about redemption are pitiful and impoverished.
So, “in perfect freedom, the Son become the goat become the Lamb of God is condemned by the lie in order to bear witness to the truth. The truth is that we are impotent to set things right. The truth is that the more we try to set things right, the more we compound our guilt. It is not enough that God take our part. God must take our place. All the blood of goats and lambs, all the innocent victims from the foundation of the world, all the acts of expiation and reparation, they only make things worse. They all strengthen the grip of the great lie that we can set things right. The grip of that lie is broken by the greatest of lies, ‘God is guilty!’”
On the cross, “the Judge of the guilty is Himself judged guilty.” Neuhaus calls this “the greatest of lies,” one that, paradoxically, points to the truth at the heart of Good Friday: we are powerless to set things right and that only God, the offended party, could undo the mess we created.
God’s way of bearing witness to the truth about our condition is as offensive today as it was two thousand years ago. Now, as then, we insist on misinterpreting the events of that Friday afternoon but to no avail. Our sin has been judged and God himself bore the punishment. And that’s the truth about everything.
Roberto Rivera is a fellow of The Wilberforce Forum.
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