Why We Call This Friday, “Good”

Only two times. In all of the stories that Mark retells in his recording of Jesus’ life, only two times does he record the actual words that came from Jesus’ own voice. Jesus learned and spoke Aramaic in his home. It was his mother tongue. But within the culture in which Mark recorded Jesus’ words, Greek was the most common literary language. So almost every time he records the words Jesus spoke, Mark writes them down in Greek. All but two times.

The first occurrence happens when Jesus raises to life a young girl who had died. The words capture the extreme tenderness and wonder of the moment. Jesus tells the young girl, “Talitha Koum,” essentially, “Precious girl, rise!” Since we know from Mark’s telling of the story that only a few people witnessed this miracle, it is likely Peter – who was there – shared this detail. One commentator I read speculated that the words of Jesus, and the way he spoke them, must have moved Peter so deeply that he could only remember them as originally spoken. In relaying the story to Mark, Peter may have been trying to capture some of the poignancy of that moment.

Only one other time does Mark record the actual words Jesus spoke. While Jesus hangs on the cross, he cries out, and Mark records: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” Mark then translates for us this cry of Jesus, “Which means, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Remarkably, few commentators even try to understand why Mark chooses this specific cry to record as if in Jesus’ own voice! Many think that Jesus was simply quoting the first line of Psalm 22, in order to remind all who heard his voice of the full psalm. The psalm, in full, speaks of God’s faithfulness and mercy. Therefore, in their opinion, this cry from the cross becomes another way in which Jesus praises God even in the midst of painful suffering. I can’t entirely discount this theory. But my question would be, why – for only the second time – does Mark record the words in Jesus’ original voice? Jesus praised God consistently throughout his life of teaching. Yet all those other instances Mark retells in Greek. Why record these words differently?

I think Mark recorded this cry from the mouth of Jesus in his original words because those who heard it could remember it in no other way. I think that what was heard by those witnessing Jesus’ cry from the cross shook them to the core of their being. The utter horror Jesus experienced in that moment revealed itself so intensely in his cry, that those who heard it would never be able to remember it in any other way than the actual words he screamed from the depths of his soul. In this moment, Jesus experienced complete abandonment by God.

As I write this, I am reminded of another scene that records a similar experience. In Joseph Conrad’s, “Heart of Darkness,” the narrator, Marlowe, records what he sees as Kurtz faces death:

One evening coming in with a candle I was startled to hear him say a little tremulously, “I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.” The light was within a foot of his eyes. I forced myself to murmur, “Oh nonsense!” and stood over him as if transfixed. Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again … It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “The horror! The horror!” … Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up – he had judged. “The horror!”

Conrad captured in fiction what Christ experienced in reality – the horror of abandonment by God.

And yet, it is precisely because Jesus suffered so greatly, to the very depths of hell, that he can be savior to all human beings. How could we ever trust our lives to someone who doesn’t know what we experience? Jesus endured all that he suffered so that he would know. Only God can know what each human being suffers, but the story of Jesus assures us that God does know. As the writer of Hebrews puts it:

Since the children are made of flesh and blood, it’s logical that the Savior took on flesh and blood in order to rescue them by his death. By embracing death, taking it into himself, he destroyed the Devil’s hold on death, and freed all who cower through life, scared to death of death. It’s obvious, of course, that he didn’t go to all of this trouble for angels. It was for people like us … That’s why he had to enter into every detail of human life. Then, when he came before God as high priest to get rid of the people’s sins, he would have already experienced it all himself – all the pain, all the testing – and would be able to help where help was needed. (Hebrews 2:14-18, The Message)

In just the series of events covering the final hours of his life, Jesus experienced almost every form of human suffering possible. Roman guards mocked him, putting a robe and “crown” of thorns on him, kneeling and hailing him as “king!” They humiliated him: spitting on him, crucifying him in public view, stripped naked except for a loin cloth. His male friends betrayed and abandoned him. He was physically tortured – whipped, beaten, spikes driven through his limbs, hung from a wooden beam. He was ridiculed by the public and the religious leaders; the very people he came to help. And worst of all, God left him alone, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” William Lane, former professor at SPU, writes, “Now on the cross he who lived wholly for the Father experienced the full alienation from God which the judgement he had assumed entailed … The cry of dereliction expressed the unfathomable pain of real abandonment by the Father … the bitterness of desolation.”

And we must remember, who Jesus is intensifies what Jesus experienced. In the Christian faith, we proclaim Jesus as both fully human and fully God. The full understanding of the identity remains a mystery; yet, in this story it reminds us that Jesus suffered not only in his humanity, but – somehow – in his divinity also. In other words, he took on not only his own experience of suffering, but the experience of all human beings, ever.

