Reading the Gospel accounts of Good Friday, the first thing that strikes one is the degree to which the Hebrew Scriptures are present in the text. The early Christians were trying to make sense of what had happened in the paschal mystery and, understandably, they turned to the Hebrew Scriptures, to their Scriptures, for insight.
There is something deeper at work here, too. In his book about Holy Week, Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, writes about the entrance into Jerusalem, but his comment seems to apply just as much to the crucifixion: "[Jesus] wants his path and his actions to be understood in terms of Old Testament promises that are fulfilled in his person. The Old Testament speaks of him — and vice-versa; he acts and lives within the word of God, not according to projects or wishes of his own. His claim is based on obedience to the mission received from his Father. His path is a path into the heart of God's word."
By the end of the week, we will recognize that Jesus is "God's word."
This presents us modern Christians with a problem. It is not just that we know in a couple of days we shall don our Easter best and sing resurrection hymns. The problem is that the Gospel accounts themselves are written by people who know how the story ends. Yet, maybe this is not a problem because even though the authors of the Gospels know that the story will end in triumph, even though they interpret the events and even remember the events through the lens of the Hebrew Scriptures, and do so in ways they could not have done beforehand, still the horror of the events of Good Friday remain real. The redaction of the oral traditions that became our four Gospels did not shed the bleakness.
That said, I think it is important that we try to remember that the protagonists on Good Friday did not know that Easter was coming. They had not understood the Hebrew Scriptures to be pointing to this kind of Savior, to this kind of Messiah. They had been attracted to Jesus, to his person and to his teaching. Some of them, like the Twelve and many women, dropped everything in their lives to follow Jesus. On Palm Sunday, they entered Jerusalem convinced his triumph was at hand, and they understood that expected triumph to be a fulfillment of the Scriptures as they understood them. Then things went terribly, terribly wrong.
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Jesus was betrayed by one of his apostles. He was arrested at night by armed guards. He was denied by his best friend. He was subject to false accusations. He was maligned to Pilate whose pricks of conscience were not strong enough to stand up to the crowd clamoring for Barabbas. He was scourged. He was mocked. He was crucified. Whatever his followers had been hoping for when they triumphantly entered Jerusalem a few days prior, this was not what they expected. This was not what deliverance and salvation were supposed to look like.
Today, I try and imagine the bewilderment Jesus' disciples must have felt. Really, is it not mere conceit that makes us think our response would be more courageous than that of Peter to the questioning of strangers about his relationship with the soon-to-be-condemned Jesus? Do we imagine that we would have stood up against the temper of the crowd and not called for Barabbas to be released? Did not Barabbas have a more realistic approach to overturning the rule of Rome? If any of us had been in Pilate's shoes, would we have told the crowd that they were wrong and that justice demanded the innocent man be released? The executioners then, like the executioners today, had a job to do, and they did it.
In trying to make sense of the horror in the subsequent light of Easter, the evangelists naturally turned to the Scriptures. But they also likely turned to the Scriptures on Good Friday itself and on the following day. Could they have doubted that the Sanhedrin was right to ask for Jesus' death? Jesus had challenged the law and the prophets as they were understood by the religious authorities of the day. Who were the disciples, a motley crew of ex-fishermen and a former tax collector, to challenge the received wisdom of their country's religious leaders? Could the disciples have doubted, in the terms of religious understanding and observance known to them at the time, that Jesus had it coming, that the verdict of the people and Pilate was the right one, that Jesus had threatened to destroy the Temple and the Temple struck back and destroyed Jesus instead?
Such thoughts must have entered their minds. They must have thought to themselves, "Why did we follow him?" and "How could we have been so blind?" and "Will not those same religious authorities soon come after us who followed him?"
Today, it is important not to anticipate Easter morning but to sit with these dark doubts. Today, the Christian imagination is darkened utterly. All Jesus' promises, all his teachings, stand rejected. He himself is rejected, and rejected in the most horrible, cruel and decisive manner possible. This is the price he paid to be true to his Father in heaven. Unless we can imaginatively recreate the sense of despair and darkness that must have seized the disciples on that first Good Friday, we can't really appreciate the joy that will soon come their way, nor, like them, read the Scriptural teachings about the Messiah as pointing to this new reality defined by a king of David who is crucified.
Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king, and Jesus replied, "You say that am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice." Ratzinger writes, "If Jesus bases his concept of kingship and kingdom on truth as the fundamental category, then it is entirely understandable that the pragmatic Pilate asks him: 'What is truth?' … Yet if a man lives without truth, life passes him by; ultimately he surrenders the field to whoever is the stronger. 'Redemption' in the fullest sense can only consist in the truth becoming recognizable. And it becomes recognizable when God becomes recognizable. He becomes recognizable in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God entered the world and set up the criterion of truth in the midst of history. Truth is outwardly powerless in the world, just as Christ is powerless by the world's standards: he has no legions; he is crucified. Yet in his very powerlessness, he is powerful: only thus, again and again, does truth become power."
The cross challenged everything the disciples thought they knew and everything that they expected. The cross challenges us in the same exact way. It subverts the normal ways by which we order our lives, calculate our responsibilities, define our relationships. The Scriptures report that when Jesus gave up his spirit, there was an earthquake. If we let ourselves be drawn into the reality of Good Friday, we can still feel the tremors.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at The Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]