What Makes It Good?
On Good Friday, a patient asked me, “Why do they call it good? Isn’t that the day Jesus died?”
I was uncertain. Not about how a day of death and despair might be good. Seeds need darkness to sprout. Without death, there can be no life. When we lose hope, we can find new meaning. The descent into hell makes resurrection possible.
Though I said something about that, it wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He had his own Easter story, his own fall into the pit of illness and agony. He also had his own surfacing. Though not yet a resurrection, he could tell he was mending. He would live through this and come out stronger. Having drowned, and having survived long enough to raise his head above the waves, he knew more than I did about Christ’s journey, yet no matter what platitudes I could offer about lessons and blessings and the decay that feeds life, he would not call that Good Friday journey good.
I could accept that. Sometimes not even Easter makes our pain worthwhile.
Despair and Redemption
But what he really wanted to know was whether or not Jesus died on Friday, and I couldn’t tell him. I didn’t remember. I knew the story. There was the dinner with the disciples, the betrayal by Judas, that miserable, comfortless night in the garden. In that place of beauty, that courtyard with its sweet fragrance and soft moonlight, Jesus knew only pain. There, he begged for release.
We all know that his wish was not granted. He was captured, humiliated, and crucified. He endured a long, slow death, hastened by the stab of a spear to his side.
My confusion stemmed from knowing that it was three days before he rose, and how do you get three days between Friday and Sunday? Afterward, I asked my chaplain colleagues about it, and they explained that Good Friday and Easter were included in the counting. But while I was with the patient, I had to admit my ignorance, to confess that I wasn’t Christian.
He seemed to forgive me for that, not looking askance at me, nor commenting on my failure. As was typical for him, he requested a prayer, accepting my words with the same gentle grace as always. There is no sin in being other than what someone expects, but his acceptance felt a little like redemption.
Terror of Death
That same day, a colleague told me of a man who developed cancer. Soon the disease infiltrated his body. The doctors told him he had but a month or so to live, that the wisest course would be to opt for comfort. If he stopped treatment, he might enjoy a bit of peace before he died.
What they didn’t understand, though, was that peace was impossible for him. He was certain he would go to hell when he died, so he clung to life. He demanded every possible intervention. If his heart stopped, he wanted to be revived.
Panic gripped him, and no one could talk him out of it. No logic could influence him, no measure of compassion could soothe his hammering heart. So he pretended he could cheat death, that he could live forever. Nothing else would be enough.
Terror Changes Us
My colleague’s story reminded me of a man I visited with a few times when he passed through our hospital walls. He shared a similar terror, a desperate fear of hell.
For him, though, death itself wasn’t the enemy. The enemy was straying from the proper path. Convinced that hell would claim him if he did the wrong thing or embraced the wrong beliefs, he accepted the rigid rules and self-righteousness of conservative Christianity, beliefs he didn’t even respect. He battled his own kindness, his naturally welcoming heart, his love of a grace-filled god. He rejected the values he once held dear.
It was quite a switch for him. He advocated for those with nonbinary gender identities, and he supported the right of a woman to abortion. A liberal Catholic, he was not afraid to defy the teachings of the pope. By doing so, he gave hope, courage, and faith to many.
But fear niggled deep within the recesses of his spirit. Who knows where it came from? He might have been abandoned as a child, witnessed some unspeakable horror, accepted a lie, been frightened by a dream.
However it began, the fear festered, causing him to question God’s motives, as if a human could possibly know God’s mind. Over time, he inched his way toward a theology that condemned the very empathy he practiced. The change within him pained his own heart, and it devastated those who had once believed in him. Relationships broke apart. He mourned. It felt like a tragedy.
Embracing A Theology Not Our Own
Even so, he could not turn away from the promise that right-wing theologians make, the promise that a place in that golden realm above the sky is waiting for us if only we make ourselves worthy. If we obey the rules, if we spread judgment, if we condemn what we are told to condemn, God will love us. All this man had to do was reject those he cared about. He only had to betray his own soul.
That might seem like a terrible thing, and it was. He felt the pain. But he craved certainty. He had to know that God would welcome him home, and self-righteousness seemed like a safe bet. After all, if God forgives everything, and if God accepts everyone in heaven, then this man would be saved no matter how many times he failed himself or his loved ones.
On the other hand, if this gentle and welcoming god were a mirage, and if that god of wrathful justice were the true one, then, to be given salvation, this man would need to claim a conservative theology as his own, even if it tore him up inside. Fear makes us do such things. When we are desperate to survive, we will accept the shame of infamy.
The promise of heaven can be a wonderful thing. It can bring hope when times are hard. But any dualistic theology means that, if there’s a heaven, there has to be a hell. If some things are right, then others are wrong. If good exists, so does evil. When we invent a paradise, eventually we restrict it, so that only the worthy need apply.
A Caricature of Ourselves
In that case, we need to define worthiness. What is good and right and deserving? The opposite will be bad and wrong and sinful. In a binary world, if some are blessed, then others must be chastised and denigrated and destroyed.
