It is evening, after supper. They have enjoyed the Passover meal and Jesus tells of a betrayer. He takes bread and wine and, blessing them, tells his beloved friends that he has inaugurated a new covenant in his own blood. They struggle to comprehend this.
The scene shifts and they are on the mount of Olives, in the garden of Gethsemane. It is late, and they are tired, and Jesus insists on praying. “Keep watch with me and pray that you are not tempted”. He agonizes in prayer knowing what is about to befall him. He asks his Father that this “cup” pass from him. The cup of pain that he is about to drink and endure draws drops of blood like wine from his forehead.
Judas approaches with a band of temple soldiers. When Judas first met Jesus, he had such hope. He really believed that He would deliver Israel from Rome and bring a religious revival. Jesus was such a disappointment. Eating on the Sabbath, and with sinners. Casting out money changers from the temple and saying nothing about the Roman occupation. Allowing a woman to pour perfumed oil on his head, meanwhile the costly alabaster container and contents could have been sold at a great price and given in the temple and for the poor. He could take no more. It was time to bring this charade to an end.
Jesus stands before Annas the former high priest and father-in-law to the current high priest Caiaphas. He stands accused of threatening the destruction of the temple. He is a threat to the established order and the stability of the nation. Everyone is comfortable in their power roles in Jerusalem and no one wants to see that upset. Herod, the experts in religious law, the priests and the pharisees all have something to lose if this zealot Jesus comes to be in charge.
He is handed over to Pilate who wants to be sure that things should not get out of hand. Jesus is beaten, and his back is flayed open to the bone and raw. He is covered in blood. He offers to release him but the crowds have been astroturf'd with agents of the ruling class who cry riotously, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”. He is led away to be hanged on a cross.
The nail presses against the tendons on his wrist for but a moment and he feels them slip aside before, with one blow, the nail sears through his flesh and bone and stops at the wood. Three. More. Blows. A forth, and the head of it is buried in his flesh. His attention to this pain is drawn away by the other nail piercing his right wrist. The block is placed beneath his feet and the third nail is driven into the arch of his foot and through the other. The searing pain is like heat throughout his whole body. Wave after wave of it. His heart is beating out of his chest, hard and faster. He is hoisted up and his weight settles on the nail in his feet first. One would think that the body would reach a limit to the amount of pain that could be felt, but this stabs straight up his spine to the back of his head! His knees reflexively bend and collapse, and his weight pulls on the nails in his hands. If pain could be welcome this was better, but not.
Where does the spirit go when we are in anguish? What does it reach out for? Does it send unseen roots out into the darkness and into oblivion? Is there hope there? Has it any eternal reach? If the soil is thin, if it is rocky, if it is sun-scorched, if it is choked, can it find moisture? Under extreme pressure the soul will stretch in all directions looking for peace and finding none it returns to itself without hope. This is not Christ. There was not a day when He and the Father were not intertwined, interpenetrated. There is no darkness that can obliterate that connection, but there is human anguish, and that can seem to blot out the sun. “Why have you forsaken me”. God hangs on the cross and shares the lament of every human soul. He takes his last breath. A spear is thrust into his side. Water and blood spill upon the world.
They lay him in a tomb reserved for criminals, taken down before evening to preserve the religious purity of the land. The women look on as a large stone is rolled over the face of it. A guard is posted. Their hopes and hearts are locked up with him in the tomb as they stumble away weeping.
Christ is shut up in the house of the dead. There is no light, only piercing silence. A corpse lies motionless. But for three days, it is said; the spirit remains near to the body. What descent His Spirit made we know by scripture, that he breached the gates of hell and loosed those captive souls who waited long, from the days of Noah till His coming, in the house of the dead. And led by Christ in train they rise, from the infernal depths of the earth, through Him who holds the keys of hell and death, prisoners released.
On the night that God’s people were delivered from their bondage in Egypt, a threatening miasma hung over the land — the pestilence scouring the air, slaying the first-born of every Egyptian family. At the direction of Moses the Hebrews sacrificed a lamb and painted the door-posts with its blood. The spirit of death has them shut in as it passes by, moving from house to house. Their homes have become like a tomb. They share a meal, hastily made, of unleavened bread and bitter herbs and wait for morning. Soon they will escape their bondage and enjoy newfound freedom in the land of promise flowing with milk and honey.
On this Good Friday we have been laid in the tomb with Christ. We have been closed in, behind the doors of our homes like the Hebrews. We wait through the night with Mary Magdelene and Mary the Mother of Jesus, and with John and the other disciples on a promised resurrection. With them we are huddled in fear. We too, have been laid in the tomb of waiting, in the house of the dead. We too, are waiting for our release.
On this Good Friday, though we are expecting a Pascal-tide bereft of large family gatherings and joyous and overflowing church services, let us abide under the shadow of the Most High. Let us rest in the tomb with Christ. Let death have its perfect work. Most people do not know how to die. They do not know how to hang upon the cross or lie in the tomb. We would rather tear ourselves from the nails and walk the earth bloody and unresolved than die with God. Yet, we are taught to follow His example and take up our cross, the means of our expiration, to be transformed by it. This is a profoundly Christian mystery. Good Friday shows us that our path lies through the valley of the shadow of death. It teaches us not to fear death but to look beyond it, to life.
God has shut us up in the tomb, not to kill us, but to heal us. To save us from ourselves. God is giving rest to creation and letting it breathe. God has set a hushed silence upon our cities so we can disentangle ourselves from the lusts and cares of the world. He has gathered us together in our homes for a prolonged time of intimacy — to nurture and strengthen one another. Don’t let this hour go to waste. It is a time for reckoning ourselves with ourselves, with others and with God. It is a time to return to what matters most. Yes, clean air and a pure land, but also pure hearts and clean hands.
Here we wait beside the tomb in an abhorrent stillness. We accept our powerlessness in the face of circumstances we will not control. The future is unknown. Fear is nearby. But Christ is here already. He is here in the tomb. He is here in the house of the dead. He is here, and where God is there will always be life. Good Friday tells us that God is in the tomb and rises before we can rush in to see.