The mystical paradox of Good Friday
Even for believers, the story of Easter is full of strangeness and difficulty
“In spite of that, we call this Friday good.”
TS Eliot’s conclusion to part four of East Coker hints at the fundamental paradox of this most solemn day of the Christian calendar. Holy Week has been full of extraordinary human drama — the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, Judas’ betrayal, the agony in the garden of Gethsemane, the arrest of Jesus, the trial before Pilate. And now we come to the seeming ruin and collapse of all the dreams and hopes that had attached themselves to Jesus Christ. The man who called himself the Son of God will be executed like a common criminal; a cruel, prolonged death. He seems to acknowledge that he has been abandoned by the divine: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The crowds standing by are scornful.
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The gospel writers emphasise the humiliations undergone by Jesus. Not just the mockery and torture at the hands of the Roman soldiers, but also his being forced to carry the instrument of his death out to Golgotha, “the place of the skull”. There is the crucifixion itself, an almost unimaginably brutal method of execution. Jesus hangs on the cross most of the day, but after his death — around mid-afternoon — Joseph of Arimathea has his body decently buried. Keen students of Arthuriana may recall that Joseph later brought the Holy Grail to England, hiding it somewhere below Glastonbury Tor.
And yet, we are not at the end of the story. Perhaps this is not simply the disposal of a provincial rabble-rouser by a ruthless imperial power. Even Pontius Pilate, the patron saint of cowardly crowd-pleasing politicians, seems to have an inkling of that fact. When the religious authorities object to the Romans writing “King Of The Jews” on Jesus’ cross, he refuses to change it, retorting with cryptic brevity, “Quod scripsi, scripsi”; “what I have written, I have written”.
Then there is the apocalyptic detail recorded by Matthew and Mark, who tell us that Jesus’ last hours were accompanied by darkness and earthquakes, and his death itself marked by the tearing of the Temple veil, provoking that famous remark from the attending centurion, “Truly this was the Son of God!”. The loyal women stand by at the foot of the cross, in stark contrast to the disciples who abandoned him the night before. Most striking of all, for my money, is the beautiful detail of the penitent thief, recorded by Luke. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he pleads, and the Messiah assures him that they will be together in paradise.
In the Catholic Christian tradition, Good Friday is the middle act of the Triduum — three days of tremendous liturgical drama, starting with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on the evening of Maundy Thursday. It is the only day of the year on which the Eucharist is not celebrated, and from the end of the Good Friday devotions until the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, the tabernacle — the sacred vessel which usually contains consecrated hosts — is kept empty, symbolising Jesus’ absence from this world until the great celebration of Easter Sunday.
Even for believers, the story of Easter is full of strangeness and difficulty. For many modern people it is incomprehensible or alien, entirely divorced from the gentle pleasures of a four-day weekend and a well-roasted lamb joint. But in the dying words of Jesus — “it is accomplished” — there remains a burning question. What exactly was accomplished that day?
So much of the meaning of human life hinges on the answer.
For me, what was accomplished was the ‘Scapegoat for the ages’. The One on whom we can place our sin and redeem us. This only makes sense if we understand that we are all sinful in lesser and greater ways, and need redemption. Otherwise we torture ourselves – become angry and bitter and take our repressed self-hatred out on the outside world. Jesus Christ chose to be tortured in our place. This, of course, is very hard for typical modern man to understand.
We may well be “sinners” (although i dislike the term) but the way to redemption is to understand our humanity more completely – not to shy away from it via a religious outlet.
To put it another way, if Jesus thought he was dying (when he knew he wasn’t really) to save me, he might’ve done better to help develop a means by which we can learn to forgive ourselves. Two thousand years later, it’s time to start learning that for ourselves, by abandoning the religious outlook and taking responsibility rather than seeking ‘salvation’.
This gets to the real heart of the human condition; religion obfuscates it.
