Today, as I reflect on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, I wonder if we are missing something when we skip ahead to Sunday. I’m not sure if it’s something that I’ve picked up from studying theology, or reading blog posts from different Christian faith traditions, but jubilant celebration on ‘Good’ Friday seems at best, a little premature.
See, there’s just one problem with rushing to the resurrection: Jesus didn’t. As recorded in the New Testament, Jesus Christ did indeed rise from the grave, but not immediately. The perplexing question I’ve been asking myself is: why wait?
Answers spring to mind: To fulfill Scripture, being the obvious one. Amongst other examples, Jesus himself equated “the sign of the Prophet Jonah” with his own death, burial and resurrection (Matt 12:38-45, 16:4). Taken at face value, one might presume that Jesus therefore had to spend a predetermined amount of time in the grave. That hundreds of messianic prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus is well attested, however this still doesn’t answer my question. Why would Jesus not simply rise from death immediately? Surely such a powerful, public miracle would have been an earth shattering apologetic?
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that he ‘should’ have done this, or questioning whether or not events played out as they are recorded in Scripture. My fundamental concern is, what (if any) could the significance of the delayed resurrection be for 1st century onlookers? Additionally, what does a 21st century Western audience do with this drama of Scripture? If we could enter fully into the crucifixion narratives, what kind of journey would this take us on?
Picture the scene in all its grotesque grandeur: The man you’ve been following for three years, whom you have seen walk on water, multiply food, heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, and fill you with hope as he effortlessly subverted the religious and political status quo, is dead. Never mind that he has already told you that this would (must) happen, you’re still left with the bewildering, nauseating, soul destroying shock of watching the man you believe to be the Messiah, God incarnate, the hope of the world, butchered before your very eyes.
At this point in time, your world has just fallen apart. Dreams have been eviscerated of all credibility. The apocalyptic optimism you had grown to embody now lies amongst the puddles of blood, sweat, urine and faeces at the foot of the cross (victims of crucifixion generally lose all control of their bodily functions). Any remnant of fight you had left in you has just bled dry, and been asphyxiated like your cherished leader and friend. No miraculous escape is yet in sight, and your prospective future circumstances have just gone from bad to worse.
Today, there is nothing good left in your perception of life. Friday is your darkest hour. At this point in time, evil has (seemingly) triumphed, nailed your hope to a tree, and proceeded to mock, scorn, and spit insolent ignominy upon it. There is no further pretence of revolution, renewal or resolution. All you have is what little vicarious agony you can endure as you watch the dominant culture gloat with smug indifference, having just murdered the most precious person you have ever known. Tomorrow, if you sleep at all, you will awake to the same horrifying reality you are now faced with. Faith has deserted you, and you are bereft of any strength to resist or deny the brutality of your plight. The tension of Jesus’ promise to return jars painfully with the (seeming) finality of Saturday morning.
In retrospect, we can see the glorious hope of the gospel find its vindication through the whole Easter message. Yet if to truly love Jesus is to obey his commandments, be sent as the father sent him, and therefore walk as he did, then the path of true discipleship must lead to Gethsemane and Golgotha before it arrives at the empty tomb (John 14:15-22, 20:21,1 Jn 2:3-6). The richness and depth of the story of Jesus can get lost if we dismiss the solemnity of the cross, trying instead to resolve this most agonising moment with our expectations of joy.
Today, 21st century Christians across the globe ought to stand humbled, sobered, and in generous solidarity with the rest of humanity. We should do this not for the sake of dead ritual or morbid piety, but because in truth we collectively represent the merciless crowds and the insolent thief on the cross next to Jesus. The sickening scene of our crucified Messiah presents us all with the stark juxtaposition of divine grace and human depravity. We murdered God. In return, he offers us life, forgiveness, freedom and hope. Let us not forget the awe inspiring mystery of Jesus’ sacrifice, and the endless significance it has for us in light of the victory shout which is still ahead of us.