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Why are we here today?
Are we here to remember the political execution of a small-time failed messiah, a man who got in the way of good government and good religion and ended up crushed between the gears of power?
Or are we here to celebrate the redemption of the world by its creator and Lord?
The fact that we are here to do both is the mystery of the cross.
The story we have just heard is a tragic one. It’s full of betrayal, misunderstanding, false accusations, cynical rulers. It ends with a man nailed up on wooden planks and left by the side of the highway into town to die as an example for those who would challenge the powers that be. The small handful of people who love him are crushed, of course. Yet for the majority of the world, what meaning does all this hold? Not much, really. Life goes on as it always does. Politics and executions are nothing new. It’s a shame, but what can you do?
And yet here you and I are two millennia later, joining with our sister and brother Christians throughout space and time to observe these Holy Three Days. We claim that this Triduum is the key to interpreting all of life. It is the hinge around which history rotates, the moment into which the whole story of life is distilled. This is the time when an instrument of shame and death becomes the means of life and glory. This is the time when the church looks at the cross in the light of the resurrection of Jesus and suddenly sees the meaning that was there all along, a meaning that was invisible before we came to know the resurrection: that in the cross of Jesus, in Jesus’ love in the face of suffering and evil, we see the character of God.
Fifteen years ago Mel Gibson made his famous and controversial movie The Passion of the Christ. It is one of the most violent films of all time, and Gibson’s response to criticism was that he was simply trying to show things as they had really been. But in Gibson’s film, not only is Jesus whipped and crucified, as the gospels actually tell us; he is tossed off bridges and whipped with hooks and cuffed across the face seemingly in every frame. I’m not suggesting that the real Jesus was treated gently or with dignity before his crucifixion, but the level of brutality in this movie was raised so high as to suggest that this particular crucifixion was the most horrific ever to take place.
I don’t believe this is true. Jesus’ death was not exceptional—at least, not in that way. There is a certain stream of Christian piety that tends to suggest that Jesus’s death was somehow worse than any other death in history, that he suffered more, if it is even possible to quantify suffering. That model rests on the idea that Jesus’ suffering is a direct payment for the sins of the world. It’s an accounting model, tit for tat: since Jesus is taking on all the sins of humanity in our place, he must have received the sum total of all that suffering in one fell swoop.
But this is not the kind of God the scriptures show us. The God of Jesus Christ is not the God of torture and violence. God is the lover of mercy and forgiveness. It is not God who killed Jesus. Nor is it the Jews, as some readings of John’s gospel might suggest—the Jewish Christians in the community that produced that gospel would have shrunk back in revulsion from the anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism their text has been used to justify through the centuries as Christians themselves have been all too ready to wield those gears of power and to become perpetrators of the same violence and torture.
The fact is that the crucifixion of Jesus is all too common and all too human a story. Jesus was one of perhaps hundreds of criminals executed that day alone in the Roman Empire and various other empires around the globe. And how many millions over time have suffered pain and death as Jesus did: anonymously; unfairly, but unspectacularly; as far as anyone could tell, pointlessly. There is a terrifying, impersonal randomness to the suffering that characterizes our existence: both the kind we inflict on one another and the kind that seems to happen for no reason at all. The victims of the ongoing wars in Syria and Sudan and Afghanistan; those killed in school shootings or gang murders; those abused by their own loved ones; victims of car accidents, hurricanes, tsunamis; none of these people choose to suffer, and there is no apparent reason why they are the ones who do.
And although not all of us will be victims of such spectacular tragedy, all of us will be touched by some form of suffering that’s unfair and unexpected. It might come in the illness of a loved one, the hopelessness of depression, the gnawing anxiety of poverty, or the loss of a friend. To suffer is to be human—to live in this beloved world which is God’s good creation and yet which is under the bondage of evil, sin, and death.
Where is the good news in all this?
There would be none, except that what we do today does not stand on its own. Today we commemorate the cross and the tomb. But this liturgy does not end tonight. It began yesterday and continues tomorrow, when we will gather in darkness and light to wait for the proclamation that Christ is risen. That resurrection is foregrounded tomorrow—but it is present here today in mystery. What we are doing today is not a passion play. We don’t come to Good Friday each year with recurring amnesia, as if we had to forget about the resurrection in order to celebrate the cross. On the contrary: it’s only in light of the resurrection that there is anything worth celebrating about the cross. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and . . . we are of all people most to be pitied.”
But Christ has been raised. In the light of that raising we can look back at the cross and find in it what John the evangelist finds: glory. A meaningless waste is now proof that God is present with us: even in bleakest darkness. Jesus, Emmanuel, came as God with us and lived our life firsthand, with all its joy, but also with the futility of suffering, the banality of evil, and the heartbreak of loss. His suffering wasn’t the worst in history in some objective, measurable way, as if suffering were a substance we could count. He didn’t even have to be special in that way. He suffered as one of us. Such is the humility of God.
And not only is Jesus one of us: we are one with Jesus. Today God’s Beloved One pours himself out to death and prays for those who persecute him. Just so, today we who have been baptized into Christ must take up that same vocation. We are about to lift up the solemn prayers for this most solemn of days: and what we are doing in these prayers is what Jesus does from the cross: pouring our selves out to intercede for the life of the whole world. And when we have done that, we will gaze at the cross in love and awe, knowing it to be not only an instrument of shameful death but also the picture of God’s love.
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you: because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
 Collect for Tuesday in Holy Week, Book of Common Prayer, 220.