To ‘sin’ means to miss the mark or target. The human condition is such that we find it very hard to always hit the target cleanly. One doesn’t have to be religious to appreciate this. I must correct you. Jesus did die. That is part of his act of salvation. He only ‘knew’ that he would be raised to life. People are so busy rubbishing the gospels, that they fail to grasp this. Easter blessings to you whether you appreciate them or not!
You’re precisely right, though hopefully readers understand the precise and profound meaning of scapegoat.
Your comment reminded me of singing fascinating I learned tonight in this regard: one of Jesus’ last words, “it is finished” is “Tetelestai” in the original language. This word is found all over 2000 year old middle eastern documents, signing a completed contract or debt. What depth to then understand that in his last breaths, Jesus is saying “it is paid on full”. If only each of us could understand more and more the weight of that debt we create when we live in that tortured self-inflicted un-rightness that you describe (and then to understand more and more how high and how good is the light and freedom we are called to live within)
Thank you for your post. I didn’t know about tetelestai. I have nothing against atheists apart from their profound ignorance of Christianity: they generally don’t know/ understand what they don’t believe. I heard that Richard Dawkins is disinclined to debate with theologians. He argues against his own rudimentary idea of God and has no interest in developing his understanding.
Yes, I wear my Christianity proudly (after years of agnosticism) and get abused by people who are never interested in asking me what or why I believe. Irritating in the extreme!
The Ballard of the Judas Tree
by Ruth Etchells
In Hell there grew a Judas Tree Where Judas hanged and died Because he could not bear to see His master crucified
Our Lord descended into Hell And found his Judas there For ever hanging on the tree Grown from his own despair So Jesus cut his Judas down And took him in his arms
“It was for this I came” he said
“And not to do you harm
My Father gave me twelve good men And all of them I kept
Though one betrayed and one denied Some fled and others slept
In three days’ time I must return
To make the others glad
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had
My tree will grow in place of yours
Its roots lie here as well
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell”
So when we all condemned him
As of every traitor worst
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first.
I See His Blood Upon the Rose
Joseph Mary Plunkett
I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words. All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.
The Easter Story is one of Faith. Not logic, facts, algorithms, or spun media. It appears that millions around the world are bewildered by the loss of faith in the other millions in religion, institutions, and democracy. The strong will persevere, and might even lose in temporal but gain in eternity.
The question, and the answer, is found in this simple prospect: There is only one man in the history of this world who suffered a criminal death and then lived to tell about it. The deed was done so that His (truly) extraordinary story would be told among us homo sapiens for the rest of our time on this planet:
He’s the only one who died and then lived to tell about it? I’m going with him. How about you?
The Fullness of Timeby James Stephens
On a rusty iron throne,
Past the furthest star of space,
I saw Satan sit alone,
Old and haggard was his face;
For his work was done, and he
Rested in eternity.
And to him from out the sun
Came his father and his friend
Saying,—Now the work is done,
Enmity is at an end—
And He guided Satan to
Paradises that He knew.
Gabriel, without a frown;
Uriel, without a spear;
Raphael, came singing down,
Welcoming their ancient peer;
And they seated him beside
One who had been crucified!
In Holy Week
All the world’s still wrapped in gloom.
At such an early hour
How many stars – no man can know,
And each like daylight is aglow,
And could it choose, then all the globe
Might well have slept all Easter through
To the chant of psalm and prayer.
Still all the world is wrapped in gloom.
An age must pass till early dawn.
Eternally the square has lain,
Outstretched to the crossing of the roads.
Before the light and warmth return
Must pass a whole millennium.
The earth lies there, exposed, laid bare,
Bereft of its attire
For swinging bells in empty air
In echo to the choir.
And from Maundy Thursday through
Till Holy Saturday
Water eddies swirl and scoop
And etch the banks away.
The woodland too is stripped and bare,
And now, during Christ’s Passion,
Like solemn worshippers at prayer,
The pine trees pay attention.
And in a lesser space, in town,
As at a public meeting,
The naked trees all stand and strain
To peer through churchyard railings.
Their gaze is stricken with dismay.
