Grieving the Innocent Victim: Entering the Emotional World of Good Friday
I never feel as if I quite know what to say during Holy Week…and words seem to escape me most on this day, on Good Friday. I’m always so grateful that we leave in silence at the end of worship on this somber day. Because I really don’t have much at all to say. This day feels too big for words, somehow, too monumental to be fully embraced and encompassed by language. Words are too paltry, too thin.
And yet, words are expected. Sense-making words. Emotion-soothing words. Words that turn the horrific event we are remembering into a neat packet of word-y wisdom that you can put in your pocket and take with you. Words to reassure you that someone or something is at the helm of this otherwise apparently sinking ship of despair; words that explicate and ameliorate the chaotic darkness of grief into which Good Friday plunges us; words that smooth out the roughness of the road to Calvary and that shine a hopeful beam into the dense haze of our sorrow.
But here’s the thing: I’m not here to guide you. I’m not here to make this all better. I’m not here to give Jesus’ death a meaning and a purpose—an explanation. Not today, at least.
I’m here, rather, to lead you deeper in. To welcome you into the despair and grief and sorrow. To help you to give it an audience, a hearing. To tell you that you don’t have to run away. That it won’t kill you. That you might even need to experience it. Need it far more than you can admit. Need permission to come in contact with these terrors. A legitimate reason to dwell in these depths of sorrow.
Now, Good Friday has become an increasingly disconcerting observance for me, ever since arriving at St. Peter’s. Especially after the Noon service for the past several years, I’ve observed many folks congregating out on the sidewalk huddled together and chatting about all the usual stuff: trips and shows and dinner plans and the weather. I can hear these conversations from the sacristy as I remove my microphone and robes, everything feeling heavy and thick with significance. And I’ve had to squash the urge to go and hush those who are talking…laughing even.
He just died!!! Can you please just be sad for a bit??? Doesn’t this impact you—hearing again how Jesus suffered, how he died? The wrenching agony of it all?
But I don’t. Because I want to run away from it all, too. I want to cloak it all in words—a dense proliferation of words. Words that explain. Words that make sense. Words that smooth our furrowed brows and make it all better.
But I think giving those kinds of words too much airtime would be a mistake. Because people like us often use words to block out feelings; to drown out emotion with a torrent of verbiage. Words tend to feel so good, so important, so revelatory…to a highly literate bunch like us.
But I sometimes miss the permission for tears, for sadness, for grief—all of which were part of the piety of my childhood. Good Friday was a day, above all, to feel. To feel deeply—together. To feel all the hard things. The very things we hold at bay on all the other days of the year.
Because if we can’t let ourselves get sad about this, then what in the world CAN we get sad about? How can we possibly fulfill our calling to “mourn with those who mourn,” if we can’t bear to grieve this death? This death of one we know. This death of one we love.
I’ve been wondering this week about the difficulty some of us have with entering the emotional world of Good Friday. And I’ve been wondering if one reason we struggle is because Jesus’ death just isn’t all that shocking to us. His death, it seems, has lost whatever ability it might have once had to appall us.
Because we live in a world of Good Fridays, don’t we? In a world captivated, enthralled, and overcome by violence. And yet the violence that so many of us consume is violence without consequences, without aftermath, without bodies. We’re closer than ever, yet also always at a distance.
An ethicist on the faculty of Duke Divinity School, Amy Laura Hall, shared a short essay on social media this week as the extraordinarily popular and extraordinarily violent television show, Game of Thrones, premiered its final season.
“Watching human beings violate one another in the worst possible ways on a screen can cause a kind of numbness, making horror mundane.”[i]
This mundaneness makes it all the easier for us to accept, then, as we seem to have done after 9/11, the use of brutality for political ends. Indeed, perhaps it was the proliferation of screen violence that dulled our moral outrage when we discovered that our government was involved in torture (paraphrased).
How did we get here?
From 1995-2001, a period of six years, there were 110 scenes of torture on prime time broadcast TV.
Following September 11th, from 2002-2005, 624 scenes of torture were broadcast. And this trend continued.
Through constant exposure, we seemed to have become convinced that torture is simply how the world works (paraphrased).[ii]
Just as the residents of Jerusalem must have under Roman occupation, with its frequent public executions of dissidents, often performed by the tortuous means of crucifixion. Crucifixions, usually done along well-traveled roadways to maximize public display as bodies hung there for days, were the ancient world’s form of mass media. At some point, the horror must have become quotidian back then, too.
Well…perhaps you, like me, avoid violent shows and movies.
Still, we live in an ever more collectively desensitized world.
And the sheer quantity of violence that so many consume seems to be impacting our overall cultural sensibilities, eroding the ability we might once have had protect ourselves from those forces that defile our minds and hearts.
Indeed, the proliferation of such easily consumable violence has made it much harder, I think, for us to care about victims. Because there are so many. Far too many to count. Both fictional victims very real ones—the two continually becoming more easily conflated and confused. So we begin to consign all victims to anonymity, out of necessity. To do otherwise, to learn their names and hear their stories, would consume us. Or so we think.
Today, however, we are asked to hear just one story. To say the name of just one victim. One victim of state-sponsored brutality, torture. To feel his suffering in our bodies.
And if we discover that we can feel for him…if our hearts can be broken open by his story, then there is a possibility that our hearts might yet be permeable to other victims, other stories.
His story is unique, of course. Because it does not play by the world’s rules.
For the world does not believe in resurrection. Nor does the world believe that victims matter. Yet still: here we are. We are here for a crucified victim.
One who should have been forgotten by history. One who should have become anonymized.
Yet the crucified one was raised. His resurrected presence was so vivid and so hopeful that he could not be forgotten. Would never be forgotten.
But he was not raised just so that we could marvel at God’s handiwork. He was raised to vindicate victims. He was raised to give hope to all those struggling to hope. He was raised as a radical demonstration of God’s solidarity with the suffering, the weak, the afflicted. He was raised so that we might finally know who and what matters to God.
But here I go explaining. Exactly what we don’t need today. Because you’ve heard it all before.
But have you felt it? Really felt it?
Have you suffered with him as the thorns tore his scalp?
Have you winced and shuddered as the nails gashed open his hands?
Have you gasped with him as he struggled for breath, suspended, dangling for hours from that cross.
Or have you been desensitized? By this blood-bathed world of ours?
Have you forgotten that he was flesh, like us? That it hurt. That it really, really hurt.
Because if we could let his suffering penetrate our defenses, it would unleash our compassion. It would arouse us from our slumber of indifference toward this whole crucified world yearning for just a taste of resurrection.
This day should do something to us. But for it to do something, first we must feel. And feel deeply.
[i] Amy Laura Hall, public Facebook post from April 15, 2019.
[ii] Amy Laura Hall, public Facebook post from April 15, 2019 (paraphrased).