And so, after all these long weeks of Lent, of quiet contemplation, we come to this, the darkest of places. We were beckoned by the bombast of John the Baptist to the shores of the River Jordan where Jesus was baptized. We learned of the conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well, saw him extend his love and care to her when others would not. We witnessed with wonder when he raised Lazarus from his sleep of resignation. We spent time with Jesus in the mountain, where he was named by the spirit of God. And we walked with him, with trepidation for what would happen, through the gates of Jerusalem, from cheering crowd to angry mob, to arrest and condemnation. And we come here, now, if we are brave enough, to stand with him in the shadow of the cross. As we look upon his nailed hands, and his broken body, and the crown of thorns, in this moment, what do we see? Not God’s love or humanity’s charity. Not peace. Not grace. We see a man alone, as if forgotten. We hear a man wondering out loud whether God has abandoned him. We see death, in someone who should live. We see suffering.
What is this place, with its ugly name, Golgotha, on a hill without sun, where a brave man is dying? It is a grief-stricken place. A place to doubt that God even exists at all. To question why humanity – who could so easily turn from love to hate, from respect to condemnation – should even be worthy of God at all, and certainly not of the man upon the cross before us. And yet, we are called to stand here, at the foot of this ill and foul deed. We are called to suffer in our sorrow, as Jesus did, and to look upon it.
This is the price we pay as followers of Jesus – this is the cost of the gospel. We don’t stand only in the sun, where God’s glory shines. We walk also into the shadows, we stand beneath the cross. We contemplate the true meaning of selflessness – what it means to love enough to die for it, to believe deeply enough to sacrifice for those beliefs. And yet, standing there, we also learn that selflessness is not perfect, that death is not tidy, that belief can falter but does not have to be lost. Jesus is not perfect in that selflessness: he comes, in the darkest of moments, to believe himself forsaken by God. He fears he has been left alone, deserted. This is the honest suffering of Good Friday, the truth- telling. Is it the pain of being alone we fear the most? Is suffering the ache of broken bones, or the pain from a failing heart, or the ravage caused by a tumour? Or is it something more? Standing at the foot of the cross, can we look upon the suffering of Jesus, and go deep enough to be honest with ourselves?
In 1982, a doctor named Eric Cassel wrote an article on this topic for The New England Journal of Medicine. The essay was called “The nature of suffering and the goals of medicine.” In it, Cassel made the argument that too often doctors confused pain with suffering and treated only the pain. But suffering, Cassel wrote, was intense feelings that threaten what makes a person feel whole. It was, in effect, the act of losing one’s self.
Some faiths have seen suffering as a path to getting closer to God. That in creating the pain that Jesus must have felt on the cross, we might better clear our minds and come closer to the divine. But I would question this: the gospel asks us to give of ourselves for others, to make sacrifices. It doesn’t ask us to bring suffering upon ourselves to be in relationship to God. If anything, when we feel life and love and kindness, God often speaks to us most clearly. What’s more, to suggest that the suffering of Jesus is itself is a lesson to be learned is to take away from the sacrifice. Jesus was not a meek shepherd led to the cross. He was protecting the disciples from persecution, by focusing the authorities’ attention. He had refused to publicly renounce what he believed and all he had taught, because, as the gospel teaches us, it is our beliefs and actions in the face of trial that define us. Jesus did not allow himself to be led to the cross for the sake of the cross. He was taken there because he refused to do be anyone else but himself.
But once there, in pain and sorrow, we see him break. He asks for God and does not hear an answer. “Why have you forsaken me?” he calls out, in despair. His suffering is not perfect. It is honest.
How we understand life and death is multi-dimensional, as Cassel observes in his paper, intended to instruct doctors on how to better treat patients. We can understand something in a cognitive way, with emotional meaning, or as a transcendental or spiritual meaning. If we focus on the pain that Jesus must have felt – the torture of his crucifixion – our reason might struggle against us – why didn’t he fight more? Why didn’t the disciples save him? Why did this have to happen? Why him? Why me? How we answer those questions – just as how we face our own situations – will be influenced by our experiences, our upbringing, the culture we live in, and our personalities. None of that is wrong: it is what it is. Going deeper still, we would see the swirl of emotions: doubt that any of this will matter, denial that God is even listening, anger at the path that brought him here, acceptance that this is the path he had to walk. This emotional journey again is set by our own unique character, it exists not in a vacuum but in relationship with others, and not to be judged or subsumed.
And then we have come to the spiritual essence of who we are. We stand, in the shadow, and hear Jesus plead for an answer from God, and we are shaken by it. If God would desert Jesus in his darkest hour, how can we trust God to be with us? And yet, in asking the question, Jesus shows us that there is strength and resolve to be found in doubt, in reaching out for an answer. “Transcendence is probably the most powerful way in which one person is restored to wholeness.” Cassel writes. When experienced, he says, “transcendence locates the person in a far larger landscape.” A landscape large enough to hold the pain, and take in all the emotion, and exist in a larger space.
On Good Friday, Jesus asks the question we would all wonder: will God leave us? Has God left us? We know the answer now, because we know what is to come, in just three days from now. But in the moment, posing those words, in the pain and emotion of the cross, Jesus did not. His faith had faltered. His hope had sunk. He had become not himself. But it was in opening himself up to God, in admitting his doubt, in acknowledging his weakness, that he made room for God to answer.
That is the truth and the darkness of Good Friday. It is the honesty of suffering. We will feel abandoned by God at times. We may flail at what has gone wrong, rage at bad luck, weep at loss – this is human, this is reasonable, this is emotional. We may feel we are alone. In it, we will feel broken, as if we have lost ourselves.
But we are not only ourselves. We are not only bodies that break. We are part of the landscape of God, the story of life, this creation and space, belief and feeling that transcends understanding; we are located there forever. Even standing in the shadow of the cross, we are not alone. We are never alone.