Tissot, “The Sorrowful Mother”
It’s a darker than usual Good Friday for me. I just got word that my boss, the dean of our seminary, a gentle and godly man, passed away suddenly today. He just wrote me a recommendation for graduate school. It must have been one of the very last things he did in his office.
He sat across from me in my office about a week ago, and we discussed our ages. I said I was pretty old to start working for a Master’s. He said, “I’m a decade older than you, and I’m not planning to go anywhere.”
Is it good to die on Good Friday? A complicated question, as is the whole matter of “Good” Friday.
As far as I can tell, there are two major ways of explaining evil in the world (outside of the popular view that “it’s all garbage, so let’s just have a good time until we die”) today. One is what might be called the Buddhist Way, which understands evil to be an illusion, because existence itself is an illusion, so there’s no point getting upset.
The other is what I’ll call the Christian Way (though there are probably non-Christians who hold it in some variety). That way calls for citing the Old Testament statement that “God is a Man of War,” and believing that evil is real, but that He is in the process of defeating it.
Both ways have their problems, and cannot be proved by logic or science. But I know which suits me better.
A classic explanation for suffering appeals to the common experience of parents. A child is sick and needs an operation, or breaks a bone and needs it set. He looks at his father or mother and says, “Do we have to?” And the parent says, “Yes. There’s no other way. If we don’t do this you’ll die, or be crippled for life.”’
Simple, seen in those terms. Sometimes suffering is necessary to avoid something worse.
But the analogy breaks down. The loving parent hasn’t produced the situation in which the child is suffering.
God, assuming He exists, is like a loving Father, but not in every respect. God creates (or permits) the sickness or the injury. It’s something He could have prevented, if He chose.
In that respect, God is more like a writer.
This is not a chance simile, I think. I’ve said for years, including in my novels, that this thing we call “reality” is in fact very much like a story. For me, this means that storytelling is not just a matter of entertainment. It’s essentially a moral exercise. Stories help us learn how to live, and give us clues that lead us to God – if we know how to read them.
The secret to Good Friday, I think, can be read in the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11. This is a remarkable account, because it shows Jesus engaging in what looks like premeditated cruelty. He gets word that his friend Lazarus is sick, but He stays where He is and does nothing about it. Only after Lazarus dies does He set out for the man’s home in Bethany. Lazarus’ sister Martha meets him with a recrimination – “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Mary, the more sensitive one, can’t even face Him at first. The fact that they were some of His best friends only made it worse. How to account for such apparently heartless behavior, from someone who claimed to love them?
It doesn’t make sense if Jesus is just a Friend. It makes perfect sense if He’s an Author.
Jesus does something beyond what anyone expected. They had hoped – longed – for a miracle of healing. Jesus’ plan, as the Author of the story, was to do something much, much bigger. He wanted to raise Lazarus from the dead, to reanimate (to full health – we’re not talking zombies) a body in which decomposition had begun.
What’s the difference? It’s what Tolkien called Eucatastrophe – the miracle beyond all hope.
A healing would be wonderful. It would cause rejoicing and increase everyone’s faith.
But a resurrection is more than wonderful. It turns the world – nay, the universe – upside down. Anyone who has seen a resurrection has no need to ever be afraid of anything again. The greatest enemy of all has been overcome – and Jesus’ followers know the Overcomer.
Death, and the breaking down of the physical order that accompanies it, is the worst thing. But the overcoming of death is the best thing.
The followers of Jesus saw this best thing in an even greater way in the crucifixion and the resurrection.
That’s what makes Good Friday good.