How many people actually noticed the small band of temple police, and their quiet prisoner, slipping through the darkness, first to the Chief Priest’s home and then on to the Roman Green Zone from which the occupiers burst forth, to crush any threat to the Empire? Not too many to be sure.
There had been crowds earlier, but they were all gone now. The clerics had rendered their decision: it was better to sacrifice this one man to the Emperor, and thus displace for awhile the writhing wrath of Rome.
The great mass of men and women were busy in Passover preparation. There were lambs to slaughter and roast, loaves to bake, charoset to chop and mix. This was the day of rejoicing, the day of celebration, the day of freedom won. No one much thought about what machinations were brewing by priest and police. No one that is, but the few who had followed through the cold spring night, both those scheming to end the life of the Nazarene and those who were begging God for a miracle.
Because in spite of three years he spent touching the lives of thousands of people, after the miracles and the crowds and the hosannas, at the end, no one much cared what happened to the Nazarene. What was important was family, tradition, the sense of unity, of moral superiority. Outside the Praetorium, where his fate would be decided, a couple of groups of protestors milled about, one fiercely patriotic, one cowed and fearful.
No one much cared what was happening that day of Preparation, that we so glibly name Good Friday. But something was happening in those silent streets. The earth, the stars, the seas, the winds, the ancient fires below ancient mountains, all collectively held their breath as the drama unfolded. And for the few in the midst of it, there was a sense that something was happening that they were not controlling.
Judas, sick to his stomach, heaving the sorrow of abandonment at the night. Peter, his denials echoing back at him in the firelit courtyard. Caiaphas, tearing his fine silk vestment, pronouncing the death sentence. Mary, her very soul rent as if a sword were plunged between her breasts. Pilate, looking for a way out, shivering beneath his imperial armor.
I have preached way too many funeral sermons in my ministry, but the hardest one of all was for little Sharon. Sharon was born with an extremely rare genetic disorder, that doctors told her mother had come from the genes of Sharon’s father. It was literally a bad luck of the once-in-a-million sort. She never grew beyond the size of a three year old, and her body never figured out how to move the way babies’ bodies do. She never learned how to talk, she could only utter long, low, sad, animal moans. The kind of moans that someone being slowly tortured to death moans. Once in a while she would smile, but that smile soon turned into a cry, then a wail, a wordless prayer of hopelessness. We knew that one of these days, her lungs would just stop pushing out air, her heart would expand one last time, her eyes would close and Sharon would die.
We lived next door to Sharon and her mother, and our family often took Sharon on those nights when her mother would go out, to laugh and dance and party like the twenty-five-year old she was. Sharon’s mother was an atheist. I think that’s because Sharon’s father, who was a nice guy, but not the marrying type, was not the father of her first daughter. Because you see, when Sharon’s mother was sixteen, she had given birth to another daughter, by another man. Sharon’s sister had died at seven years old, from the same, strange, once-in-a-million-bad-luck disorder that had come from her father. You can’t even imagine the statistical probability of such a thing. I can’t anyway.
One day, as I was raking a huge pile of oak leaves, Sharon’s mom came by to talk. “You know I don’t believe in God.”
We’d had this discussion before, so I tried to be funny. “Yeah, I know,” I said, “what kind of God would make trees that could ruin a perfectly good Saturday like this?”
“I’m serious,” she said. And I knew she was. “I don’t believe in God, because if I did, I’d hate him. He’s an evil motherfucker.”
I wanted to say something profound, something that would break through her shell of pain. So I said something so stupid and unprofound that even thinking about it now makes me cringe: “I know it’s hard on you, but God knows what losing a child means.”
She looked at me, her jaw set, her pretty grey eyes narrowing. “God didn’t have two little girls who never got to grow up.”
The pile of leaves started to blow away, and I began to choke the rake like it was God’s own throat, while smiling my good Christian smile. “I’m sorry, I’m just sorry.”
She nodded “I want you to preach Sharon’s funeral.”
I put my arm around her shoulder. “But Sharon’s not dead. And you know that we’re praying for her.”
She began to sob, and pushed me away. “Thanks.” She turned to go. “I want you to preach Sharon’s funeral.”
And a few weeks later I did.
There were only a few people there. Sharon’s grandparents, Sharon’s father, looking sad and out of place, a few of her mother’s partying friends, wearing too much eye shadow and tight, short, low-cut dresses, a neighbor or two. No one much cared that Sharon was dead.
And as hard as I tried to be eloquent and faithful, focused and redemptive, I felt as empty inside as Judas, Peter, Caiaphas, Mary and Pilate. Because that’s how you feel when the world stops making sense. That’s how you feel when the bad guys win, when evil triumphs, when suffering and pain spread everywhere like leaves blowing in the wind.
It’s the Good Friday feeling. When your marriage comes undone. When your beloved partner lies rotting with cancer. When your company implodes. When your brave son or daughter is blown apart in a senseless war or splattered on a windshield by a drunken driver. It’s what the abandoning and abandoned disciples felt that day, back there in Jerusalem, looking up at a broken, tortured and dead body, hanging on a tree trunk, the dirt below reddened with blood.
So is that the end? This sick, molasses darkness? The unwinding of centrifugal force and the spinning away of the core of it all? Is there no meaning here? Let me share a secret with you.
Jesus of Nazareth didn’t die to deliver us from evil, even though we keep praying that he will. Jesus of Nazareth didn’t die to protect us from sickness, to spare us from hurt or to keep us from dying. Jesus of Nazareth died so that we could see the pain of the world that God sees, and make it our own. So that we would care. So that we would work for justice, so that we would be intolerant of hate and bigotry, so that we would make peace when the Empire wages war.
So that we would know that this world— even at its most senseless, its most unjust, its most terrifying—this world is beloved by God so that it would be beloved by us.