Good Friday: Praying in the Abyss

By Walter Brueggemann 04-22-2011

In Christian confession, Good Friday is the day of loss and defeat; Sunday is the day of recovery and victory. Friday and Sunday summarize the drama of the gospel that continues to be re-performed, always again, in the life of faith. In the long gospel reading of the lectionary for this week (Matthew 27:11-54), we hear the Friday element of that drama: the moment when Jesus cries out to God in abandonment (Matthew 27: 46). This reading does not carry us, for this day, toward the Sunday victory, except for the anticipatory assertion of the Roman soldier who recognized that Jesus is the power of God for new life in the world (verse 54). Given that anticipation, the reading invites the church to walk into the deep loss in hope of walking into the new life that will come at the end of the drama.

That Friday-Sunday drama of loss and recovery, defeat and victory, is given classical doxological expression in the astonishing hymn of Philippians 2:5-11. The poetry lines out the events of Christ’s life, marking both the humiliation of Christ before the empire in his self-emptying obedience and his exaltation given by God. For Paul, the story of Jesus, in this lyrical summary, becomes the way the church is to live. The church empties itself in obedience in order to be honored by God.

But the Friday-Sunday drama can be told and enacted not only as a narrative about Jesus or as a doxological lyric. The psalm shows that the same drama pertains, in a pastoral idiom, to the life of the faithful. The psalmist describes a life of futility marked by scorn and suffering humiliation (Psalm 31:9-13); but the reading ends with the powerful disjunction “but” in verse 14: “But I trust in you.” The psalmist, speaking for every person of faith, prays in the abyss of futility but anticipates deliverance into new life by the faithfulness of God. It is that trust, even in the abyss of alienation, that becomes the seedbed of Easter newness.

Faith leads us into the abyss of death, and the lectionary readings throughout the month of April are honest about that journey. It is the death faced by Jesus when he was executed by the empire, the death to which the church is called. Good Friday is about the losses that go with that contradiction.

But the texts are also hope-filled about a move out of that abyss into God’s gift of new life. As Easter is the new life given to Christ, so Easter is the new life offered to the church — and eventually to the world. The crisis among us now in our society is that the new life to which we are called, one of generous hospitality, is not like the old life we have lost. The new life — filled with joy and shaped like forgiveness — is one of demanding resolve and fidelity.

Walter Brueggemann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. A version of this post was published in the April 2011 issue of Sojourners magazine.

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