“The dripping blood our only drink, the bloody flesh our only food: In spite of which we like to think that we are sound, substantial flesh and blood— Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.” (That’s from Eliot’s Four Quartets)
...And yet we call this Friday good. Good? I want to pull back the curtain on that word and think about what we might be saying when we refer to this Friday as “good.” Do we mean the same thing by good as God does? Think with me back to the opening chapter of the Bible: God says good on the heels of life and abundance as he looks fondly at the proliferation and fecundity of creation. And he calls it good. He creates us on the sixth day, it is very good. Good, so this story tells us, has to do with creativity and freedom; with blessing and delight. Who are we to take this word that God has uttered and apply it to this Friday?
What if you had been there in the circus-like madness of the day? Jesus is thrown from one court to the next like a pinball, and beaten and whipped even more dramatically. This was of course all preceded by an unforgettable night of panic and fear in a garden, the terror of isolation, and the death of meaning, the pandemonium of an innocent arrest....he sweats drops of blood, choked in dread of the future. Maybe we should be careful with this word "good."
There would be something cruel if we were to go back in time and visit Mary Jesus' mother or John, or any of those others who had experienced the wrenching loss of a friend, and tried to stitch meaning into their experience; that despite appearances God was actually at work in it all. No, who are we to do that?
St. John of the Cross, one of the most relentlessly probing of the church's mystics, talked a great deal about the dark night of the soul; the experience of deprivation where all the glittery meanings and purposes that the soul formerly held on to are exposed as thin and wispy veneers, illusions that prop up a threatened sense of self. The soul becomes unmoored from all that it has known; there is only darkness and disorientation.
There is in all of us, I suspect, an initial aversion to such experiences as St. John describes: we prefer the straightforward, the easy and the tranquil, the times when life is neither too mean nor not too nice - it just rolls along without too much drama. We might even prefer days that are totally repetitive, like Bill Murray's character in the movie Groundhog Day, to the fluctuating and unpredictable. But as much as we'd like to immune ourselves from it, the inevitable comes, life happens, we experience something that puts our entire world in question: we lose a loved one, our much enjoyed hobbies are no longer available to us because of age, we are unable to kick that nagging depression, we are separated from our bodies because of pain or illness, or maybe we just open the newspaper for the umpteenth straight day to read about another case of human carnage. And as much as we'd like for it not to be, something like St. John's dark night sets in: the God who was so good to us previously is nowhere to be found. Darkness stretches taut on our horizon – we are left with questions that all spiral heavenward sounding something like, “My God my God why have you forsaken me?”
Our Hebrew ancestors knew a great deal about this deprivation and loss of faith. In some sense, their entire history is one great exile of meaning: they think they get it, and then they are assailed by the darkness of enemy forces. We really have to look no further than the first few verses of the Bible to see what they thought about chaos and evil: they tell us that apart from God's meaning-giving and creative word there is only chaos. "Darkness covered the deep." Apart from the generative activity of God, they tell us, there is an abyss of darkness, nothingness. There is God and then there is nothingness. But that's not quite what we are talking about on this Friday. It's not God on the one hand and nothingness on the other: as if neither has anything to do with the other. What we see happening in the events leading up to the death, not to mention the death itself, is God entering into the nothingness Godself - God drawing the nothingness into himself. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, so the first chapter of John tells us. That is, the Word came into our darkness and deprivation - the Word became, and indeed is still becoming flesh, and entering into our own private hells. There is no corner, no dimension of the human experience that is cut off from transcendent light and love. God has made his home among us, and in the dereliction of the cross, has plunged himself to furthest corners of the human experience. It’s basically what it means to be a Christian: to associate oneself with a God who refuses to draw limits or boundaries to his love; a God who has an infinite capacity to forgive; a God who withholds nothing but instead goes to the edges, to boundaries of the mess we’ve made and pitches his tent to stay with us there. Let’s not be mistaken: the darkness of this Friday is real, as real as death is real. But I also want to say that there is a strange goodness in this darkness – what I mean by that is that it is big enough for the darkness of the entire world to enter in, and thereupon enter into the very heart of God. The cross is God’s open heart to each of us; an invitation to take into himself the chaos, separation, and yes, even the madness of our world. There is no darkness, no dimension of our lives or of the world that is not invited to be assumed, drawn into the darkness of the cross – which we have been saying is the darkness of God himself.
One of the very great theologians of the early church – Gregory of Nyssa spoke much about the darkness that exists in God. He believed that the closer one grew to God the more and more one lost contact with one’s senses - the light of one’s reason is extinguished and darkness blankets the mind. But, he didn’t think the journey ended there. Beyond, beneath, and behind the darkness that is within God; surrounding and enveloping it is what Nyssa knew to be boundless love; the darkness finally yields to the inextinguishable love of God. That is what today is all about: the darkness that God has drawn into Godself opens up onto the infinite frontiers of God’s love. From everlasting to everlasting, there is love. And perhaps it because of that that we dare to call this Friday good.