Today is Good Friday, a day both strange and wonderful. As we stand at the foot of the Cross with the Mother of Jesus and the disciple whom Jesus loved, we cannot help but be struck by the many paradoxes of this day. A paradox is something which seems to be contradictory, impossible, even absurd, yet beyond the superficial is, in reality, true. To speak of the paradoxes of the Passion is to disclose the very center of that which is the object of our faith. Paradoxes of the Passion call us to look past the shallowness of man and see the Crucifixion of Christ from God’s perspective; for the death of Christ was not what it superficially seemed.
Taticus, the Roman historian states concerning Judea during the whole life and ministry of Jesus, His trial, His crucifixion and Hid resurrection, one sentence: “Nothing of significance happened during those days.” That is a paradox. The greatest historian of that time period says that nothing of significance or importance happened in Judea when Jesus walked the earth and gave His life for mankind. And yet, our minds and attention are riveted on that day and that life as the center of time and eternity.
The events of Good Friday force us to look at and re-evaluate our natural human logic and value system. To most human beings, there is no coercive value in the Cross of Christ. It alone will not constrain you, it will not compel you, it will not force you. It stands there, on the top of Calvary, as history’s greatest paradox: justice out of injustice, light out of darkness, healing out of wounds, life out of death. The Cross does not impose itself on you but stands blatantly in front of you, calling you to believe that God was at work in that mysterious paradox of the Passion.
The great paradox of the Cross consists of many smaller and less conspicuous paradoxes which most of us never really give much consideration to. The first of these is the paradox of strength out of weakness. Those who stood before the Cross on Good Friday only saw a man mangled, beaten and humiliated hanging on the Cross suffering a slow and agonizing death. Gazing upon Jesus hanging on the Cross, they saw a weak and defeated man.
When we gaze upon the weakness of Jesus as he made His way along the Via Dolorosa for example, the image we are presented with is that of a man struggling to carry the heavy burden of the Cross. We overlook the fact that Jesus making His way to Golgotha took a great deal of internal strength and fortitude. Especially since He knew what was waiting for Him at the end of that long walk.
When we listen to the Gospel accounts of the Passion, they are mostly presented to us in the present tense. Thus, they place us right there as active witnesses to and participants in the events and activities of that day.
What took place on that Good Friday 2,000 plus years ago is just as real for us today as it was then. Like waves that crash upon a beach over and over again, the many images of Good Friday continually crash into our hearts and minds so that we never forget their meaning and significance. We see Jesus bruised and bloodied, struggling under the weight of the Cross as He makes His way to Calvary. And even though they had compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry the Cross of Jesus, a contingent of soldiers was eventually forced to carry the staggering Christ through the streets of Jerusalem.
So that you may better understand the significance of this, those to be crucified were to be taken the longest, not the shortest, way to the place of execution outside the city walls. (John 14:20). Here we can see the first paradox of the Passion. He who bore the sins of us all not only had to have someone else carry His cross but He Himself had to be carried. St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Hebrews that, “he upholds all things by the Word of His power.” (Hebrews 1:3) He who bears all things by the Word of His power, had Himself to be borne on the way. He that carried the sins of the world Himself had to be carried. This is the first paradox of the Passion.
The humiliation and horror of the walk along the Via Dolorosa to Calvary is attached to an ugly word, Golgotha. Galgutha, as it is pronounced in Aramaic, has a gargling, gurgling, guttural sound. It sounds much like the sound that is made when a person is imminently close to death.
The word Golgotha means the “place of the skull.” Even that description denotes something ugly and frightening.
In many paintings of the crucifixion, Christ is depicted as valiantly facing death standing straight and tall with a glow of light surrounding Him that is strong and vibrant. But the reality is that this is not how Christ went to His death at all. The nature and degree of the torture Our Lord endured prior to making His way to Calvary was brutal to the extreme. A man could have died just from the kind of treatment Jesus received before He was crucified. Having endured such brutal treatment, Jesus was weak, faint, and exhausted. He had already lost a great deal of blood and He was beaten almost beyond recognition.
Have you even compared how Jesus died with how the other heroes of the ancient world died? Take Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, for example, both of which set the standard for courage and strength. When you read about the mighty heroes like Achilles and Hercules, you will find that they go to their death with a certain dignity, strength and vitality. Or when you read the account of the death of Socrates, you find him dying in dignity surrounded by his disciples. Or, when you read Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History accounts of the death of the martyrs, you read the story of St. Polycarp of Smyrna who goes to his death with strength, dignity and force of life. He stood at the stake, not tied up, but freely while the flames consumed him. Even those who followed after Our Lord in the trail of martyrs died with strength and vitality. But no so the Christ; for it is the paradox of the Cross that our strength comes out of His utter weakness, our endurance out of His faintness, our fortitude out of His agony and suffering, our healing out of His wounds, our life out of His death. So He dies a death that is more of a struggle than even that of the martyrs.
But Jesus’ weakness was a willing weakness. In other words, there is some weakness which is only circumstantial. It is a weakness due to conditions and not due to character or will. Christ’s debilitation was induced, not characteristic of His personality. Thus in His weakness, in His extreme suffering and agony, Christ manifested great strength and fortitude. This is another paradox of the Passion. In ultimate suffering there is great strength and courage.
