Today is Good Friday, and in many American churches this evening the sanctuary lights will be turned low and old hymns will be sung; hymns expressing exclusively the incomparble tragedy of the cross. The glow of reading lamps illuminating music stands and their sheet music will twinkle like small stars—the atmosphere solemn and beautiful. In other worship spaces the bulky instrument on which Christ was crucified will no doubt overshadow stages and pulpits, linger like a gatekeeper in entrance ways, or be intentionally unsettling and dimly backlit. In some churches the cross will be sidelined, prepared beforehand only to exist at our peripherals, as the full story which does not conclude in death begins anew on Easter Morning.
All around the world the church will practice its ancient rituals. In Quito, Ecuador, penitents will imitate the grueling procession leading toward Calvary, most participants hooded in purple robes, others trailing heavy metal chains, and some carrying full-size crosses or bent over, a crucifix shaped cactus tied against their bare backs and torturing their posture. In some countries, volunteers seeking purification will allow themselves to be whipped with cords or stinging nettle, a select few allowed to be a live spectacle imitating the holding power of the crucible as they spend a day bound by rope to a cross.
It is likely that in this age of detachment many will watch clips of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, hoping its visual intensity will stimulate a kind of spiritual vertigo that will ache them toward what might qualify as the real substance of Christianity.
At my church, a small Anglo-Catholic parish in Downtown Seattle, we will participate in a ritual fine-tuned over the past several hundred years and practiced around the world by what is sometimes referred to as the universal church. We will begin the service where the Maundy Thursday service ended, repeating as a congregation Psalm 22. We will stand before a bare altar—no candles, no bells, no flowers; and ultimately no denying the sudden loss of the one we had hoped was the messiah. We will venerate the cross, listen again to the reading of the passion, and finally exit the cathedral silently.
All this in an attempt to recreate what happened a little over two-thousand years ago. All this to pick up our own crosses as we journey alongside God this Holy Week.
It is not my intent to demean or trivialize any denominations practice of Good Friday, nor is it to suggest that one is better, more inclusive, or more consistent with history, than another.
For myself, it is this sense of imaginative nostalgia to witness the events of the passion that is both an achievement and failure of my imagination. We are given the power to locate ourselves in the past, to derive meaning from what happened, and translate those experiences to inform what is happening.
But the imagination is not a gift we should involve only to ache for what was, or stimulate to allow our eyes to glaze over with the certainty of what will be. The imagination should not exist only to translate the past; it should transfigure the present.
This is where I believe our blatant devotion to historical accuracy falls short of any saving power. More precise knowledge will not save you; the story of Eden demonstrates that. The saving power of the imagination lies in the possibility to see in new ways.
I admit, it is rare that I wrestle with the cross as it is made most bare; I prefer reaching beyond, ignoring what it actually is, and grasping for some more symbolic or eschatological significance. It is difficult to understand the cross as it was to the disciples that day, as the apparent annihilation of a friend, a leader, and savior. It is rare to grasp the cross as it actually happened, as the nails drove absolute certainty into the heart of the disciple’s experience of separation and shocking loss. Maybe it is impossible to imagine.Or maybe it is intended to push us toward reimagining the separation as we experience it; in the death of loved ones, betrayal by friends, shattered expectations, silenced hopes.
The cross is meant to center us in the grief of this world, not to imitate the suffering of a world which has passed. Because of my own inability to imagine, I fall prey to the ritual acts that attempt place me in that unexperienced and ancient setting where Christ is suspended and dripping before me. As uncomfortable as it is to articulate, I am becoming slowly convinced that attempting to recreate the cross as a historical event of two-thousand years ago can only fall short of its particular but piercing, absolute existence.
What if, instead of trying to recapture the pain of Jesus as it was, we took seriously the pain of Jesus as it exists today? I am not suggesting that we modernize our image of the historical Jesus to demonstrate his relevance to shifting cultural values. We cannot simply update and refresh Jesus so he appears clearer and more accessible. We must focus our attention on transforming our imaginations so that the suffering of the cross as it was felt and understood by Jesus’ followers in Ancient Palestine does not overshadow the suffering of today, and therefore diminish it. The suffering Jesus bore in mind and body grants us the possibility to see in new ways, to imagine what separations our world has endured, is enduring now, and will continue to endure, especially as the distance grows between that pain of separation from each other that Jesus and his loved ones experienced, and our own experiences of separation.
It is time to reimagine Jesus in our present day pews, at our dinner tables, in the faces of our loved ones leaving us. It is time to let the isolation of the cross collide with the isolation of women in brothels, those in abusive relationships, or sentenced to prisons of neglect, racism, abandonment, or sexism. It is time to lay down the cross we have been carrying for two-thousand years and pick up the cross of this day.
I welcome your thoughts