Today begins the Paschal Triduum, the three days leading up to the celebration of Easter and Jesus’ triumphant resurrection. This year in particular, Holy Week is a reminder that we often have to linger in some suffering and struggle in order to fully appreciate the joy of Easter Sunday’s deliverance and liberation.
Particularly in times filled with darkness, heartache, and tragedy, it is important that we reflect upon the spiritual significance of these holy days and not jump ahead too quickly to the triumph of Easter morning. And we cannot fully appreciate the meaning of Good Friday without understanding the full journey of Holy Week: the fleeting adulation of the crowd proclaiming hosanna (“save us”) as Jesus enters Jerusalem, moving through Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, his sham public trial, his condemnation by the crowd, his humiliation and torture, and finally his brutal crucifixion on Calvary’s cross for the political crime of treason. In this journey, we are reminded that suffering is part of the human condition and that suffering can unlock the redemptive power of compassion, solidarity, forgiveness, and steadfast love. We can remember and take solace that not only is God with us, but that God suffered with us.
I have often preached that even though we live in a Good Friday world, we must hold onto resurrection hope because Easter Sunday is just around the corner. While we may know this to be true, the Good Friday realities of worldly suffering and loss that have surrounded us this past year can easily leave us feeling exhausted and even hopeless. The epidemic of gun violence is one example: Even as we continue to mourn the eight victims of the March 16 shootings in and around Atlanta and lament the alarming rise of anti-Asian violence and hate, last week started with yet another mass shooting in Boulder, Colo., resulting in the deaths of another 10 people. Just this week, another mass shooting killed four people at an office complex in Orange County, Calif. The overall death toll from guns in 2020 was staggeringly high — nearly 20,000 people died to gun violence, and another 24,000 people died by suicide with a gun.
The pain and trauma of continued police violence against Black people and the severe lack of police accountability is another example of Good Friday realities. The eyes of the nation are once again on Minneapolis as the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed George Floyd last May, gets underway. How our nation continues to reckon with and repent for its 402-year history of enslaving, oppressing, killing, and criminalizing Black people is again at stake in this trial, including whether we will finally take bold steps to declare that Black lives do indeed matter, starting with holding Chauvin accountable and guaranteeing equal justice under the law.
Good Friday realities show up in the never-ending fight to ensure voting rights in this country. Georgia, which has become ground zero for the voting rights struggle, once again made headlines last week when Gov. Brian Kemp signed a law that will make it more difficult for many people to vote. He signed the law behind a closed and locked door, while seated under a painting of a notorious Georgia slave plantation; when Park Cannon, a Black state legislator, knocked on the door, she was dragged away by police.
All of these Good Friday realities are compounded by the daily death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic that has already killed at least 550,000 people in the United States alone and is still doing so at a rate of about a thousand U.S. deaths each day. The promise of vaccines will not bring back those we lost. And while there is real hope in the numbers of people being vaccinated, we also find ourselves in the middle of another spike in cases driven by new variants and many states prematurely relaxing their public health restrictions.
One of my favorite services that takes place in many Black churches is the “Seven Last Words” service that is held on Good Friday. This service is often quite long, filled with passionate preaching and edifying music selections that apply each of Jesus’ last words to our faith and world today. Prior to attending my first Seven Last Words service, I never paid much attention to the words Jesus exclaimed in these final moments: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34); “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43); “Woman, behold, thy son!” (John 19:26-27); “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46); “I thirst” (John 19:28); “It is finished” (John 19:30); and “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). I love this emphasis on Jesus’ last words because each moment more fully humanizes Jesus, reminding us in a visceral way how he responded to such agonizing suffering on our behalf.
In his Palm Sunday message, Pope Francis also reflected on Jesus’ humanity and what we can learn from his suffering, saying:
What is most amazing about the Lord and his Passover? It is the fact that he achieves glory through humiliation. He triumphs by accepting suffering and death, things that we, in our quest for admiration and success, would rather avoid. Jesus — as St. Paul tells us — “emptied himself… he humbled himself” (Philippians 2:7-8) … Why all this humiliation? Why, Lord, did you wish to endure all this? Jesus did it for us, to plumb the depths of our human experience, our entire existence, all our evil. To draw near to us and not abandon us in our suffering and our death. To redeem us, to save us. Jesus was lifted high on the cross in order to descend to the abyss of our suffering. He experienced our deepest sorrows: failure, loss of everything, betrayal by a friend, even abandonment by God. By experiencing in the flesh our deepest struggles and conflicts, he redeemed and transformed them. His love draws close to our frailty; it touches the very things of which we are most ashamed. Yet now we know that we are not alone: God is at our side in every affliction, in every fear; no evil, no sin will ever have the final word. God triumphs, but the palm of victory passes through the wood of the cross. For the palm and the cross are inseparable.
The palm and the cross are indeed inseparable. Our suffering and loss can exist side by side with triumph. This is some welcome and needed good news amid the many ongoing Good Friday realities that will still be with us beyond Easter Sunday. The even better good news is that on Easter, Jesus transformed the cross — the Roman Empire’s symbol of brutality and oppression — into our symbol of God’s promised liberation and salvation. And knowing that Jesus saves and liberates us from sin, injustice, and death by first suffering with us, is what makes this Friday good.