Today, Christians* throughout the world commemorate Good Friday—marking the suffering and death of Jesus at imperial hands—as we prepare to welcome Easter in rejoicing once more. It is a hard, somber day, and there are many who have perfectly reasonable concerns about fixating upon such a gruesome moment within our shared salvation history. Why call a day “good,” when it revolves around the torture and brutal execution of an innocent person? Must our faith be defined by pain?
It shouldn’t surprise most of you that, when I find myself at a loss for words before such monumental questions, I turn to poetry to try to glean some sense of the holiness of the day. In particular, I make what has become my annual return to “The Way of Pain” by American author, farmer, and mystic Wendell Berry. A meditation on the hearth-aching limitations that come with being a parent in a world inundated by so much struggle, the poem’s third stanza focuses specifically on the topics of Good Friday:
I read of Christ crucified,
the only begotten Son
sacrificed to flesh and time
and all our woe. He died
and rose, but who does not tremble
for his pain, his loneliness,
and the darkness of the sixth hour?
Unless we grieve like Mary
at His grave, giving Him up
as lost, no Easter morning comes.
Each time I read the poem, I'm almost thrown entirely by the lines about “the only begotten Son/ sacrificed to flesh and time/ and all our woe,” recoiling at the atonement implications that would seem to affirm pain as Christianity’s foundation and inheritance. (At least a few of my seminary professors would argue that most of them stem from a misreading of Anselm of Canterbury, but I’ll resist the urge to get too bogged down in historical debates.) Mastering my distress somewhat, I notice that "the only begotten Son" is "sacrificed" to "flesh," "time," "and all our woe"—not to God or any sense of Divine justice. I thus continue on to what might just be the shortest summary of the Triduum** possible: “He died/ and rose….” Here we begin to perceive the conclusion that Berry comes to by the end of the stanza, asserting through such stark proximity that there is an inextricable connection at work. However, it’s most properly understood as between Good Friday and Easter. There can be no resurrection without death, no stone rolled away without a tomb. Shying away from Jesus’ “pain” and “loneliness,” we often try to rush our way through the first part of that truth. We talk about rising, but we are loath to spend too much time on clarifying the question (From what?) that gives Christ’s triumph its meaning. We want an Easter without the mess.
Good Friday, however, cannot be sanitized, and it is one of the holiest days of our year exactly because it brings us up short. Berry invites us to “grieve like Mary” not to idolize suffering; rather, he reminds us that suffering is a fundamental aspect of our experience of this life. We suffer, and we make choices that contribute to the suffering of others. Yet we are not the ones who are given “up as lost,” and pain is not the final word. “Easter morning” still comes, bringing with it the promise of new life again and again. (Like her Son, Mary doesn't remain alone for long.) Our faith reminds us at least once a year that we won’t always need Good Friday, that the gap between the world as it is and the world as it could be will be closed over entirely one day. Until then, Good Friday and the echo it sounds of “the darkness of the sixth hour” present the contrast that accentuate just how radically bright and beautiful our faith might shine—not despite suffering, but because it isn't our only option. In our terror and amazement, we can recognize that Jesus is no longer there and go forth into a new wholeness, into Easter, together.
*That is, those who share what we commonly think of as the Western Christian calendar.
**By Triduum, I mean the fulcrum of the Christian year beginning on the evening of Maundy Thursday; continuing with Good Friday; and drawing to a close with Easter Sunday, especially the Great Vigil. (Technically, it’s the Paschal Triduum, since “triduum” can refer to any three-day religious observance.)