In the Gospel today we hear about Jesus’ Passion, which includes the Last Supper, his evening with his disciples in the garden, Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, and his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. It is a narrative that is full of suffering and pain and sorrow. As we look at the cross, we may notice that there is no body on it; but today, we might imagine a different cross, on which the tortured body of God hangs, either dead or laboring to breath and slowly suffocating. And we call that day, Good Friday.
As I’ve said, it is a narrative that is full of suffering, and it’s not just Jesus’ suffering. We have the suffering of the disciples, who lose their teacher in the garden; we have the suffering of Judas, as he realizes the depth of his betrayal and, in the Gospel of Matthew, commits suicide; we have the suffering of Peter, when he realizes he’s renounced Christ three times; we have, probably most poignantly, the suffering of Mary, Jesus’ mother, who does not speak in the Passion narrative, but we can hear her wailing and sobbing throughout, nonetheless. And still we call it Good Friday. That tension, that difference between our everyday notion of what is “good” and the Passion narrative illuminates the role of suffering in Jesus’ life, his companions’ lives, and our lives.
Christ’s Passion, this season of Lent, if we are to envision ourselves of followers of Christ, raises difficult questions on the nature of suffering and death that does not allow us to, with a broad stroke, waive away this narrative and fast-forward directly on to the resurrection. The resurrection is a miracle, not a magic trick. We as Christians are often pictured as smiling happy people holding hands, always bubbling up with joy and having a silver-lining attitude, sometimes with a profoundly naïve or simple-minded outlook on life. We should be very wary of that kind of superficial caricature, which is often a form of mockery. We should notice the profound and significant role suffering and death play within the Gospel narrative, the whole Bible itself, and how we deal with it in our lives.
One way, is an explanation I heard during a discussion between a few academics that is very simple, quite popular. “When I see suffering” one academic said, “I remind myself that everything is meaningless”. What this academic means was not that only suffering was meaningless, but rather that our whole existence is meaningless, that principles such as goodness or justice, our thoughts, our needs and wants, are merely subjective illusions. Indeed, even truth itself becomes meaningless, making Pilates question “What is truth?” particularly apt. Now, let us, for a moment be generous to this argument, understanding that if “everything is meaningless”, then the very statement “everything is meaningless” is meaningless, and is therefore self-defeating; and allow some room for it in our thoughts. It is not a new argument; Bertrand Russel, understanding the laws of thermodynamics predicting the inevitable heat death of the universe, wrote “all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins”. Lady MacBeth perhaps said it most poetically “Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury /Signifying nothing.” Now, imagine it in practice, in daily living, as a mode of existence. How can we live like this? All the big questions of life could be answered with an indifferent shrug and a ”So what?” Does it alleviate suffering? Does it soothe a grieving person to tell them, that their suffering or the suffering of a loved one is meaningless? No, it does not; perhaps because the one thing worse than suffering is meaningless suffering.
Another way to deal with suffering, quite common in our affluent society, is to salve suffering with pleasures; to cover it over and ignore it. Buying that new thing, eating an expensive meal, or going on a nice vacation may seem like a quick fix to ease one’s suffering, but the new thing becomes old quickly, the food loses its taste, and travel reminds you of what is awaiting you at home. In another way, we make fun of suffering; attempting to turn tragedy into comedy. Tristram Shandy, an 18th century novel, written by an Anglican priest no less, is a fictitious autobiographical account of a rather sad invalid named Tristram Shandy, whose life is altogether, a Shaggy Dog joke, that is a joke that has no point. While the book is quite humorous, and I am sure you might laugh often if you read it, the last page of the book, and to be inferred, the ending of the character’s life is a black page, a void, a nothingness. Quite a punchline.
Lest we think that such reasoning is confined to secular discussion or literature, in the Book of Ecclesiastes, the wise Teacher states “Everything is meaningless” (NIV). The Teacher lists all conventional goods: laughter, wisdom, money, power, and judges them all as meaningless. And yet, and yet, there is something there, there is a meaning, at least, we can pick up from the Teacher that helps us answer the original question of how we deal with suffering and death, “Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better”.
It may be that suffering and sorrow and death, all those “nasty” things that are weaved into our lives, are actually something necessary and meaningful. It seems very odd to say this, something seems wrong about it, something like saying “Good Friday” to commemorate the torture and death of Jesus. But this is actually what Viktor Frankl states in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. He states that “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.” Dr. Frankl was a Jewish man, doctor of psychology, who was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during WWII. During which time, 3 years, he endured immense suffering (torture, disease, starvation) and when released from these camps, found all his family dead. While he was in the concentration camp, stripped of his freedom though, he theorized that man creates meaning in his/her life by 1) Work and creation 2) Through love and relationship or experience and lastly, 3) the inner-decision to choose one’s response based on personal and objective principles in the face of suffering. And here, perhaps we have a bit of, the beginning of an answer to our question. We find that that last freedom, the only freedom that cannot be taken away from a person, is the ability to choose, in any give set of circumstances, one’s attitude and response.
And what choices do we see in the Passion of Jesus, when he freedom is limited to only choose his attitude and response? We see a person, very much like us, who completely understands the meaning of his life, and what he wants his life to mean in the future. It is both a uniquely personal and subjective and, yet, expression of objective principles of love, mercy, and faith. We see Jesus, tortured and crucified, offering mercy to a criminal, and arranging the care of his mother. And we see Jesus giving up his Spirit to God and offering himself as a ransom for those who betrayed him, those that fled him, those that killed him.
Perhaps it is that God’s love, Jesus’s love, the absolute best of love, the highest love, can only be expressed through suffering. Perhaps our collective suffering binds us, connects us more closely than all the joys and triumphs we experience. Perhaps suffering is carrying the burden of another; think of Frodo from the Lord of the Rings, carrying that ring to the mountain. Perhaps suffering is a pathway to redemption; think of Ebenezer Scrooge moved by compassion for Tiny Tim and the assuredness of his own death and changes himself for the better. Perhaps suffering strips us of our false selves to reveal what we all are, human souls, yearning to be loved and to love. Perhaps suffering is an opening to enlightenment or transformation. And yes, suffering and death are the portal to our resurrection.
Perhaps, when we find the meaning, our meaning of our lives, that co-creation between God and ourselves which is so uniquely ours, within the greater meaning of loving and knowing ourselves, loving and knowing others and loving and knowing God; and yes, finding the meaning of our suffering, it ceases to be just suffering, perhaps it becomes a loving sacrifice. And perhaps that is why we call it Good Friday.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.