Friday, April 14, 2006

Good Friday

Isaiah 53
3 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

A tragic hero has the potential for greatness but is doomed to fail. He is trapped in a situation where he cannot win. He makes some sort of tragic flaw, and this causes his fall from greatness. Even though he is a fallen hero, he still wins a moral victory, and his spirit lives on.*

For generations of grade nine students, forced to ponder Greek tragedy and the works of William Shakespeare, such a definition would no doubt evoke Macbeth or Oedipus the King. Introduced to the events of Good Friday and the story of Jesus, the same student might name the passion narrative as a tragedy in the classical mould. And they would be right. Anyone preaching "release to the captives" before the might of Rome was doomed to fail. Anyone preaching "new wine into old wineskins" in a powerful theocracy was trapped in a situation where he could not win. And anyone who would choose the path of the most vulnerable over the halls of heaven has already experienced what the world would call a fall from greatness.


He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

Isaiah the prophet describes the suffering servant in topography reminiscent of another hill where the Lamb of God met affliction and the pain of mortality. Like Isaiah's lamb, Jesus did not give voice to his suffering, did not lash out or mount a defense. Jesus accepted death, some might say invited death, and "carried our sorrows" as a response to human sinfulness. He walked from Bethlehem to Jerusalem and met us as we are and as we have always been. Isaiah saw this too:

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

The words sing, not simply because a displaced German composer wrote a famous oratorio, but because they reach to the centre of our self-understanding and our view of a broken and indifferent world. The words sing because we sheepishly embrace the sheep in us all: astray, running away, and following in our own way. That our iniquity was laid upon the slain lamb remains a mystery of faith, but it is no accident that human sacrifice has existed in one form or another through every eon of human history, and with it, "all our sins and grief's to bear!"


In the spring of 1948, Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian, appeared on the front cover of Time magazine’s twenty-fifth anniversary issue. Under his portrait was the quote “Man’s story is not a success story.” This is remarkable in at least two ways: first, it is hard to imagine a professor from a theological college as the cover person of such a widely read, mainstream magazine. Secondly, that the twenty-fifth anniversary retrospective look would seek to ground itself in the work of a Protestant theologian seems equally incredible. No one at Queen’s Theological College, or even Harvard Divinity School, for that matter, would hope for such a turn of events.

“Man’s story is not a success story.” Poor Prof. Niebuhr, set up as the negative voice amid the heady optimism of post-war America. His dissonant voice, thoroughly out of step with the times, cast himself and many of his colleagues as the pall over what seemed a brilliant future. Totalitarianism had been defeated, everything was expanding, and future was bright.

For Niebuhr, life is a tragedy. In the same manner that Scott Peck began his famous book with the words "life is difficult," Niebuhr believed that the human way involved suffering and loss, and the abiding sense that things in this realm are not quite right. In this sense he adopted the role of the prophet, "telling forth" the unpleasant news of human living.

Niebuhr assumed the role of prophet because he saw that unchecked optimism flew in the face of reality. Niebuhr assumed the role of prophet because he knew that when we no longer regard life as an unfolding tragedy we forget the unpleasantness of the past and ignore the perils of the future.

To state it another way, if we focus only on Easter Sunday, the power of the story is lost. We need to be the people of Good Friday first, and only then can we appreciate the Easter message in its fullness. In fact, Niebuhr would argue that everything we need to have hope is present in the events of Good Friday: that the unfolding tragedy of Christ’s life and death holds the key to our faith. Neibuhr:

“For faith, the mystery of life is understood in meaning, though no human statement of meaning can fully resolve the mystery. The tragedy of life is recognized, but faith prevents tragedy from becoming pure tragedy.”

St. Paul said "the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (1 Cor. 1) The cross is Checkpoint Charlie between those who are willing to gaze upon human sinfulness and those who are not. The cross confounds those who think we create our own reality. The cross demands that we embrace the broken and the vulnerable and demands that we set God there first. The cross is God's power in the face of every tyrant history can serve up.

Niebuhr continues:

“The Christian view of history passes through the sense of the tragic to a hope which is ‘beyond tragedy.’ The cross, which stands at the centre of the Christian worldview, reveals both the seriousness of human sin, and the purpose and power of God to overcome it.”


A man dies. Friends and family gather to honour his memory and decide to try, even for a little while, to live out the values that he lived. They are kinder to strangers. They hold their children close. When death is tragic, the impulse is even stronger, and people vow to make changes, to become better people. This is the power of God. Peter Abelard said that knowledge of Jesus' death on the cross can make us better people, can turn hearts of stone to hearts of flesh and hearts for love alone.

How does this work? Aristotle described the tragic as "incidents arousing pity and fear, by which to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions." In other words, tragedy transforms us: tragedy that befalls us and tragedy that enters our consciousness through religious knowledge. But there is more. Catharsis means to purify and to purge, to be made new. We are transformed through the death of Jesus, souls are cleansed and we are set free. Knowledge of Jesus' death on the cross can make us better people, can turn hearts of stone to hearts of flesh and hearts for love alone.

“Man’s story is not a success story.” True in 1948, it is more true than ever. What remains equally true, however, is the power of the cross, the power of the living God to overcome stony hearts and carry us home.

In the cross, in the cross,
Be my glory ever;
Till my raptured soul shall find
Rest beyond the river.



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