A long time ago, when I was just a small child, I did something terrible. I was five, maybe six years old, and I was playing in the yard with a neighbor child and his visiting friend who was three or four years older. My mom thought I was playing by myself, she didn’t know the boys were with me in the driveway of our suburban Chicago home. Together, we had an idea; the older boys would throw chestnuts toward me like baseballs, and I would hit them with my plastic bat as hard as I could.
I knew this was a bad idea because chestnuts are not baseballs. They had just fallen from the tree by my house, and the chestnuts were covered in a thick and spiky protective shell. Playing with them was dangerous; I knew this because I had been told this, and because it was obvious to me even at that young age. But I didn’t care; playing the game was my preference, and so we played. We played for just a few minutes, just a few fast tosses and hits before something terrible happened. Launched from my bat, a chestnut, hard and covered with long spikes, struck my neighbor’s friend full in the face, and he collapsed to the ground, screaming.
I don’t clearly remember what happened next. I know there was panic, and there was blood, and there was concern that other child might have permanently damaged his vision. I remember my mom and the neighbor kid’s mom and the other child’s mom rushing the poor kid to the hospital. And I remember, most of all, coming to the realization of what I had done. This other person was hurt, deeply, literally hurt, because of me. This moment was like a mirror, a moment so dramatic that it forced me to consider myself and what I was capable of doing. For the first time in my little life, I had to ask myself, “what have I done?” And the answer sickened me. I didn’t want to think about what I had done or the pain I had caused. I didn’t want to think about what it said about me and how I was capable of treating others. I didn’t want to look at myself. I just wanted to forget, because forgetting is easier.
Have you ever done this? Have you ever had the consequences of your actions come home to roost? Or, ever worse, have the consequences of your actions ever come home to roost at somebody else’s expense? Has anyone else ever had to pay the cost for your callousness, for your lack of concern, for your mistakes? Have you ever had to stare at somebody else hurting and ask yourself, “what have I done?”
I hope you haven’t. I hope your life experience has been simpler and less dramatic than mine, that you’ve avoided hurting others through your mistakes and your faults. But if you haven’t, you know that examining yourself in the light of the pain you have caused others is a brutal experience. These experiences become mirrors, moments that force us to consider ourselves and what we are capable of doing.
Gazing into this mirror forces us to look upon scars and wounds we would rather ignore. Sometimes we look into the mirror and hate what we see, and it’s easier to stop looking. So we turn away, hiding in our lack of self-reflection, hoping the memory of our actions just fades away. We don’t want to think about the people we rejected, the people we injured, the pain we inflicted. We don’t what to think about what it says about us and how we are capable of treating others. We just want to forget, because forgetting is easier.
Good Friday is a day of worship and reflection, a day where the faithful gather to gaze upon the cross and to ask ourselves, “what in the world have we done?” Does it shock you that I point out that this is a “we” moment, not a “them?” This isn’t a day where we complain about what the Romans did, or what the Jewish religious authorities did, this is a day where we place ourselves in the story and take responsibility for what we’ve done. Because make no mistake: while the particulars of Jesus’ life are rooted in a specific time and place, the gospel message involves how humanity as a whole insists rejecting God. That message is as true now as it was then, is as true here as it was there. If you think you are better or different than the people who rejected Jesus and his message, you’ve missed the whole point. If you think you are better or different than the people who cheered for Jesus’ crucifixion, you’ve missed the whole point.
Good Friday is a day where we remember the torture, humiliation, and execution of Jesus, and we force ourselves to remember why. Jesus endured the horrors of the cross at the hands of people, people like you and me, who insisted on rejecting him and rejecting the gospel. He was rejected by the leaders of his faith community, who saw his proclamation of God’s love and mercy as scandalous and unfaithful. He was rejected by the occupying empire, who saw his proclamation of God’s kingdom as seditious and a threat to their power and their peace.
Ultimately, he was also rejected by the ordinary people, by the masses who saw him bound and beaten and still called for his death. The crowds had enough of him, of his teachings, of his ways. They heard his invitation to join in a radical, transformed way of life, and they rejected him. They heard his insistence that greatness is not about dominating others but serving them, and they rejected him. They heard his prophetic witness that called them to deeper faith in God and God’s justice, and they rejected him. His announcement was so scandalous and their disappointment was so visceral that they mocked him as he suffered, bled, and died. They wanted something different. They wanted a messiah who gave them what they wanted, not what God wanted. Jesus refused to be that and they hated him for it. So they killed him.
Their rejection must be viewed as something much broader and more universal than just something that happened 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem. Their rejection was so thorough, so violent, and so complete that it speaks to something that lives in the heart of all of us, everywhere. Good Friday is a mirror. Good Friday is the day we all participate in the story. Good Friday is the day when humanity took measure of God-in-the-flesh, thought about what following him would require, and answered with a resounding, NO.
There is no Easter here today. 364 days a year our empty altar crosses proclaim the majesty of the Resurrection, but a body hangs limply on the cross on Good Friday. It’s the least we can do to acknowledge it. God entered the world through Jesus Christ, to proclaim good news to the poor and recovering of sight to the blind. God entered the world through Jesus not to condemn the world but to save it, and we refused to be saved. What is it about them, what is it about us, that could lead to this? Don’t look away from this moment. Don’t turn your head from the crucifixion just because it makes you feel sad or ashamed. Good Friday is a mirror, a chance to stare upon something that lives deep in your heart, in my heart, in all our hearts. There is something about us that takes the freedom God gives us and uses it to rebel, to reject, to fear, and to hate. Don’t try to forget because forgetting is easier. There is no growth in your life, there is no transformation by grace, there is no hope in the resurrection until you can stare upon Jesus, dying on the cross, and ask yourself “What have I done?”
The scandal of Good Friday is that it was inevitable. The road to the cross was paved the moment that God entered the world on that cold Christmas morning. The good and perfect God put on flesh and dwelt amongst us, setting a stage for an inevitable conflict with a horrible conclusion. Good Friday is a mirror, a chance to gaze upon what we’ve done and ask what it says about us. But what does it say about Jesus? What does it say about Jesus that this rejection was inevitable and yet he still came for us? What does it say about Jesus that this rejection was inevitable and he still wept for us, prayed for us, fed us, and healed us? What does it say about Jesus and his capacity for love, his willingness to hope, and his commitment to announcing the coming of God’s kingdom?
What does it say about the world that Jesus looked at us in all our sin, all our frailty, all our faults, and decided that we were still worth it?
Good Friday is a mirror. When we gaze upon the cross we see what we’ve done, who we are, and what we are capable of doing. My prayer is that when you stare into the mirror and see the ugliness, you also see yourself as Jesus saw you. As flawed but worthy of love. As sinful but ready for redemption. As broken, but worth saving.