Spend some intentional time learning about Chicago, and it won’t take long before you realize its story is one of two cities. Over the West and South sides hangs the shadow of death. It is so large that it encompasses whole neighborhoods. It is so dark that, for many of the folk who live there, they don’t expect to live past 21.
This is unfathomable for folk on the Northside. There, people take out 30-year loans … and then they pay them off because they expect to live. They negotiate for retirement benefits, and advocate for the protection of government programs like Social Security because they expect to get old. Their story is one that expects to have a life beyond today.
In spite of what politicians might say, this isn’t unique to Chicago. Head to any metro area in the United States and you are bound to find a segment of people who don’t think twice about tomorrow, and another who are doubtful of its coming. What kind of messed up world lets such disproportionate expectations exist mere miles from one another?
Every year, on a Friday, as spring makes itself as obvious as bare arms on a 47-degree day, the Christian tradition asks its faithful to stand in the tension of this question. Every year, on a Friday, we are challenged by the shadows that loom. We are challenged with darkness itself. We are challenged to throw away everything we thought we knew and to cling to the fractured remains. On a Friday, hope, in the person of Jesus, dies on a cross so that the gap of those miles will be brought to an arm’s length.
No more figments of our imagination. No more wild fantasies of everything being the way we want it — the way we dream about it. Those hopes are swallowed whole by the shadows. Because, for a moment God is dead. And, for a moment, we are left facing who we are in a creation where there is nothing more than this.
I’m glad it only comes once a year. The scripture we read … the passion narrative that we share … it tortures me in the way only the greatest of tragedies can. I am left feeling helpless. When Jesus screams in his loneliness and agony, a little of me dies. I know what is coming in three days, and still a little of me dies.
And that is because I’ve seen this part all-too-often. I have first-hand knowledge of it. I have been in the room with a mother while her young son convulses on stainless steel table and breathes his last. She has knocked me down, running to his side … screaming in tones I cannot imitate. Skilled physicians and nurses stand silent. Their posture: one of defeat. From the floor, I want to say “Mercy, Lord. Mercy.” But I have no breath to push out those words. This passion of Jesus it kills me, because I know it. And because I have yet to see a person be resurrected.
The best we get, it seems, are the little redemptive moments like the one that Jesus has with his mother and closest friend. Jesus asks John and Mary to be family to each other in his absence. This moment, and his prayers in the garden beforehand, often make me wonder if Jesus didn’t see Friday in the same, final way as did his family and friends; that when his eyes closed it was the end; that when the stone is rolled in front of the tomb he’s all-but forgotten. I am no more.
So what makes this night “good”? That depends on what you consider “good” to be. If goodness to you is some sort of satisfaction or enjoyment — like eating a bucket of ice cream — then there is nothing good about it. But if goodness is something that brings wholeness or health — like brussel sprouts or leafy greens — then this Friday can be good. If it is about wholeness, then God dying is a good thing.
Because until you go to that place — to the foot of the cross, where the water of life pours out and disappears into the earth — you won’t understand Easter. Until you watch your dreams be pulled down limp and lifeless, you won’t understand what is truly important. Until you watch your hope be encased in rock and hidden, you won’t understand why you had ever hoped. Without experiencing nothing, we cannot appreciate anything.
Once you’ve seen the ugliness of a dark night, beauty is no longer just an ethereal aesthetic. Once you’ve seen a dark night, beauty becomes the antithesis of that darkness, and it makes you weep, because in it you encounter both God and the recollection of that absence of God. It takes darkness for faith to emerge. It takes losing faith in the darkness for a new faith to come.
This is the real gift of Friday. This is why we call it “good.” Because without it, good for the Christian would be a vapor. It would just be an idea. A moral position. Instead, good is costly. Good is that facade coming down. Good is real change. A real transformation. A real trust.
Good is God.
If you still believe that on Friday, Sunday becomes the most beautiful thing you’ve ever experienced.
— Matthew Johnson