NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T his year, thanks to the coronavirus, I will not be able to experience one of my favorite moments in the church calendar: Good Friday. I love Easter, with its bright colors and signs of spring, the celebration of a concept on which rests the entire Christian faith: resurrection. And yet sometimes we Christians rush too quickly past Good Friday, especially when the gospel writers devoted enormous space in the sacred texts to the ugly scene of Jesus dying an unjust and shameful death on a Roman cross.
This moment we are in, in a week when fatalities from COVID-19 are expected to rise dramatically, at what the surgeon general has called “our generation’s Pearl Harbor,” we need to linger longer, even if from our living rooms, at the message of Good Friday.
In normal times (remember those?), the end of life is not something we like to dwell on, but now, as the stench of death surrounds us, as frozen trucks parked outside hospitals serve as overflow morgues, as funeral directors prepare for a volume of work they never anticipated, as an invisible virus makes its menacing journey through our cities, we need to think about death. On Good Friday there are no pastel eggs or bright dresses, no Peeps or perfume. There is only a somber, sober reflection on the agony of the most unjust death in the history of the world. The Christian story says that, in God’s Providence, Jesus, both human and divine, was put to death by the very creatures that he formed with his hands and into whom he breathed the breath of life.
And a cruel death it was for the Son of God, who, by sweat and blood, pleaded with the Father to escape this necessary offering for the sins of the world. Stripped naked, beaten to the point of being unrecognizable, nails hammered into his hands and feet, he was made the object of derision, a king canceled and mocked.
Jesus’ death, though, can be celebrated as well as lamented. According to the Christian gospel, the words of faith he uttered while gasping with his final breaths on the cross, “It is finished,” become the death of death. Paul, once a skeptic, declared that it was the cross and resurrection three days later that took the sting out of death. This final foe, with its torturous taking of human life through viruses and violence, is impotent in the face of the one who stared death in the face and was victorious.
This doesn’t mean that Christians should be flippant about death. On the contrary, we view it not as a mere passage from this life to the next but as the evil work of a violent foe, Satan. Jesus wept and grew visibly angry when staring at the rotting corpse of his friend Lazarus. The Bible paints death as a deviation from God’s original good design, the bitter fruit of humankind’s deal with the devil in that fateful exchange in the Garden of Eden.
But the Christian story tells us we can face our mortality with more than just bitter despair. In the death of Jesus, we see the seeds of life, with his promise to the convicted criminal hanging near him, “This day you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus knew that he’d rise again. He knew that the ugliness that worms its way through the cosmos and through human hearts was in its final throes. That a new world, a new creation, was coming.
And in his dying hours we see Jesus prioritizing the welfare of the most vulnerable, arranging for his mother, Mary, who was approaching her vulnerable, aging years, to be cared for by John, his beloved friend. In this, Jesus was obeying the law of the people of God to “honor father and mother” by seeing to their welfare. Those who risk their own lives on the front lines of health care, those who continue stocking our shelves and delivering our food, those work every day in the public and private sector on lifesaving medicine live out this spirit of sacrifice. And, to a much smaller extent, so do we, when we stay home this Good Friday and Easter, to avoid the possibility of transmitting the COVID-19 virus to elderly friends or family. Christians, like me, who mourn the loss of our public gatherings should understand that this love of neighbor is what it means to follow Jesus in his new way, to put others before us, to take up our own crosses and deny ourselves. In this season, staying home so that others may live is the embodiment of Jesus’ new and radical kingdom.
So this Friday won’t be very good as the number of coronavirus cases multiply and the body counts rise, each statistic representing human persons made in the image of God. The lament of this ancient church rite helps us process our own fear and grief. But we can draw strength from the sad and somber reality of the first Good Friday as we face our own bad Fridays, knowing that what awaits us — the promise of Easter — signals that death, in all of its wicked and grotesque forms, will not have the final say.