The Talmud tells us that certain women of Jerusalem offered a drugged drink to those who were suffering the excruciating pain of crucifixion. The word “excruciating” comes from the Latin word, “ex crucis” which means “out of the Cross,” thus referencing in our own daily speech what took place on Good Friday.
It is a paradox within a paradox that one of the first things given to Jesus in His life was myrrh, an embalming agent, by the wise men who bore testimony from the east. And now, the last thing offered to Him by a world that basically offered Him nothing, was a drugged drink as He hung dying in agony upon the Cross. But Jesus refused what was offered to Him. He was determined to taste the punishment inflicted upon Him and His ensuing death with His eyes wide open. In order to make a perfect sacrifice and pay for the sins of the world, He needed full use of His human faculties to completely drain the cup which was the Father’s will for Him to drink. Jesus was not going to sleep through the Cross as the disciples slept in the Garden of Gethsemane.
We should understand that the emptiness of Christ, the emptying out of Himself involved not only the refusal to grasp equality with the Father, that willingness to empty Himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on the Cross. It would seem to be enough that he would die on the Cross with sinners, but the bottom, the very low point of that emptying may have been the humiliation, degradation and shame of public nakedness. Knowing that shame, the Jews even required that a man would be clothed when he was stoned for blasphemy, but they took from Jesus the only thing He had, the very clothes on His back.
It seems to me, when I read the Gospels, that the only thing we are specifically told that Jesus of Nazareth owned was the robe for which the Roman centurions gambled while He hung dying on the Cross. But there was one other thing God made His own on earth, and that was the Cross itself. From the shame and indignity of the Cross comes glory and a crown. Another paradox!
Jesus’s bitterest enemies, the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin, who stood as witnesses to what took place at Calvary, unwittingly give testimony to Him as King. Their taunts at the Cross are really affirmations.. The verbal stones they throw at Him are, in reality, glorious prophecies that proclaim the Gospel. The same can also be said of Pilate, who ordered that an inscription of the charge against Jesus be nailed to the Cross above Jesus’s head for all to see: “The King of the Jews.” While Pilate intended this as sarcasm, it was in very fact a statement of truth.
Pilate’s intent certainly was not to affirm Jesus as the King of the Jews but to further humiliate Jesus. You see, Pilate was a man who did not liked to be toyed with. During Jesus’s trial, when he said to Jesus, “Do you not realize that I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?” Pilate heard a prisoner tell him what no prisoner had ever told him before. “You would have no power unless it was given to you from above.” Pilate was not the kind of man who would have easily forgotten that. Thus, he mocks the One Who had said it by placing the inscription over Christ’s head on the Cross.
It has often semi-jokingly been said that Pilate wrote the first Christian sermon and published it in three languages. What he wrote in the language of justice and the empire, Latin, and in the language of the Jewish people and religion, Hebrew, and in Greek, the common language of the whole civilized world, confessed to the world the truth that Jesus of Nazareth is King of the Jews. The Jews protested against what Pilate did but he remained adamant in his decision that the inscription remain on the Cross. Thus, all those who saw the inscription and went their own way when the spectacle was finished, went away with that proclamation in their minds, wondering if it was, in fact, true. As it turned out, Pilate unwittingly told the truth.
Good Friday truly is a day of paradoxes and contrasts, but it is also a day of reckoning and manifestation. Reckoning because we see clearly that God’s power is unassailable and will always win out over evil, manifestation because in suffering and agony shines forth majesty, splendor and kingship. The Blood and water which spilled out from the side of Jesus as He hung on the Cross was not just another gory element of a very gruesome scene, but a powerful mixture which gave birth to the Church and ushered in God’s Kingdom on earth.
Here is the truth of Good Friday. Though He appeared defeated, Christ was the only victor. The Cross, a symbol of defeat, shame, and pain, is also the source of glory, life and salvation. Whoever is crushed by the Cross is a winner. Whoever wins without the Cross is a loser.
Each one of us has a cross to carry. Each one of us would like to be something we are not, to have something we do not have, to be able to accomplish something we cannot. In the shadow of the Cross, we need to renounce once and for all what we are and what we are not, that is to say, we need to put off the old man and put on new garments of light and righteousness.
May Our Lord give us a love of our cross just as He had for His. Instead of bearing the Holy Wood with disgust, our Redeemer embraced and kissed it because He was fulfilling His mission on earth. Our cross consists in fulfilling our mission. Let us embrace it tearfully and lovingly. And let us say, “I will never cease to ask for strength to carry my cross, and I will carry it to the height of my Calvary!”
Our Lord bore every sort of pain and suffering, much like a king going to his coronation. He did this with dignity, with serenity, steadfastly and without hesitation. Nothing was spared Him, whether physically or spiritually. He entered into the depths of suffering with the resolution of a hero, thus appearing before the justice of the Eternal father gloriously arrayed and resplendent with pain. This is how He saved the human race. With each step He took toward Calvary, the redemption of the human race shone brighter and brighter.
For Orthodox Catholic Christians, the Cross is central to the life of faith. Let us never look away from the Cross but keep our gaze fixed upon it, for it is our strength. So too, let us never forget the Passion of Christ. Let us not commemorate only once a year, but every Friday of the year; so important it is to the life of every human being and the human race as a while.
May the events of this holy and great day remain forever in your hearts and minds and may you never forget the great thing that was done for you today.