Thursday, March 28, 2013

Thank God it's Friday

Good Friday

Social networking, the likes of Twitter and Facebook, has enabled many of us, including the pathologically shy and introverted, to articulate what we would have normally kept private. We give vent to our pent-up frustrations by ‘shouting out’, expressing every emotion for the world to see.  Just take a look at Twitter box or Facebook page on a Monday morning and count how many times you see a similar statement like this: “I can’t wait until the weekend,” or “When’s it going to be Friday,” And of course the familiar initialism at the close of the week, ‘TGIF’ (or ‘Thank God It’s Friday’, for the uninitiated).

What is it about Fridays that makes them so special? Why this euphoric fascination with Friday? Here are some reasons why people think Friday is cool: We get to stay up late. It’s an opportunity to catch up on much needed sleep. It means having drinks with the guys at the local watering hole. It’s that much needed break after a tiring and often bad week (except for priest). Or as Rebecca Black sang on that YouTube music video that had been described as “the worst song ever”, ‘Friday’ means “Party, Party, Party!”

But for us Christians, there is one supreme reason that beats all the rest. We say without hesitation, “Thank God it’s Friday” because it was on Friday that Our Lord Jesus died for us. “Thank God it’s Friday” because the instrument of death, the cross, became the means of our salvation! Good Friday marks the day when wrath and mercy met at the cross. The Cross which put God to death became the Tree of Life which brought man to life.

The most quintessentially Catholic object of devotion is a crucifix-a cross with the image of Christ's body nailed to it. It’s possible, likely in fact, that you have come here with positive thoughts about the cross, even warm feelings about the cross. Over the years, many Christians have suffered from a cultural romanticisation or sanitisation of the cross. It no longer evokes horror or terror, only loving endearment and pious devotion.  We regard it as a sign of blessing, and certainly not as a symbol of a curse. You see Jesus hanging there and see a wonderful example of compassion and sacrifice. You find in the death of Jesus an inspiration to forgive and be kind to others. And for others, the overriding emotion in your heart in pity. You feel sorry for Jesus. It’s common for people to turn the cross into nothing but a sad martyrdom or a sentimental statement about love.

But these sentiments do not begin to explain the cross. The readings for today, especially the Passion taken from the Gospel of St John, point however to a far more profound theological truth that extends beyond our emotions of sadness and pity. I dare say that most people know something about Good Friday, but not enough, and often get distracted by the lesser or more trivial things. Well here’s the central truth: on the cross Christ redeemed us from the curse of sin by becoming a curse for us. That Christ became a curse is what makes Good Friday good.

What did it mean to be cursed? Think of the scene in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3. God warned Adam and Eve that if they were to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they would suffer the curse of death. But our first parents refused to believe God’s warning and chose rather to rely on the words of the cunning serpent. They believed that by eating its fruits, they would no longer have to depend on God. They sort self-reliance over obedience. They imagined themselves as masters of their own destiny and be forever free of God’s interference. That mistaken belief is at the heart of every sin and serves as the perennial disease that infects man till today. Little did they know that this would be their curse, a curse inherited by the whole of humanity. After taking a bite of the forbidden fruit Adam is cursed, Eve is cursed, the serpent is cursed, and the ground is cursed. The effect of the curse is catastrophic – an impassable chasm now exist between man and God; it meant the loss of communion with God, each other, and the created universe.  The curse bars us from eating of the fruit of the Tree of Life and thus man lost the gift of immortality. Death is now our lot.

But Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross has changed all that. Our wounded race could not begin to attempt such a massive task of healing the rift.  Man could never lift the curse on his own. So the Father sent His Eternal Word to become man and accomplish the task in our place, to substitute for us.  For the immortal, infinite God to empty himself and unite himself to a limited, vulnerable human nature was already a feat of unimaginable love and humility.  But for redemption to be complete, the hero would have to withstand the greatest fury that hell and fallen humanity could hurl against him – the cross. If death should come from self-reliance of man, life would come from obedience to God, even execution on the cross.

We should remember each time we see a cross that the Cross of Jesus' crucifixion was an emblem of physical anguish and personal defilement, not triumph-of debasement and humiliation, not glory-of degradation and shame, not beauty. Invented by the Assyrians, crucifixion was used as a means of subjugation and to instill fear and terror among the vanquished nations. It was the policy of the Roman Empire to adopt the best from conquered peoples. In this case, they chose the cross and found crucifixion an excellent tool of intimidation.  Incidentally, crucifixion was deemed so horrible that Roman law forbade its use on Roman citizens, even traitors.  It was reserved only for slaves and conquered peoples.

The humiliation of being stripped naked to die in a public spectacle was particularly loathsome to Jews for whom public nudity was an abomination.  More odious than the shame, the condemned was also deemed accursed. According to Deuteronomy 21:23 everyone hanged on a tree was cursed. It was punishment due for grievous crimes. The New Testament often uses “tree” rather than “cross”. Jesus thus came under this curse. Yet, Saint Peter explains more clearly what was involved: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” (1 Peter 2:24) Jesus accepted the “curse” we should have received, and underwent death in our place –so that we might not die but live.

What the Son of God endured for us was the depth of ugliness and humiliation. We need to be reminded of the tremendous personal cost of love. Everyone knows the cross is about the love of God. But it is no cheap, sentimental, fuzzy kind of love. It is a costly, deep, rich, free, painful kind of love. Pope Emeritus Benedict, when he handed the WYD cross to the Australian pilgrims on Palm Sunday two years ago, said, “The Cross itself is the true Tree of Life. We do not find life by possessing it, but by giving it. Love is a gift of oneself, and for this reason it is the way of true life symbolised by the Cross."

We can say “Thank God it’s Friday” with a sigh of relief. Whew! The week is over. Done with the daily grind. Once again the end of the week came just in time before the breakdown. No struggling with the snooze button tomorrow morning. Friday night we can relax, unwind, and enjoy thoughts of a weekend without appointments and traffic jams. But today, we say “Thank God it’s Friday” because it’s God who’s on the Cross. Today, we finally experience the ultimate break – not just from the tedium of a tiring week, but a break from sin, from death, and from darkness. Only God could heal us—save us—from sin and all the darkness it brings into life. Good Friday is good because the Word of God in the flesh—Jesus Christ—could endure on our behalf all the suffering and death that is the consequence of human sin. All the pain, emptiness and despair from betrayal, injustice, illness, lost and lack of love is brought to the Cross by Jesus. He assumed the curse we had wrought through our disobedience, by offering himself as a sacrifice of perfect obedience. He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24). For this reason, we say without hesitation, without the slightest regret, without any trace of doubt, ‘Thank God it’s Friday”!

During the Vespers celebrated in Orthodox Churches throughout the world today, the following hymn is sung, a hymn that helps us understand and celebrate the profound depth of this truth, the awesome mystery of Christ's passion and death.

A dread and marvelous mystery we see come to pass this day.
He whom none may touch is seized;
He who looses Adam from the curse is bound.
He who tries the hearts and inner thoughts of man is unjustly brought to trial.
He who closed the abyss is shut in prison.
He before whom the powers of heaven stand with trembling, stands before Pilate;
The Creator is struck by the hand of His creature.
He who comes to judge the living and the dead is condemned to the Cross;
The Destroyer of hell is enclosed in a tomb.
O Thou who dost endure all these things in Thy tender love,
who hast saved all men from the curse,
O long-suffering Lord, glory to Thee.

(Sticheron of Vespers)

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