But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole. It's pretty lofty, this writing from Isaiah. So, too, is the long discussion of sacrifice from the letter to the Hebrews that we read every Good Friday. By reading these passages we are encouraged to believe that Jesus died, and not just died, but was brutally killed for the sake of a greater cause, a greater good.
We call this ancient and time-tested understanding the doctrine of the "atonement;" in all of its many forms it attempts, in the end, to make sense out of what is, essentially, a completely senseless situation. In this way, the ancient teaching seems to be strikingly human. How often we find ourselves attempting to see some semblance of order, to find a place of stability on which to stand in the face of disaster, death, and decay.
We need only to remember, if just for a moment, that the Disciples, witnessing the crucifixion of their teacher and friend almost 2,000 years ago, did not have the book of Hebrews to read. It is also unlikely, even assuming that they could read, that they would have been devotedly quoting Isaiah as their would-be Messiah was hanging from the cross. We have so often forgotten, it seems, that a critical part of our Good Friday experience is to live, as best we can, as witnesses of the horror and senselessness of the crucifixion.
None of the players in John's passion narrative even remotely have things "figured out." The Disciples resort to violence and scatter in panic long before the most important action takes place. Even Pilate, the most powerful figure in the story, finds himself watching over events whirling violently out of control. After his famously cynical remark, "What is truth?" we find him vehemently chastising Jesus for not recognizing the governor's power of life and death over him. But it is only a few verses later that Pilate realizes he can no longer stop the process that has begun. The people are furious; they want blood, and they want it right away. Pilate's power suddenly evaporates; he can only write the inscription for the cross and walk away from the carnage of the day.
Jesus, the man who would be God, is swept up into the hands of soldiers, police, and priests; he is beaten, mocked, and scourged in a way that ought to chill our bones to a degree beyond the awe we might feel at the fulfillment of a scriptural prophecy. And while the author of John writes with such an emphasis on symbolism, scriptural fulfillment, and deep meaning, there is no loss of the terror and emptiness of the crucifixion experience - an experience which leaves our Savior, a victim of institutionalized violence, with only three final words: "It is finished."
We are so much like the Disciples of the story. We want our Messiah to make to sense, to rise up over of the powers and principalities, and to rule. We yearn desperately for an end to our human suffering, the many tragedies that touch our lives. We want a God who is willing to wreak havoc on our enemies, to arm us with strength over those who hurt us. At our best, we might not want that too much, perhaps, but we at least want complete freedom in knowing that we can't be harmed any longer. And, in our strikingly human way, we'll turn to comforting explanations, theologies, and stories to try to make sense of our messy lives.
This is the Messiah we want, the God we think we need; but it is not the God we have. If we dare believe that we can hide behind our vast and lofty explanations and shrug the crucifixion off as something that happened a long time ago to satisfy an old score, we risk losing sight of the importance of this event in our lives.
The truth is that most of us know what the crucifixion is about, even if we have only encountered a sliver of the terror that Jesus and his Disciples knew at that particular moment in history. We all have been touched by death and its often-inherent meaninglessness. Even if a death has meaning, there is rarely a lack of sorrow, a sense of incomprehensible loss.
If we have not yet experienced the death of a loved one, we know how often senseless acts intersect and disrupt our orderly lives, our plans for something better for ourselves and for those whom we love. Losing a job, exchanging angry words with friend or stranger, or the breakup of a friendship or household: these are all such inexplicably heartbreaking events, especially when seen against a backdrop of systemic violence that continues to dominate life in our world.
And it is at these points of change, disruption, and confusion that we need the Messiah we have. Somehow, because Jesus suffered crucifixion, death, dissolution, abandonment, betrayal, we know ours is the God of the emergency room, the hospital ward, the battlefield, the crime scene, the broken family, the broken friendship, and our shattered hearts. And it is here that we meet our Messiah every bit as much as we meet the Spirit of God in the sunsets, the rivers, the gardens, and in the laughter of our friends and loved ones.
This is the Good News of Good Friday: God has been and will be in the most awful places in which we find ourselves, even in the places where we are sure God is absent. That is what we can learn when we confront the crucifixion in all of its ugliness and horror. Jesus' struggles and failure in death is a profound affirmation of our own many struggles and failures in the chaos of our lives.
And it is in the face of our darkest moments, even in the reality of our own death, that we are granted permission to give ourselves completely over, as Christ did, to the seemingly impossible potential that somehow, in the end, God might draw grace out of senselessness.