Brothers and sisters, I rely upon the Gospel of Mark more than the other three gospel accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It is the earliest one, written in the Year 70 scholars say. It is the shortest of the four. And it is the starkest one in relaying a message of Jesus to his friends that they should take up their own cross and follow him to their fates.
But on this Good Friday, I don’t focus on any of the four gospel narratives of crucifixion. Instead, I focus on the first written mention of it, which is found in one of the letters of Paul. In Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia — which scholars believe was written about 20 years before Mark — he writes: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:19-20)
I was stunned when I first encountered Paul’s statement. In it, he turns the cruel Roman punishment of crucifixion into a metaphor for the painful losses of our lives. He speaks of the Christ, referring to the hope that he and other Jewish people had in the return of a new warrior king or Christ like King David. But all such Messiahs like Jesus had been thwarted by the power Rome, and many of them like Jesus had been executed by crucifixion.
For Paul, this defeat of his hopes leads to deep grief. And so, he writes that he feels like he has been crucified with the one he hoped might be the Messiah. This reality is so painful, that it seems like he no longer lives.
Happily, Paul then adds a note of Grace and Glory. Christ now lives within him!
For me, this is not just the first but the best description of the process of grief followed by enlightenment, of pain followed by joy, of death followed by rebirth, and of crucifixion followed by resurrection.
For centuries, many in the church have preached that Jesus died for our sins and that he now reigns on a throne at the right-hand side of God. But this is not Paul.
For Paul, the death we remember and grieve on Good Friday is not just the death of Jesus. It is also, and most importantly, the death of our own illusory hopes and a confirmation that our worst fears have come true.
Likewise, the rebirth that we celebrate at Easter is not just about Jesus being raised to new life. For Paul, it is about the rebirth of a flame of divinity and sovereignty within us.
The death that Paul describes is the death of his ego. The rebirth in which he rejoices is the realization that he has entered an eternal life of love above and below the level of ego. The Messiah may have been killed. But the Risen Christ now lives in our hearts. Paul’s illusions in a tribal god may have been shattered. But out of the ashes of this defeat, the universal God who is Love is revealed as our Source and our eternal destiny.
On Good Friday, we encounter the pain of dying. Rebirth following death may be as easy as rolling off a log and as sure as the rising of the sun. But the process of dying is difficult. This is often true for our final confrontation with the death of our body. It is also true for the deaths that, with grace, we experience this side of the grave. The loss of a love one can feel like a death; and the death of our illusions in power, or nation, or money, can leave us grieving in way that shakes us to our core.
Two days from now on Easter, we will celebrate the easy part – how from death — whether of the body or of our ego — new life shines forth without effort and with endless joy.
But on Good Friday, we face the hard part. We try to confront what is dying within our hearts; we try to discern what is dying in society during the pandemic crisis; and we confront how we might cope with these dying processes. What comfort can we bring to ourselves and one another in our pain? How can we keep hope alive in a dark night of the soul?
As partisans of the Way of the Cross, we remember that Jesus is with us in the painful work of dying. The agony we sometimes feel is like the agony he expresses on the cross. The grief we experience is like the grief expressed by Jesus’ mother Mary, his companion Mary of Magdala, and all of his friends, on a Friday so long ago.
This Good Friday, may we feel comfort that St. Paul has been there before us; that the community that gathered around the gospel of Mark has been there before us; and that we are joined by fellow pilgrims in the beloved community of Mill Woods United along with people in churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and secular spaces all around this groaning but beautiful world. We are not alone.
Our society may be dying in many crucial ways. Some of the illusions of our egos may be dying. Even our bodies may be dying. But we are not alone in this hard work. The light of God’s Love is always with us, in our dying as well as in our rebirth. No matter how easy or difficult the dying process is, our eternal healing is assured.
On Easter we will celebrate the easy part – awakening on a spring morning to new love and to the rebirth of the Cosmic Christ in each of our hearts.
The coming of Easter doesn’t mean this world will learn all the lessons it should from the coronavirus pandemic. That is for us as partisans of truth, beauty and love to try to achieve. But Easter does mean that no matter how much so-called success or failure we meet in this effort, we are free to enter a clear and gracious space beyond ego. At any moment as an individual or as a community, we can die to an old way of life and be reborn into Love and nothing but Love.
Today as we commemorate pain and death and as we wait in prayer and hope for Easter morning, may we find the courage to cope in a world that can seem like a never-ending Good Friday or an endless Holy Saturday.
Dear friends, rest assured that the peace of Christ is coming, that the love of God is assured, and that the companionship of the Holy Spirit is already here with us, now and always.