Good Friday 2016
The Wood of the Manger is the Hard Wood of the Cross
I have always thought that to make sense out of Good Friday and just why it is so good requires some reflection upon that other Christian festival that for reasons that are more patriotic than theological outshines Holy Week and Easter in American culture: that would be, of course, Christmas.
So when John writes that it was “about the sixth hour” on the Day of Preparation, he is signaling that in Jerusalem as Passover approaches, it is one chaotic and busy time! And since John also places Passover on the Sabbath, it means that on top of Passover there is the already hectic and frantic running around town that takes place in Jerusalem before the beginning of the Sabbath every week: the shopping areas and markets are just teeming with people buying, selling, haggling, yelling, pushing, shoving, racing and just about every other kind of ing-ing imaginable. Having been in the markets of Jerusalem hours before the Sabbath begins I can confirm that not much has changed in this regard.
Which is to say it is like the Day of Preparation before Christmas Eve, say, when relatives are arriving at the airport, the train station and the front door, some early, some late, a blessed few on time. A day when all bon fide, red-blooded U.S. males are completing long put off last minute shopping. Kitchens are marked off with yellow caution tape with ingredients and spicy invectives flying through the air. Kids are tugging at peoples’ apron strings, overcoats, pants legs and demanding to know when when when can we open the first gift?!? Uncle Pete is asleep in the parlor, while Aunt Hilda is busy trying to convince the household teens that yes, we do dress up for Christmas, and yes, we do dress up for Christmas dinner. While all the while the soft glow of the moon’s beams reflects off the pillows of new fallen snow.
Which is to say, most people in Jerusalem are not at all present, let alone aware of, at the insignificant little drama going on down at the Pro-Counsel’s office. In fact, most people in first-century Jerusalem would make it their habit to stay as far away from Pilate, the most brutal Pro-Counsel ever, and his Roman minions as possible every day of the year.
So it came as no surprise to me to learn that there is a long tradition that says the hard wood of the manger is the hard wood of the cross. It works of course the other way around: the hard wood of the cross is the hard wood of the manger. Christmas and Good Friday really mean to convey the same truth: God chose to become incarnate, that is human, and experience all that being human entails, which ultimately speaking leads to death. Not always the horrible death depicted on the Roman crosses used for executing only the lowliest of the low, but death nonetheless.
To put it another way, being born into this world of Mary the God-Bearer, and being fully human, not part human and part something else, means that he was in fact born to die. That seems obvious to us at this point, but it never seems quite so obvious as we joyfully entertain ourselves with Christmas Carols, building the crèche, swinging the incense, gazing at poinsettias and falling on our knees to sing Silent Night, dimming the lights to inject about as much treacle as one church can possibly bear at one time. It all seems so, well, darling and sweet at the time. Death tends to be the last thing on our minds.
Enter Good Friday to remind us that Christmas is one of the reasons Good Friday is Good. Since receiving a sentence of capital punishment and being executed all in one day does not stir up visions of sugar plums or anything else good in our little Christmas saturated heads. Good Friday is Good because of Christmas – because Jesus Christ the human being means that God entered our reality, allowing that we may, and even should, be human beings before God. Being created in God’s image carries some responsibilities after all, and being human before God is as good a place to start as any. Nevertheless, as Dietrich Bonhoffer has observed [“Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection” in Meditations on the Cross (Westminster John Knox, Louisville:1996) p.76ff], this God with us, Emmanuel, is not a simple confirmation of the goodness of humankind. The decisive distinction is that Jesus was without sin.
“Among other human beings, however, Jesus lived in deep poverty, unmarried, and died as a criminal. So Jesus’ human existence already contains a double condemnation of human beings: the absolute condemnation of sin, and the relative condemnation of human circumstances.” p. 76
Yet, despite this double condemnation, of which we are to take careful note, Jesus himself is genuinely human and wants us to be genuinely human as well, while at the same time indicating that we are not the ultimate end of creation, but rather of penultimate status. As such we are to be taken seriously, but not that seriously, since hidden deep within us, like yeast in a lump of dough, are the seeds for the Kingdom of God – that is the potential for life as God truly wants it to be – free of poverty, crime and isolated individuals.
