On Palm Sunday during morning services, a fire broke out in the Cathedral of St John the Divine. Fire fighters contained it to one room in the crypt, but for a brief while, the fear was real. And then the next day, Holy Monday, a fire broke out in the attic of Notre Dame in Paris. That fire burned for 12 hours and consumed all the wooden structure of the roof and spire, dropping fire into the interior of the church and burning there as bystanders watched, horrorstruck. No one will be worshiping there this Easter. People around the world are grieving the loss of that beautiful cathedral.
A few weeks ago dumpsters were parked outside of my parents’ house, our family home of 53 years. We had all been there a week before to pull things of importance out of the house, but even so, the haulers sent my mom a box of family memorabilia that we’d missed. My dreams are haunted by what else we missed, and by the potential future of the house, a dilapidated 1960s model in a neighborhood of quick sales and tear-downs. Most likely, we will never be in that house again.
Some fifteen years ago or so they tore down my 1950s era elementary school and put up a new modern school; around that same time the church I grew up in was torn down, as the congregation built a new, larger sanctuary in its place. I still remember being a kid in both places, and still feel sad that they are gone.
If you live long enough, buildings you love will be destroyed. And after years of telling myself the buildings shouldn’t matter, it’s really the people and the memories, I’ve finally allowed myself to grieve the buildings too. People around the world are grieving Notre Dame; I’m grieving the home I grew up in. The physical reality of our lives and stories matters.
Jesus told the religious leaders that if they tore the Temple down, he’d rebuild it in three days. But he wasn’t talking about the temple building – he was talking about his body. And on this Good Friday, we grieve the suffering and death of that body, Jesus’ body. The physical death of our Lord Jesus matters.
In some ways it’s strange that we grieve in such a physical way for a body that lived thousands of years ago. The actions we do here today, kneeling and touching and kissing the cross, receiving the blessed bread and wine in communion, moving around the space as we follow the stations of the cross, are physical, bodily actions. Christians of other faith traditions do this even more, as I saw in Jerusalem – prostrating themselves weeping on the slab where it is said Jesus’ body was washed, bending themselves double to reach down through the floor to the rock of Calvary. There is real grief as we do these things, sometimes surprising grief to us rational western types.
And we might say it’s strange that we grieve so in light of what we believe about the resurrection – that this battered body laid in the tomb is not there a few days later, that instead Jesus, changed and radiant, is back among his friends, that he is among us now, waiting to join us again in the joy of Easter. During his lifetime Jesus used the image of a grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying – which makes it seem as though the physical form that dies is simply cast off, unimportant, not something to grieve. The Greek philosophy that became part of Christianity early on taught that the physical body, matter itself, is but a pale shade of the spiritual realm; the soul is what is important, not the shell of the body that carries it. We’ve believed something like that for most of Christian history.
But our faith is incarnational. Right from the first story of Genesis, all creation is called good. We believe that God became incarnate in human flesh. Jesus tells us to eat and drink that flesh in communion, take in that very bodily substance, make God one with our bodies. Matter and bodies have meaning.
And so all the physical details of the story today matter: the crown of thorns and the purple robe; the striking and flogging; the hard wood of the cross; the sponge full of sour wine. And the sting and pain of Jesus’ wounds, his exhaustion, his thirst, his choking death. Jesus suffers and dies on the cross. We don’t gloss over it. Because the realness of it has meaning not just for our ritual today, but for how we live.
Not glossing over Jesus’ death means that we don’t have to gloss over our own suffering and pain. Some of us act like we do – we walk around with the stiff upper lip of our Anglican forebears, ignoring our bodies’ signals of distress and disease, and we pretend that’s a virtue. As if getting enough sleep and having regular checkups is the work of amateurs, not busy important people like us. If we’re stressed and exhausted, it means we’re living right. I speak from some experience here: I spent most of my first pregnancy trying to live as though it weren’t happening, unwilling to accept this new set of physical limitations on my energy and ability. And my past winter’s bouts with pneumonia had me irate for some time. It is no surprise that people like me don’t adjust well when we get a negative diagnosis. We don’t want to acknowledge our own mortality. But Jesus died – and so will we. Good Friday makes us look that squarely in the face.
Not glossing over Jesus’ death means that we don’t gloss over others’ suffering either. As some parishioners were noting in our Job Bible study, often people don’t know how to comport themselves when they visit someone who is suffering, someone who is sick in the hospital. We can all name together the ludicrous lengths people go to to cheer a patient up and assure them of their quick recovery – and all the ways they unintentionally make it seem like the illness is actually the patient’s fault. C’mon, this is temporary! Stay positive, or you’ll get sicker. We find it so difficult to simply be in the presence of suffering, to accompany our loved ones in a dark and painful time. Jesus’ friends found that difficult too, the story tells us. In our ritual today, we commit ourselves to staying to the end – something the disciples could not do. We walk all the way with the cross – that might soften us to walk with others as they bear their cross also.
And not glossing over Jesus’ death also means that the suffering of the world matters – in God’s eyes and in ours. On our streets and on the other side of the world, people are suffering from poverty, disease, war, abuse. Suffering has been woven through the history of the world from time immemorial. Most of the time it is senseless suffering, not suffering we can claim as redemptive; most of the time it does not lead to a happy ending, at least not one we would write. But that suffering is not overlooked by God; and it is not to be overlooked by us. We see it and do not look past it; we have a responsibility to others in their suffering. When we pass someone in pain, we can’t just wall ourselves off; when we see the eyes of the poor, we can’t just look away. We may not be able to fix the problem and make the suffering end, we probably won’t find a neat explanation for it in our theology or philosophy. But we see it; we honor and acknowledge it. Jesus’ suffering is real – and so is the suffering that is even now being experienced, all around the world. Today we hold that too.
Ultimately, not glossing over Jesus’ pain and suffering is what makes our faith in the resurrection mean something. His resurrected body still bears the scars inflicted on him on Good Friday. The memory and reality of that suffering is not erased. We don’t get to Easter by jumping over Good Friday – Easter only comes as a result of Good Friday. This is not pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, pretending that the bad thing never happened. Death happens. And death leads to life – we see it in all of creation in the cycle of every year, and we see it on this day. We look the reality of suffering in the eye and see beyond it all the same. Suffering is not discounted; pain is honored; and yet death is not all there is. Even on Good Friday, Easter is coming.
Good Friday is a day for mourning our losses, our real, physical losses – people and places we have loved and held and touched and which are no longer. We feel our own anguish, the pain and illness we carry in our own bodies. We hold the weight of the world’s suffering, all those in senseless pain even at this very moment. And all of that, all that real pain and grief, we bring to the cross as we watch Jesus hang there in agony. God holds Jesus in his suffering death; God holds us and all the world in our pain and loss. Good Friday is a day to be real. Good Friday is good.