NR’s late religion editor, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, left us a great gift in his book Death on a Friday Afternoon — why is Good Friday “good”? He gives a taste here, from the book:
The angels were stunned, the stars hid their light, the universe went silent at the audacity of it, the wrongness of it, the outrageousness of it. The Judge of the guilty is himself judged guilty. Here now at last, in all the think catalogue of human rebellion, is the lie so brazen as to surely bring down upon the heads of the insurrectionists as punishment swift and terrible. But no, the prisoner standing in the dock calmly responds, “For this was I born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.”
In perfect freedom, the Son become the goat become the Lamb of God is condemned by the lie in order to bear witness to the truth. The truth is that we are incapable of setting things right. The truth is that the more we try to set things right, the more we compound our guilt. It is not enough for God to take our part. God must take our place. All the blood of goats and lambs, all the innocent victims from the foundation of the world, all the acts of expiation and reparation, they only make things worse. They all strengthen the grip of the great lie that we can set things right. The grip of the lie is broken by the greatest of lies, “God is guilty!”
To those who are accustomed to living in a world turned upside down, setting it right cannot help but appear to be turning it upside down. With our first parents we reached for the power to name good and evil, thinking to assert control, and thereby we lost control. With the prodigal son, we grabbed what we could and ended up impoverished and alone in a distant country. Because God is not the God of the philosophers, because God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because God is love, He sent His Son to the far country to share our lot, to bear the consequences of our folly, to lead us home to the waiting father.
Such a way of love violates our sense of justice. With John the Baptizer we protest. But Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Note that he says “thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” He fulfills all righteousness, he does what must be done to set things right, by assuming the burden of our every human wrong. And we, too, have a part in fulfilling all righteousness by letting him do for us what we could not do for ourselves. On the one hand, we would not dare ask him to go to the cross. On the other, we joined in humanity’s determination to acquit ourselves by condemning him to the cross. It is the necessary outcome of the verdict, “God is guilty.”
Those who issue a verdict so grotesque deserve to die. Justice would seem to demand it. But God made the long journey into our distant country not to destroy but to give life. John’s Gospel puts it this way: “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Even if salvation requires that God is the one who is condemned. God cannot agree to a verdict so manifestly unjust, but He does submit to the sentence that the verdict entails.
If we have even the slightest sense of justice, we recoil at the thought. But what else is to be done about all that has gone wrong? Is there any alternative to its being set right by a yet greater wrong? Or can that greater wrong really be wrong if it is the judgment of God that it should be? If we say this way of atonement is wrong, we are back in the garden presuming to name right and wrong, good and evil. Love is the justice of the God who is love. To John the Baptizer and to us Jesus says, “Let it be so now.” God asks for our consent. Before such a mystery of unbounded love that is bound even to die for the beloved, we offer not only our consent but gratitude exultant. O felix culpa! “O happy fault! O necessary sin of Adam that gained for us so great a Redeemer!” . . .
Atonement. At-one-ment. What was separated by an abyss of wrong has been reconciled by the deed of perfect love. What the first Adam destroyed the second Adam has restored. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We knew not what we did when we reached for the right to name good and evil. We knew not what we did when we grabbed what we could and went off to a distant country. We knew not what we did when, in the madness of excusing ourselves, we declared God guilty. But today we have come to our senses. Today, here at the cross, our eyes are fixed on the dying derelict who is the Lord of life. We look at the one who is everything that we are and everything that we are not, the one who is true man and true God. In him we, God and man, are perfectly one. At-one-ment. Here, through the cross, we have come home. Home to the truth about ourselves. Home to the truth about what God has done about what we have done. And now we know, or begin to know, why this awful, awe-filled Friday is called good.