One person who grasped this immensity as well as anyone in history was Julian of Norwich. In the 14th c., she had a series of revelations about God, including one about the unique suffering of Jesus on the cross. In chapter 20 of her “Revelations of Divine Love,” she writes:

And thus I saw our Lord Jesus languishing a long time, for the oneing of the Godhead gave strength to the manhood for love to suffer more than all man might. I mean not only more pain than all man might suffer, but also that he suffered more pain than all man of salvation that ever was from the first beginning in to the last day might tell or fully think … For as much as he was most tender and pure, right so he was most strong and mighty to suffer. And for every man’s sin that shall be saved he suffered. And every man’s sorrow, desolation, and anguish, he saw and sorrowed for kindness and love.

Denise Levertov, a British poet who lived her final years in Seattle, continues these thoughts in her poem, “On a Theme from Julian’s Chapter XX”:

Six hours outstretched in the sun, yes, / hot wood, the nails, blood trickling / into the eyes, yes – / but the thieves on their neighbor crosses / survived till after the soldiers / had come to fracture their legs, or longer. / Why single out this agony: What’s / a mere six hours? / Torture then, torture now, / the same, the pain’s the same, / immemorial branding iron, / electric prod. / Hasn’t a child / dazed in the hospital ward they reserve / for the most abused, known worse? / This air we’re breathing, / these very clouds, ephemeral billows / languid upon the sky’s / moody ocean, we share / with women and men who’ve held out / days and weeks on the rack – / and in the ancient dust of the world / what particles / of the long tormented, / what ashes. / But Julian’s lucid spirit leapt / to the difference: / perceived why no awe could measure / that brief day’s endless length, / why among all the tortured / One only is “King of Grief.” / The oneing, she saw, the oneing / with the Godhead opened Him utterly / to the pain of all minds, all bodies. / – sands of the sea, of the desert – / from first beginning / to last day. The great wonder is / that the human cells of His flesh and bone / didn’t explode / when utmost Imagination rose / in that flood of knowledge. Unique / in agony, Infinite strength, Incarnate, / empowered Him to endure / inside of history, / through those hours when He took to Himself / the sum total of anguish and drank / even the lees of that cup:

within the mesh of the web, Himself / woven within it, yet seeing it, / seeing it whole. Every sorrow and desolation / He saw, and sorrowed in kinship.

I don’t know how it all works; but I know it does: only God can know each person’s pain; but God does know, through Christ.

I can think of very little more un-helpful, or hurtful, when a person suffers, than to have someone say, “I know what you’re going through,” and we know they don’t have a clue. Conversely, I can think of very little more helpful, or healing, for any of us in the midst of suffering, than to have someone with us who knows what we are going through. Someone who not only knows what we are experiencing, but has survived a similar experience. Someone who has survived and who can look us straight in the eye and tell us, “You will be okay.” And we can trust what they say because we know they do know what we are going through. That’s what we have in Christ. Hear the way Chad Walsh puts it in the last stanza of his poem, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

I have called to God and heard no answer, / I have seen the thick curtain drop, and sunlight die; / My voice has echoed back, a foolish voice, / The prayer restored intact to its silly source. / I have walked in darkness, he hung in it. / In all my mines of night, he was there first; / In whatever dead tunnel I am lost, he finds me. / My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? / From his perfect darkness a voice says, I have not.

I think sometimes in the Protestant church we do ourselves a disservice by displaying only empty crosses. Our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters more often display a crucifix – the image of Jesus still nailed to the cross. Catholic author, Thomas Howard, reveals the difference:

We don’t just have an empty cross with the work finished and done. Oh to be sure, logic and chronology (and some rigorous theologies) will dictate that it is so. Consummatum est. Yes. We know that. We cling to that. But that which is “finished” remains present and actual in time – in dimension, that is, under which we mortals must experience what it is to belong to the race of Adam. The victory of Easter, with its empty tomb and mighty risen Prince, cancels sin, suffering, and death: but we experience that canceling, not as a mathematical point that has no longevity, so to speak, but rather as the condition for our salvation, that is, the condition by which we are brought to glory. Brought: this bringing takes time. We live in time. We suffer in time. We see not yet all things put under Thee. Sin, sorrow, and suffering, and death itself, were indeed taken away at the Cross, but we mortals must enter into the depths of this mystery in actual experience. The fact that the Savior bore all this for us does not mean that we bear nothing of it; rather, it means that we are invited in to that place (the Cross) where suffering is transfigured.

In this life, we still suffer; and often suffer deeply. While only God can know the true, and full, experience of any one person’s suffering, on this day we are reminded that God does know. That’s why they call this Friday, “Good.”

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