Good Friday as Good News, Part V
In the first four posts in this series, I discussed various understandings of the cross and its meanings—as 1) an ugly symbol of power and oppression, 2) a moment of Jesus’ extreme faithfulness and the unleashing God’s love for him, 3) an act of “chesed” (stubborn, committed love) for the world, and 4) as God’s victory over the abyss of the human experience of futility, meaninglessness, and uselessness.
Another of the less emphatic, but clearly present, meanings of the cross in the New Testament writings, addresses a growing concern in the modern world: God addressing the human experience of isolation, abandonment, and loneliness.
As our knowledge of the vastness of the universe as we know it so far grows, as the awareness of the importance and yet fragility of all relationships grows, as our awareness of the uniqueness of each person’s way of experiencing and perceiving becomes more scientifically verifiable, and as the dysfunctional side of even the best of human friendships and families becomes more common knowledge, the human experience of isolation and loneliness has become more acute
However, this reality is not something first discovered in the 20th and 21st centuries. It is attested throughout human history, and was one of the main points of the Old Testament books of Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes, and Job as well as the author of Psalm 22. It would be difficult to exaggerate the profound sense of overwhelming loneliness due to isolation from, and abandonment by, family, friends, church, nation, and God experienced by each of these believers.
All of this is faced head on by Jesus as he approaches his execution. He had often been misunderstood by family, friends, and followers throughout his ministry, but this sense of isolation reaches a crescendo during his last week. He tries to tell his closest disciples that they will fail him and abandon him right when he needs them most. They all say, “Never!” Not only does he know they will, but he is also alone in understanding that reality. He asks his closest friends to come pray with him because he is overwhelmed to the point of feeling like he could just die (Mark 14); and they all go to sleep leaving him alone. Peter denies ever knowing him right when one would expect such a good friend who is a genuinely courageous person to stand tall and firm. Church, Nation, and Empire all participate in mocking and condemning him and even those being executed with him tease and mock him. And, how horribly isolating it would be to be stripped naked in front of a watching world and to watch your executioners gamble for your clothing. But, without denigrating any of this, the most excruciating experience of abandonment, isolation, and loneliness is expressed in Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken (abandoned) me?”
Yes, we are increasingly aware of the fact that we humans exist as a little isolated island in a vast universe, that we exist as beings with a psyche that can never be fully available to others, that we cannot fully know anyone else – not even those we love most, that no nation or political system has ever proven to really care about the individuals within it once their momentary utility was passed, that each of us experiences our personal death in a manner that makes us inaccessible to others and others inaccessible to us, and that we are quite capable of pretending many things and calling them “God.”
Sometimes, these realities leave us hanging over a spiritual and psychological abyss of loneliness, isolation, and abandonment. Occasionally, we face this abyss head on, usually we turn on a ballgame, watch a movie, argue politics we intend to do little or nothing about, escape into a sexual experience of some kind, read a book, or play a game.
The New Testament tells us that Jesus faced directly into these realities, and not only was God there, but God’s people turned out to be there too. The writer of Hebrews was particularly astute in framing this victory of God over and through the cross.
10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. 11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. 12 He says, “I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.” 13 And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again he says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”
7 During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered 9 and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him 10 and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
This issue of abandonment was also on Peter’s mind when the very first proclamation was made concerning Jesus’ execution:
31 Seeing what was to come, he (David in the Psalm) spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
The human experience of profound abandonment and loneliness can be very real. It was for Jesus. But, loneliness turned out not to be the last word. “Loneliness” is a powerful experience, but it is not necessarily the same as “aloneness.” It turned out that God was most at work right at the moment Jesus’ personal experience was that God was gone. God was there even in the middle of the most profound experience of abandonment imaginable. Jesus was terribly and tragically lonely, but he was not alone. In the midst of perceived abandonment, God was more present than anyone could imagine! And, Jesus now has more friends than any other human in history. Yes, Good Friday can be very Good News indeed!
As always, if you have any thoughts, comments, or questions about this post, or if there is another topic you would like me to explore in a future post, please leave a comment. I always enjoy your questions and thoughts. / Ron