Today is my birthday, and I am wearing black.
You’ve probably noticed this already, but I tend to like to think about suffering. I do not feel strange or maudlin about this, because I think most American Christians don’t think about it enough. In fact, I’ve been thinking about how one would cultivate a church centered around dealing with suffering as the way of life and peace through the cross.
Today, Jared and I are serving at a three-hour Good Friday service. The first hour is hymns and readings from the Old Testament; the second hour is stations of the cross; and the third hour is solemn reproaches, veneration of the cross, and Eucharist.
Growing up, I didn’t really understand the veneration of the cross. I remember attending a service once where we went up and kissed the glazed feet of a crucifix, big enough to be unnerving but smaller than life size. The Jesus hanging on it was about the size of a Halfling. It was odd, but having been raised Roman Catholic, I’m inclined to be accepting of such things.
One night, not too long ago, I was sad about the things I am sad about sometimes. Then Jared shared something with me that changed everything. At a retreat, he had undergone healing prayer – an exercise when you visit painful memories and see where Jesus was in that situation. He had revisited the worst night of our married life.
When he started talking, I expected Jesus’ presence in that memory to be one of comfort – of holding us in our pain, being there with us – the truth being that he hadn’t abandoned us.
That’s not what Jared said.
He saw Jesus suffering with us.
As soon as he said that, I was back at that night in my memory. In that little basement bedroom that barely fit our oddly-shaped bed and dressers. And I saw Jesus – not half-size, but double-size – hanging on the cross. His cross was too big for the room, but it went through the floor and a bit through the ceiling, as if their presence was no obstruction. I can see the thorns cutting into his brow, his skin torn all over from whips, his downcast head bearing the sin of the whole world. That sin which includes all the suffering that proceeds from sin. That suffering which includes all the suffering in that room.
Suddenly, I completely understood why you would kiss a crucifix.
See, there’s this funny idea that Jesus suffered so we don’t have to. That’s true inasmuch as he took our condemnation, that those who believe in him won’t have to follow him to the depths of hell. It’s also true that without Jesus’ work on the cross, our suffering doesn’t mean anything; it just sucks. Even following his example of suffering for others does not, in itself, make us like him – the grace made available through the cross works through those experiences to change us.
It’s more like, Jesus suffered so that we could. At least, that’s what I’ve been thinking lately; I haven’t quite worked out how to articulate it. Jesus made a path through hell so that we wouldn’t end up there, but we still have to follow him through it. Some of that is in service to bring others to Jesus, generally along that same path; some of that is to make us strong enough to do so. Without him, my suffering is meaningless. With him, my suffering still should not have been, but it is in him. Being in him, it puts me with him.
During these three days of death, in Latin called the Triduum Mortis – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday – we particularly remember Jesus’ suffering. In so doing, we sing a lot of hymns about it. Many of them seem to be trying to evoke pity, reminding me to feel bad that Jesus is suffering instead of me. That’s all well and good, and without his suffering in my place, my entire life would be pointless. But increasingly, as we sing these songs, I identify more with Jesus than with my distance from him. On Palm Sunday we sang “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And I found myself thinking, actually, yes. More and more, I was there. Even when I identify with Peter in his betrayal, I remember that he ended up following Jesus to his own cross.
So I’m wearing black on my birthday. We were born through suffering, and that will be true at every step of the way. But it has a point. It has been redeemed. Because Sunday’s coming.