We may sing “There is a green hill far away” but actually the hill on which they killed Jesus was more likely to have been a dark hill with not much green in sight. It was, and is, a very dark moment in a long long history of we humans doing dark and awful things to one another. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Because we Christians believe that this is not just another man being tortured by others; this is also God entering into our darkest human moments even into death itself.
There are two ways in which we care for those facing darkness and sadness in their lives. First there is the care we offer to those we do not know : to those poor refugees from Syria, especially the children, fleeing from a murderous tyranny ; or to those suffering from poverty and hunger in places where there is very little food. Yes, we care about them, we may even shed a tear when we see such suffering on the TV, and we may well give money to one or other of the charities that is trying to help. But our care is care at a distance, it doesn’t affect us personally.
Then there is the other kind of care, where someone close to us is in pain or in sadness. Maybe it is or has been a husband or wife or a child or a close friend. Here our care is very different. We long to help more than we actually can. We long to do something to take away their pain, and usually we can do very little, and we suffer even more because there is so little we can actually do. So we suffer alongside them. This kind of care for others is a care that really hurts.
This is what we see in the crucifixion of Jesus. We are sometimes inclined to think of God as caring for us at a distance. Sad for us yes, trying to send help if we will receive it, but somehow remote from the actual suffering. But the God we Christians believe in is not like that. We believe that God cares for us as we care for someone close to us. His love is this different kind of love, a love for us that really hurts. Remember that God is in us, within us, and so feels all out pain and sadness.
And that is why it is important that we try to avoid making the death of Jesus too matter of fact. To see Jesus hanging on the cross so often that we fail to register the dreadful pain both physical and mental that Jesus is enduring as he hangs there. Here is God suffering for us, but choosing to do so as a real man unable to lessen the pain he is feeling. That is why on Good Friday we bring in a cross, and we hear the words “Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world” Note that! Not just “Here is the cross” but “Behold”, a word that is challenging as it tells us to look a lot more closely “Behold”, a word that tells us that here is something that we must attend to, not just look at as we look at many things, and then pass on; but actually a word to make us stop and think and hopefully pray.
And what we are called to see is something deeper than the surface story. What we are called to see, surrounded as we are in this world by so much that is dark and sad, is God’s love and mercy pouring out for us. But it does not just begin on the cross, it actually begins way back when God chooses to become a man. So, surprising as it may seem, we must link Good Friday with Christmas. Medieval pictures sometimes even hint at this where the cross beams of the stable roof stand out as a reminder of the cross that is to come. Remember too the Wise Man’s gift of myrrh, the ointment used in burial – a surprising gift for a baby unless we know who this baby is!
For this man is God come to us, this real flesh and blood suffering human body, is Emmanuel – God with us. This is not just the outward form of a man, as if he were play-acting, but a real flesh and blood human being who suffers and dies with just as much pain as we do, both as we watch over loved ones who suffer, or as we face pain and suffering ourselves.
In one of my parishes there was a woman who could not face coming forward to the cross on Good Friday. She had a very strong awareness of what the Crucifixion of Jesus really means – so much so that when she tried to come forward she could not cope with the tears that she shed. We might say “How emotional! Why couldn’t she control herself?” but actually I thought her tears were an example to us all, and I tried to persuade her to keep on coming, despite the tears, to help us all to be more aware of what it is we are looking at, and why we are encouraged, if we want to, to actually kiss the foot of the cross as a sign of our love and gratitude for this the greatest sacrifice ever made.
Amazing love, amazing grace!
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.