And so we’re here to commemorate and remember and relive a terrible, tragic death that happened 2000 years ago. Good Friday is a somber day, a day of weeping and mourning, a day of death and darkness. And our world right now is full of that death and darkness. The terrible photos of people killed and left for weeks in Ukraine fill the pages of the newspaper. The frightening video of a gunman in a smoke-filled subway car grips us with fear. We feel the now-familiar tug of nervousness as another wave of Covid comes through our city. The uncertainty of life is all around us. It is hard to find good news in days like these. So it’s easy to enter the mental space of Good Friday, because for some of us, it’s become a near regular experience – somewhere there beneath the surface, it’s there, always, all the time over the last two years or more: anxiety, tears, and the ragged edge of loss.
And yet, it’s a beautiful sunny day today. All around us the trees are bursting with cherry blossoms, green leaves are popping out of the woody stems of shrubs and bushes, spikes of green and full leafy plants are emerging out of the damp ground – spring is uncovering itself moment by moment. The birds can’t contain themselves with joy.
Good Friday is like going back into winter. Ignore everything you’re seeing outside, ignore the birds singing, ignore the warm softness of the air, and remember what it was like a month or so ago. Branches bare, the ground hard, the trees lifeless, the wind cold and blowing right through you. Sleet coming down out of a grey sky. Good Friday is a day like that. Isn’t it?
Of course, the first Good Friday happened at this time of year, around the time of the Passover, which is always in spring. Today in Jerusalem it’s sunny and in the 60s, just like here. The hills of the Galilee are green and full of blossoms, and even in the stone city of Jerusalem, there are flowers blooming. But the image in our mind puts it as if it’s a different season – Golgotha is a hard, lifeless place, not a sprig of green growing there. The wind is cruel. Nothing but bones on the ground. That’s what it feels like in our hearts. That’s what it feels like to be the women, watching from a distance, as their beloved friend, and for Mary, her beloved son, hangs on the cross.
I probably put too much weight on things like spring flowers and sunshine. I can’t help it. It’s one of the best parts of living in the East, the springtime. This child of the West gets to March and I am desperate for green and for color. I have a hard time getting through the long brown and gray season that is winter here – and it’s just as brown and gray outside the city as it is in it. So I start scanning the lifeless bushes for some sign of that first bit of yellow bloom, looking for the first hint of a snowdrop in the dead leaves, and as soon as I see it, I report it excitedly back home. My family isn’t nearly as interested as I am. Maybe you all aren’t either. But I think, don’t take it for granted. Remember what the spring was like in 2020? There was something particularly stunning about the blossoms that year, arcing over the field hospital in Central Park, blooming near the refrigerated trucks of bodies, birdsong filling the strange quiet in between the sirens. I wonder if the spring blossoms in Kyiv feel like this too to those who are there right now.
Good Friday is like going back into winter, we think. Except you can’t ignore the spring happening right now. You can’t stuff the blossoms back into the branches, you can’t force the flowers back into the ground. You can’t get the birds to shut up. Life is bursting forth. We’ll leave here today and the dulcet sounds of Mister Softee will entice us. We’ll be tempted to go on a picnic.
And actually, Good Friday is like that.
Like the cardinal that I heard at 4:00 am in the garden the other day, singing his heart out, blissfully confident despite total darkness that the sun would rise and light would come.
Like the sap running inside the trees long before we see any sign of green on their branches, life force responding to the call of warmth and light so faint that we hadn’t yet noticed it.
Life is embedded in the death of the cross. Not just because we all know the end of the story and we know that in two days we’ll be back here again in joyful song and celebration. But because even when all is at its darkest, even when the smell of death is in the air, even when every door is shut, God still has a trick up her sleeve. Life is there, present in death; life is right there, just around the corner.
And the reverse is also true. Every new leaf we see today will shrivel and fall off the tree come autumn. Flowers will wither, seeds will blow away, stalks will die. In a few years the newly hatched baby birds will age and die, their bodies moldering away. Death is present in life, right there around the corner. It’s a part of how it all works. Doors shut. Hearts stop. And God is in that too.
Good Friday prompts us to think about the deaths of those we love. If you live long enough you will bury someone you love. Maybe you have; maybe you’ve sat with them as they died, or with their body after they were gone. Maybe you carry around in you a hole that is never really filled, the hole of that person in your life. This day brings forth all of those faces of our loved ones. If you look carefully, you might see them all here, all the faces of all the ones we’ve lost. They’re all here, filling in the spaces between us.
And Good Friday prompts us to think about our own death. The stepping through a door that we’ve never gone through, into something we can’t imagine. The ending of all that we hold dear in this life. The hole that our going will make in the hearts of others who love us. All of our deaths, the doorways waiting for us, are here too.
It’s a day of darkness and death. But Good Friday reminds us that we don’t have to be fearful about that. Because the blossoms are there waiting. The doorway leads to somewhere else.
I don’t know why we always distrust all this, the springtime. Flowers and birds are somehow seen as lightweight and insignificant. We act like they’re frosting or whipped cream, unnecessary froth that serious people must look past. Tragedy is more mature than that. Don’t talk to me about rainbows – can’t you see how terrible this all is? If we’re deep, thoughtful people, then we don’t get carried away with posies. Just read the news. You see how awful a world we live in.
But my God, Nature is not flimsy. The will to live is fierce. The food chain is real. The birds are singing with a relentless push toward creation, the plants open their leaves to feast on sunshine and produce their fruits and seeds so that life will continue. Death fuels it all. There’s a propulsion to it, an indomitability even in this age when humans are destroying so much of it. Life finds a way. Despite us, through us, using us, using our deaths to create more life. God there hanging on the cross is showing us in the clearest possible way what we should have already seen – Jesus is the full revelation of what we should already have understood, that the way of love and life is to lose ourselves, to give ourselves up, to let our tears fall and water the earth. Our hearts are full of holes. And that’s where the new seeds get planted and new life bursts forth.
No one ever said it would be easy. Yet it is easy. As easy as falling off a log. It hurts, yes. But no one ever said it wouldn’t. A hole is hard to carry.
That’s what Good Friday is. Forgive me, Anselm, but it’s not substitutionary sacrifice and blood ritual and a complex doctrine of weights and balances. It’s older and deeper than all of that. It’s God’s ultimate sign that we are never alone. That the Life which is God persists throughout everything. That in every step and every breath and every tear, God is with us, in us, through us – relentlessly propelling us toward loss and death and on through that into life again. We had to see it to believe it, and we still can’t believe it.
And yet there it is. As sure as the blossoms and the birds and the breezes; as sure as the darkness and cold as well. God loves us, always. And that truth remains, always.