“My baby’s dead! My baby’s dead! My baby’s dead!” This is the refrain playing from the living room as I am jolted out of slumber by my father. What is this awful sound? Why is my mom screaming?
“Mikey’s dead, son.” Mikey? My dad never called Mike Mikey, but there is no easy way to tell a 5-year-old child that their brother has died. Adding a “y” to the end of his name was about the best he could do to soften the blow. As the reality of the situation sank in, the world began to taste and feel a little different. There had been an irreversible rupture in the cosmos. My brother, Mike, in his senior year of high school, had just been killed in a car accident along with one of his best friends. Jesus did not, so far as we can tell, take the wheel, as the song goes. The wheel stayed on its path to destruction, reminding us all that chaos lurks behind every façade of safety in a broken world. April 28, 1988: The day my mother entered into Mary’s Good Friday passion.
Mom was not the same for a very long time. My father tells me that we would often find her crying alone. By some sort of inner prompting, my 5-year-old self would sit on her lap and hug her, tell her everything would be okay, and that I loved her. These moments were very special and cemented a close bond between mom and me. Sometimes we need someone to mourn with us, sometimes to encourage us, and sometimes both. Christians may take some sort of pride in looking different from the world, but when it comes to death we often look very much the same: afraid.
For centuries, theologians overlooked the question of how Mary might have felt, but debated whether one could use the phrase “God died on the cross.” The most debated portion of the Apostle’s Creed is that portion which affirms that Jesus did, in fact, go to the land of the dead after his death. Jesus died. The Messiah died. God’s chosen one, the Son of God, the Son of Man suffered, died, and was buried. But long before this became a confession that the church would uphold through centuries, plagues, and persecution, Mary was not thinking of doctrines. She was agonizing over the loss of her son. She was present at the crucifixion, one of the few remaining people from his life to see him off. Mary was thinking: my baby is dead. He was alive. Now he is not.
Good Friday this year comes in the midst of a global crisis. As Christians around the world recall the death of Jesus, it seems fitting to remember that it was a death that resulted in fear and mourning, darkness and uncertainty for all who knew and loved him. The life they imagined with him suddenly ended in an abrupt and deafening silence. Mary no doubt felt her own rupture in the cosmos. No one was thinking of atonement. They were just grieved beyond relief and, perhaps, even beyond belief. They did not have the luxury that many of us have when other people are mourning, that impulse to jump from Good Friday to Easter Sunday with a platitude that gives rest to our own anxiety more than it does the mourner’s. The sufferer sits in reality as if it was nothing but ashes, which is where some of us might be today. All you see, taste, touch, and smell are ashes. C. S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed of losing his wife: “The act of living is different all through. Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”(1)
The crucifixion of Jesus surely spread an absence over everything. His last dying acts would be replayed in the hearts of those who witnessed it. He screams in agony. He pardons a thief. He asks for the forgiveness of those who tear his flesh and lust for his blood. In a touching moment of gentleness, he asks his beloved disciple to watch over his mother, who was already widowed, a death sentence of its own in that time. Death has a way of revealing who we are and these last acts speaks volumes to the heart of Jesus and the kingdom even in that moment he is concerned with ushering in. We are learning of God’s essential self through his incarnate suffering, and it is a lesson we might lean into in the midst of our own global uncertainty and grief.
For as strange as it might seem to say, there is something meaningful, even necessary, about this God who suffers, a God who reveals something of himself through suffering. Christ comforts those who mourn and suffers as one who has been through it himself. He is the original wounded healer. Theologian John Stott explores this significance in his book on the crucifixion, writing:
“I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the one Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? […] He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered into our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering.”(2)
There will be a time when, like a patient returning from cardiac arrest, the whole universe will be awakened and re-set by Christ, the center, source, and conclusion of reality. This is what we hold on Easter Sunday and it is but a jarring glimpse of God’s hand in making all of creation new. But we are not there yet. On Good Friday, Mary cried out with tears as God cried out with earthquakes. Even for the Father, the knowledge of the Son’s future resurrection did not make divine pain any less severe. My mother cries less, and she, too, can face tomorrow because she knows that Christ lives, but the tears will never completely stop on this side of time.
Good Friday shows us, in case there was any doubt before, that something is wrong with the world, something worth mourning deeply. To say that we should not mourn as those without hope is not the same as saying that we should not mourn. There will be a time when God wipes all of these tears from our eyes. We are not there yet but we can surely take heart in the knowledge that God is close to the brokenhearted.