Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Significance of Good Friday

The following is a meditation I've posted on several Good Fridays over the years:

I sit at my computer on this Good Friday listening to Bach's St. Matthew's Passion and Henryk Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, looking forward to this evening when I have a "date" with my daughter to watch Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, and I wonder. I wonder if I, or anyone, can possibly understand the significance of Good Friday. Can I ever comprehend what it means that God, the creator of worlds, would care enough about me to endure what He did, so that I could have the hope that death does not have the final word about human life.

My existence, the existence of each of us, is astonishing enough. That mere matter could be so arranged as to generate a consciousness, a self-awareness, a rational mind, is, when one thinks about it, a truly amazing thing. That this consciousness might survive death in another reality, another world, is even more astounding. For some it's too astounding to be credible.

And yet if it's true...if it's in fact true that our eternal survival is a gift from God, purchased by Jesus Christ at a cost we may never be able to fully appreciate, it is a breath-taking, ineffable truth.

Some people think the Christian narrative is simply the apotheosis of an ancient myth, that a truly sophisticated, omniscient God would have found some way other than a primitive blood sacrifice to usher us into eternal joy. I don't know if there were other means at God's disposal or not, but it seems to me that the way the Bible tells us He chose is perfect for what He wanted to accomplish.

In the Christian account, God made us as an object of His love. He desires to live in a love relationship with us, but for whatever reason we often want no part of such a relationship. It's too confining, it involves too much self-abnegation, it entails too much of a constraint on our Dionysian appetites, it's too much of an affront to our pride, reason and dignity. Confident in our independence, we don't need God. In our autonomy we distort God's purposes and design plan for human life in order to suit and pursue our own selfish ends.

Nevertheless, God would not be dissuaded or put off. He persists in His relentless attempts to show us that all of our rationalizations for demanding our Promethean emancipation are just so many childish and foolish masks we put on to conceal the fact that we just don't want Him in our lives. He chooses to woo us to Himself not with threats or fear but with love. He chooses to demonstrate in an extraordinarily vivid way that His love for us is deeper than we could ever imagine.

To this end he does something totally unexpected and supererogatory. He becomes a man like one of us, shares in our humanity, our sufferings and joys, and ultimately endures the pain and horror of crucifixion. His life and death is the price that He is willing to pay, for reasons that we cannot understand this side of eternity, to secure eternal life and to make it available to everyone. He didn't have to do it, He could have left us alone to destroy ourselves and our planet, to fade into the cosmic oblivion that rejection of our Creator would have warranted. But because He did do it, He shows us not only that He is not simply some abstract deity, too transcendent to matter, but that He is personal and immanent, and that His love is not just a theoretical exercise, but has consequences which can change a life now and forever.

Charles Dickens captures something of the Divine love in the climax of his Tale of Two Cities when he has Sydney Carton, moved by his deep love for Lucie, smuggle himself into prison to take the place of Charles Darnay, the man Lucie really loves, knowing full well that his love is ultimately going to bring him to the guillotine. Carton substitutes himself for Charles and goes to the death to which Charles was sentenced in an expression of almost superhuman love.

Out of the depths of His love, God substituted Himself for us, submitting to torture and humiliation at the hands of His own creation, and enduring a horrific death so that we could live. He asks of us in return only our love.

We are in the position of a man clinging by his fingers to the edge of a cliff and slowly, inexorably losing his grip. The abyss of nihilism, of meaninglessness, emptiness and death, lies far below, but because of the cross there's a chance to be rescued. God stands above the struggling man, kneels and holds out His hand, urging the man to seize it. It's up to the man about to die, it's up to us, to accept the rescue that God offers. God has done all He can to persuade us, but He won't force us to grasp His hand. He won't override our will. He allows us to make the final decision whether to live or die.

That, at any rate, is the best I can do to explain my own wholly inadequate understanding of the Christian story and the meaning of Good Friday.