Friday, March 21, 2008


Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." 29A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. 30When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.- John 19: 28-30

When I was a kid, I never understood why today was called "Good Friday." What can possibly be good about Jesus suffering a torturous death? Of course, the fact that in some years we were in some denomination that did not really talk too much about holy days or sacred days or liturgical seasons might have had something to do with this confusion. If we'd just have been left in the Methodist Church, it probably would have been fine, but boy, did we go to some charismatic and fundamentalist churches! I mean, there was Easter, and there was Christmas, and some talk about the Pentecost, but that was about it.

But from a selfish point of view, which is of course the point, Good Friday IS good news- for us. The Nicene Creed reminds us: "for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven." But the next question is: once Jesus suffered that very real and very terrifying death from torture known as the crucifixion, then what?

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
--The Apostles' Creed, BCP 96

Some people envision this as Jesus going into Hell, the fiery pit, and in some translations of the Creed, it is stated just that way: "He descended into Hell." Our version states that he descended to the dead. He went to be with the dead, perhaps, as some Jews at the time taught, to rest in the bosom of Abraham, as was illustrated in the Gospel of Luke with the story of the Rich Man and the Beggar. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, in his book Tokens of Trust, puts it this way on page 90:

Some-- like the great Reformer John Calvin and the modern Roman Catholic writer Hans Urs von Balthasar-- have gone so far as to say that Jesus on the cross is enduring hell itself, the experience of the final alienation from God. This is a difficult speculation, hard to state with consistency, but at least it reminds us how serious the cross is as a sign of God's willingness to accompany us through all the consequences of sin and finally bring us back from the furthest point of distance from him that we could imagine. But when the Apostles' Creed says of Jesus that he 'descended into hell,' the original meaning was not quite this. The Latin word simply meant 'the places beneath' and referred to a passage in the Letter to the Ephesians about Jesus descending to the lowest part of creation as well as ascending to the heights. 'so that he might fill all things' (Ephesians 4.10). He goes, therefore, to the underground prisons where, in the thinking of some Jewish writers of Jesus' age, the spirits of those who had died resided.

We have to understand that Jesus actually died. He didn't just take a break from breathing, he didn't just sleep for a while. He plumbed the depths of human experience as one of us: he was born-- and he died. Jesus didn't just go to the point of death; he went into death, as part of the experience of being human.

But I don't want to quibble over this word. Because Jesus' death was not the end of the story.

You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.- Psalm 30:3

On this Good Friday we are glad for the love of God so profound that it would sacrifice anything-- even that most precious-- to reach out to us and make us whole. This sacrifice was necessary because God gave us the ability to say no to that love at times, and to make ourselves the center of the universe, the center of reality, instead of God.

Before my father died, he was terrified that he was going to Hell. In his accounting of his life, he knew that he had often made himself the center of the universe and not God. Of course, we have all done this, but that is of small comfort. The God my father had been brought up to believe in was a wrathful and vengeful God, who would judge one's sense of repentance and find it lacking. But the sacrifice of Jesus is not for the perfect or even for the good. It is for all. As hard as that may be for those of us who want that fiery eternal damnation for the Timothy McVeighs and the Adolf Hitlers of the world. Just as long as it isn't for us!

I don't think Hell is a place, pungent with brimstone and eternal fire, a Hieronymous Bosch nightmare of torment. I think Hell is right here on Earth, when we wrap our arms around ourselves so much that we brush off the loving embrace of God. Jesus descended to the dead as one of us. And in doing so, as the prayer for mission in Morning Prayer, Rite II states:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the Honor of your Name. Amen.

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