Easter for many of us is a day of family gatherings and a celebration, not only of Christ’s resurrection, but also the coming of spring. Today, on Good Friday, let’s not rush the celebration before coming face-to-face with the paradoxes that are at the heart of the Christian faith.
Those paradoxes are the subject of a wonderful book Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus written by my friend Father Richard John Neuhaus.
A paradox, as G. K. Chesterton famously put it, is “Truth standing on her head to get attention.” Our aversion and resistance to truth is so strong that God often finds it necessary to employ extreme measures to get us to see past the lies we have embraced.
Never was this truer than on what Christians call “Good Friday.” As Neuhaus writes, “If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything.” That “everything” starts with telling the truth about the human condition. And how does God do that? By paradoxically punishing the offended party, instead of the guilty one.
As Neuhaus tells us, we are all aware that “something has gone terribly wrong with the world and with us in the world.” It is not just history’s best-known list of horribles. It is also “the habits of compromise . . . loves betrayed . . . lies excused . . .”
Yet, instead of acknowledging our complicity in the world’s evil, we minimize our own faults and regard our sins as “small.” Good Friday puts the lie to that claim. If the Son of God had to suffer such a horrible death, then our sins cannot have been “small.”
The Cross reminds us that “our lives are measured,” not by us or by our peers, but “by whom we are created and called to be, and the measuring is done by the One who creates and calls.” Instead of glossing over our sin with an understanding nod, the Cross renders “the verdict on the gravity of our sin.”
Our unwillingness to see our sins as they really are—that is, as God sees them—leads us to embrace another falsehood: that is, that we can make things right. Even though our culture is, in many respects, post-Christian, it still clings to the idea of redemption. However, just as with our ideas about sin and guilt, our ideas about redemption are pitiful and impoverished.
On Good Friday, God made it clear “that we are incapable of setting things right.” He made it clear by taking our place. On the Cross, “the Judge of the guilty is Himself judged guilty.” This is, of course, the great scandal, one that paradoxically points to the great truth at the heart of Good Friday. We are powerless to set things right, and only God, the offended party, could undo the mess we created.
The Cross—God’s way of bearing witness to the truth about our condition—is as offensive today as it was 2,000 years ago. Now, as then, we insist on misinterpreting the events of that Friday afternoon, but to no avail. Our sin has been judged, and God Himself bore the punishment. And that is the truth about everything.