In every evangelical church in America today, there stands a cross. Two beams of wood, set perpendicular to each other, sometimes stylized, sometimes bare, as iconic a representation of Christianity as ever there was. It is a sanitary symbol, one that softly encourages us to remember that Jesus died for our sins, but not quite enough to bring us face to face with the full, gruesome reality entailed by that startling proposition. If it did, I'm not sure we'd sprinkle it across our jewelry and t-shirts as liberally as we do. That cross is bare, and, in a sense, rightfully so. Christ is risen indeed, and the fact that he came off that cross, that he rose victorious, is the only reason we are justified. If Christ has not been raised, then we are still in our sins.
But before the resurrection, there must be the gore of the cross. I've often wondered what would happen if those empty crosses were replaced with crucifixes. Perhaps that'd be much too Catholic for our Protestant sensibilities. But before there can be a theology of hope, there must be a theology of suffering. Easter is coming, but Good Friday must come first.
"In spite of that, we call this Friday good"
The Christian faith is built upon a scandal and an offense. Hegel summarized the cross well, “God is dead,” and now we must deal with the crushing blow of such a proposition. Friedrich Nietzsche realized the import of those words and saw the blood on his own hands. “We have killed him – you and I,” his madman says, and then asks:
Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?
The God in whom we live move and have our being, and by whom all things consist, is killed – surely, in his absence, there is nothing left to cling to. We ask why, and are in good company to do so. Here we have the Word by whom all things were made and in whom we live, move, and have our being, the infinite, transcendent, and glorious God who crossed over into a finite reality. The paradox of that movement has caused many a philosopher's head to spin. “God is infinite, and the devil is limited,” Gottfried Leibniz says, “The good may and does go to infinity, while evil has its bounds.” Surely the mere incursion of the infinite into finitude is enough to retrieve all evils and bring the kingdom of heaven to earth. Isn't that what his Apostles thought, after all?
But then, Christ does something that even those closest to him could not understand. Rather than summoning legions of angels to his aid, he walks the Via Dolorosa, suffers himself to be nailed to a tree, and dies. “Here we are faced by the night of the real, ultimate and inexplicable absence of God,” the theologian Hans Iwand writes. “Here God is non-God. Here is the triumph of death, the enemy, the non-church, the lawless state, the blasphemer, the soldiers. Here Satan triumphs over God.”
The great conqueror of sin, of whom it was prophesied that he would crush the head of the serpent, suffers death at that hands of the devil. Iwand continues:
Our faith begins at the point where atheists suppose that it must be at an end. Our faith begins with the bleakness and power which is the night of the cross, abandonment, temptation and doubt about everything that exists! Our faith must be born where it is abandoned by all tangible reality; it must be born of nothingness, it must taste this nothingness and be given it to taste in a way that no philosophy of nihilism can imagine.
If the infinite becoming finite were a paradox too great to bear, how much more the infinite becoming nothing? God with man is now abiding, now suffering, now dying – forsaken, emptied, alienated, tasting of nothing – and this God does so out of love, desiring to reconcile to himself a creation that has spurned and rejected him, that he who is the self-sufficient, immortal, immutable ground of being takes on that which is corruptible – indeed, already corrupted – surely it is such a scandal as to make one lose one's mind over!
No, before there can be an ascension, there must be a descent. Before life, there comes death, before glorification, humiliation. “Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of?” Christ asks us.
But that's not the end of the story. It may be Good Friday, but Easter Sunday is coming. Christ's death is followed by resurrection; his descent into hell followed by ascension into heaven. In tasting death, he defeated death, that we may now say, “Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory?”
Grotesque passion, gruesome love,
sin abolished in thy blood.
Divine empathy, can it be?
Holiness defiled for me –
its desecration, my purity?
By Nick Barden