This reality of this incarnate double condemnation does seem inevitably to lead to the Cross – a cross which until later in the Good Friday service is conspicuous by its absence from the sanctuary. Some churches do not even bring it in at all, so powerful is its presence and meaning in our midst. We prefer, perhaps, to meditate on the hard wood of the manger.
Jesus Christ, the Crucified – “This means,” writes Bonhoffer, “that God has pronounced the final judgment over fallen creation. God’s rejection which happened on the cross of Jesus Christ contains the rejection of the human race without exception.” p.77
It is the “without exception” clause that is perhaps deserving of most of our attention. For it leaves no room to boast of our being human, nor the world of its divine order. Lest we think this is primitive stuff, we need only recall that in the writings and visions of the prophets God is frequently pictured as putting humanity on trial with Creation in the jury box. So just for a moment imagine a jury box filled with trees, flowers, birds, animals, fish, whales, crabs and oysters. Their duty as jurors will be to determine whether or not we have succeeded or failed in our duties as Stewards of all creation – the Earth and all that is therein – this fragile Earth our Island Home. One does not need to be a die-hard proponent of Climate Change and its causes to hazard a guess at the jury’s verdict. Rampant greed fueled by consumer-driven capitalism does have its down sides – destruction of the Earth for one, and usually the grinding up of human labor as another. Someone has to fund all those year-end corporate bonuses and golden parachutes. We contribute whether we mean to or not. Usually the grinding of the market economy, so-called, does not allow much time to reflect on all of this. This is one good reason to take time on Good Friday to simply sit and think about the unthinkable.
Yet, it is under the symbol of death –the cross - that human beings are now to live on, “in judgment upon themselves if they despise it, or toward their own salvation if they acknowledge it.” At the end of the day, we can choose – we can choose to see the cross as judgment or as grace. The latter, of course, is what leads to Good Friday being good.
And not to run too far ahead, but it is of course Jesus Christ, the Resurrected that makes Good Friday truly and ultimately Good! For it is in Christ’s resurrection that God brings an end to death and calls a new creation into being. “See,” says the Risen Lord, “I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:5)
Just because it is Good Friday does not mean that we or the world are frozen in time and place. In Christ being raised from the dead resurrection and new life has already commenced in the midst of this tired old world with its wars and tumults of wars, famine, poverty, cancer, depression, hunger, and all manner of sufferings. In the lives of those who are baptized into the Body of Christ, a beachhead is set. Resurrection is a sign of this old world’s end and of its inevitable future. And so human beings remain human, though sharing in Christ’s resurrection we in no way resemble the old human beings if we are among those who acknowledge the cross as grace. To be sure, up to the boundary of our own death, “those who are resurrected with Christ remain in the world of the penultimate, the world into which Jesus himself entered and in which the cross stands. Thus, as long as the earth exists, the resurrection will not suspend the penultimate, even though eternal life, new life breaks into earthly life ever more powerfully and creates space for itself in that life.” p.78
Incarnation, cross, and resurrection become clear in their unity and in their differences. They make up a kind of mosaic of life in Christ – we cannot survive with just one dimension of God in Christ, we need all three at all times and in all places. “Christian Life means being human by virtue of the incarnation, it means being judged and pardoned by virtue of the cross, and means to live a new life in the power of resurrection. None of these becomes real without the others.” p.78
The wood of the manger is the hard wood of the cross. The Biblical story begins with a tree in a garden, and begins all over again on a tree in Jerusalem. Good Friday is good when we take the time to reflect on just where we stand in the midst of the three dimensions of life in Christ – Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection. Where we find our selves and where we can see our selves makes all the difference in the world and for the world. Even in times as chaotic and disruptive as the sixth hour on the Day of Preparation, we come to prepare ourselves to be fully incorporated into the full life of Christ and the Body of Christ, His Church.