Though we like to think our wrath is righteous, it’s not our holiness that compels us to vilify others, but our fear. Not only do we fear hell, but we also fear own unworthiness. To triumph over an internal shame we cannot escape, we are willing to cast into hell those who do not follow our path. We pretend that hate is love. Out of fear, we make life brutal for many. At the same time, we kill all that is beautiful and tender and forgiving in ourselves, and we do it in some misguided attempt to earn heavenly bliss.
But what good is heaven if, to acquire it, we must twist ourselves into a caricature of a human being? How can we enjoy those streets of gold if, for the rest of eternity, we must walk down them remembering that we betrayed everything that ever mattered to us, wounded every person we ever loved, ignored every whisper of mercy that sounded within our minds?
As a Universalist, I believe everyone goes to heaven, if such a place exists. How we behave now has nothing to do with salvation itself. I wonder, though, if our earthly choices don’t dictate what heaven feels like to us? If we are cruel and foolish enough to yield to terror and resentment, if we sully our souls with the shame of judgment, perhaps the golden cobblestones will not feel soft beneath our feet, but instead, will burn like fire. Hell lies not in some physical realm, but within our hearts.
Believing We Are Safe
We create hell not just by how we think and feel, but also by what we do. We create hell on earth. That’s why we need salvation in the first place, but we find it not found only in resurrection, but in redemption, too.
This year, Good Friday is also the beginning of Passover, that holiday that celebrates the moment God saved the Hebrew slaves from their suffering in Egypt.
I imagine my father’s family when he was a boy in Germany, sitting around the Seder table, candles flickering. I suppose they ate matzo, recited the Haggadah, recalled the flight of their ancestors, never suspecting that a few years later, they, too, would have to flee. They, too, would seek deliverance from persecution.
Today we continue to create refugees. We fight wars and force people into servitude as domestics, laborers, and sexual objects. Climate change has whipped nature into a frenzy, intensifying storms and fires, forcing people to flee with less than the lump of unleavened bread the Hebrews took with them.
Displacement is more common than we like to think, we who sit in our insulated homes, watching our favorite shows, planning Sunday dinner as if Sunday will come and go without notice. It’s true that some people live their entire lives protected from the violence that rends flesh and shatters continents. When we gain power, we too often use it to destroy the bodies and souls of people we claim aren’t really human. If we look like one of the powerful, or talk like them, or smell of the same sweat and grime, we have the luxury of pretending we are safe from all ills.
The Salt of Tears
But even if we have felt the sting of oppression and violence, we may get lulled into a sense of security, going about our chores in ignorance of what will come. Is that so wrong? Should we, instead, suffer as Jesus did, kneeling on the stony ground of the courtyard in Gethsemane, abandoned by our friends, knowing what fate intends for us? Is it not a kind of hell to see the future? Must we, like Jesus, suffer twice?
But the story of Easter proclaims that suffering can end. After salvation, there will be no more running, no more damnation, no more need to remember the past that plagued us, nor fear a future that could destroy us. Both Passover and Easter are about redemption, about saving the souls of the tormented.
So why is Good Friday good? It is good because the dark is good, because out of despair, grace and kindness and courage can flourish. From the depths of the grave, from winter, from earthquakes and tsunamis, from any destruction the enemy can wreak, life is born. Faith blossoms. Humans reach out to one another and cry and comfort and laugh and eat the bread that is given, the matzo and manna, made all the sweeter because it is flavored with the salt of tears.
Resurrection is everywhere. For the Hindus, not even the death of the universe is the end. In the fullness of timelessness, a shift will occur, and another universe will explode into life. Over and over, we die and rise again. Over and over, we defeat the hell-bringers.
All Stories Lead to Salvation
Freedom isn’t easy, though. For hundreds of years, the Hebrews begged God for deliverance before he helped them escape. Then they had to wander in the desert, with no shelter from the heat and nothing to eat but manna and no idea where they were going. How torturous is that?
No wonder Good Friday is a day of tears. Tragedy never ends. Not even the resurrection brought bliss. Pilate was still governor of Judea, and Emperor Tiberius still reigned. Jesus may have died and come back to life, but the people still suffered. Two thousand years later, we continue to use our might to kill and maim and enslave. We still create all the hell we need here on earth.
Yet after every disaster, we rally. We soothe, comfort, bless, and forgive. Good Friday does yield to Easter. Slavery is not the end. No matter how often we yield to our fears, nor how many people we betray, redemption is available. Grace is stronger than hate. The wonder and magnificence of the world are as much a part of life as are sorrow and suffering. All spiritual paths lead to this, that love is the ground, peace the container, and resurrection the balm that heals all hurts.
The healing story need not be a Christian one. Resurrection is everywhere. Perhaps it’s a human fault to seek the blessing in everything, but some days, that’s the only way we manage to go on. In this time of fear and anger, of war and violence, when so many around the world struggle with loneliness, emptiness, and impotent rage, we need that blessing. We need the peace that passes understanding. We need the redemption of Passover and the resurrection of Easter. May they bring healing to our world.
In faith and fondness,
Photo by Christian Puta from Unsplash
Copyright © 2022 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.