There’s reason for such terror –
As gardens flood and fencing breaks
And all the earth’s foundations quake,
A God is being buried.
Then light gleams within the altar gates,
Black scarves and candles are held ready,
And tear-stained faces look about,
To welcome the procession.
And as they carry forth the Shroud,
Two birches at the entrance
Are forced to yield and bow them out.
They all process around the church,
Then back along the pavement,
Bringing spring and springtime talk
From open road onto the porch,
With a heady vernal air
And the breath of communion wafers.
March throws a scattering of snow
To the cripples on the portico,
As if somebody brought forth
A reliquary and disposed of
All down to the final thread.
The singing lasts until the dawn.
And now that every tear is spent,
The Apostles and the Psalms
Exit and depart, now calm,
Through lamp-lit emptiness.
At midnight man and beast fall dumb
On hearing springtime’s revelation:
Once the weather clears, then just as soon
Can death itself be overcome
By the power of Resurrection.
Translation by Christopher Barnes
Recognizing that compassion for animals as some have argued didn’t really become widespread until the advent of human pain relief in the early 19th c, and that I’m hopelessly anachronistic, I still find it hard, psychohistorically speaking, to grasp the concept of killing another animal or human to expiate my sins.
From a nondualist perspective, we’re all trapped in a human ego w/ brain filters designed to keep us incarnate for a time and that inherently distort our perception. Add to that humanity’s unique twisting of awareness into symbol systems inherently born & perpetuated in systems of human community & almost always power, and we’re, well, f*cked, in terms of “sin.” I get that radical enlightenment–becoming aware of the watcher of that endless noise in our heads and now in others (given 21st c tech) and recognizing the delusion in identifying it–is a form of a “kingdom of God,” “Heaven on Earth,” salvation, Nirvana.
But I still have a hard time understanding, psychologically speaking, how the deepest mystics would see Jesus’ sacrifice as salvation. I get how psychologically speaking we seek Others to blame (Jews, Blacks, now whites, rich, poor, and usually women women women) through projection. But anyone w/ a lick of sense in them realizes that no other creature or Son of God can take our sin for us, nor ever could.
I’ve generally understood the scapegoat issue to be symbolic, but in the 21st c when I still hear mystics talk about Jesus dying for our sins, I’m like what? You must mean, died on the crucifix to teach us that life is pain but not necessarily suffering–that the cross is humanity’s ultimate symbol of helplessness before our incarnate existence, and to accept that radically entails enlightenment.
I get that, but I don’t get the psychological of the interim stuff….I mean, how could anyone kill a pigeon or cow or another human and believe that the spirits around them would bless them, when they didn’t suffer in the slightest except perhaps monetarily? How could that not have been seen as an act of profound selfishness well before Roman occupation and/or Roman emperor worship?
Thx for the article.
So are you asking for someone to tell you why? I could talk for hours on it, two days ago in a long car trip I did discuss exactly that as it had been a topic that came up.
If you have spent a lot of study and thought on this then it seems you have better forums to address that question. And if it is just something which has popped into your head, it seems there are better forums for asking about this.
But I guess I would say that as Middle Class Westerners in 2023 we live a life so utterly removed from ultimate issues that all which can really make sense of is making money and maintaining a safe and comfortable life. We are so removed from all the travails of life almost all who went before us lived surrounded by. We have wrapped ourselves in so many layers of security they keep us safe, but also block out us being able to see ultimate matters.
Throughout history from the Dark Ages till about WWI and after WWII even, life was precarious – people lived in conditions where ultimate matters were everywhere. And almost every person believed in the Christian God and Religion. They believed. High and Low. They could see things without the layers and layers of security padding we are wrapped in. It is hard to get ultimate matters when we live such a cossetted and shallow life. People then could make some sense of what you do not.
The thing is you are taking symbolic and trying to understand it as practical. It is not so easy. You are looking at an act and trying to find ultimate in it but have not got the language and life experience to get it….an ultimate question in a mundane and secular society is not going to make sense.
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