Like other children from my era, for a long time, Easter weekend meant going to church as we usually did, but dressed in a new dress, new socks, and usually new patent leather shoes, Mary Jane style. Everyone came in their Easter finery and many compliments, genuine or not, were shared among the members of the congregation.
When I was older, and able to think about the religious significance of the holiday, I “got” Easter. But I was confused about “Good” Friday. What, after all, could be “good” about the day the world went black? Shouldn’t it be called “Black Friday” instead? (Of course, I didn’t know much about the stock market then, either.)
Since the disciples were human, I’m fairly sure that the very first time around, they didn’t think it was a good day either. One of them, possibly the equivalent of a modern-day Zionist, had met secretly with the guys in charge of the Temple in Jerusalem, who were fearful that Jesus was going to up-end their cushy lives just as he had the tables in the courtyard, and arranged to identify him for them so they could be sure to arrest the right guy. He would, as we know, have second thoughts and would prove to be unable to live with what he’d done. Another ventured a little further in, at first grabbing a sword and trying to hurt one of the fellows who’d been sent to get Jesus. Skulking around after that to see what they were going to do with Jesus, he had chickened out at the last minute, trying to shake off any connection between Jesus and him in case things went south, and just as Jesus himself had predicted. When that rooster crowed the third time, we know he felt awful. What the rest of them were doing we don’t know for sure, but I imagine they had huddled up together somewhere out of plain view, hoping that nobody had mentioned those guys that had been traveling around with Jesus to the authorities.
I’m likely to be accused of blasphemy by some, but I don’t think Jesus thought it was a good day, either. I think he had a pretty good idea that it wasn’t going to turn out well even when, a few days before, all kinds of people were shouting “Hosanna” like they were at a Trump or Sanders political rally, laying palm branches down in front of the guy they thought was going to exchange his donkey for a white charger and lead them in an attempt to overthrow the oppressors who’d occupied their lands. (Never mind that these same people would, in a matter of few hours, figure out that he wasn’t “the right kind of Messiah” and turn on him when Pilate gave them a chance to free him.) If he’d thought it was a really great day, I don’t think he would’ve gone to that place where olives were pressed for oil (Gethsemane) and asked God, one last time, if there wasn’t another, less painful, way to achieve His purposes. Reminds of me of when at the beginning of his career he’d been similarly challenged by “Satan” in the desert. He’d been remarkably strong in rebuking the idea that if he fell from the top of the highest point, he’d escape without even a bruised heel. That falling down part was about to happen, and he knew it. If he’d thought it was going to be a good day, he wouldn’t have been so disappointed that his best friends, who’d accompanied him to Gethsemane, had no idea what was about to transpire. While he’d been praying so hard, they’d all fallen asleep, and he was, existentially lonely — acutely aware that this journey was his and his alone.
John apparently went with Jesus’s mother to the hill where he was crucified. As Jesus reportedly told him to take care of Mary and vice versa, I imagine neither John nor Mary herself thought anything good was happening. If I’d been Mary, I think I would have been heartbroken, and very confused. How could it be that this son of hers—who, when still in the womb, she’d been told was destined for greatness—was being executed, way up in the air where everyone gathered to watch the spectacle could jeer at him and humiliate him? How would they ever recover?
No, it wasn’t a good day.
Eventually, of course, I began to understood the term in context. It was “good” only because we knew how the story turned out in the end. As an adult who’s had many experiences, I have some stories of good days, and a lot of stories where, in hindsight, the very experience of something I considered not so good changed me dramatically. In fact, I would have to say that it has been the times I was sure I would not survive the pain, but managed to do it somehow, that transformed me, sticking to my bones and in my memory.
Don’t get me wrong—I loved the good days, but they lost their luster quickly. It was a good day when the Atlanta Braves unexpectedly won the 1992 National League pennant, but I don’t think about it much anymore. It was a good day when the business I shared with three partners was sold and the balance in my bank account shot up. It was a good day when I was able to buy my first house. I’m sure you can think of lots of examples of days when it seemed that nothing could go wrong. For one moment in time, all was right with the world.
But they’re not the days I remember the most. The ones I remember are the days when people I dearly loved died–from cancer, in accidents, of heart attacks. The ones I remember are the day like the one when I filed for bankruptcy, after I’d exhausted every idea I could think of to hold off its inevitability during the recent recession. The ones I remember are the days when I suffered frustration and despair at the hands of people who completely misperceived what I am about, what I might have said or done and why, and certainly what I was thinking at different times of my life. Those days have always involved a loss of something— financial stability, physical or intellectual ability, relationships, dreams.
I don’t remember the pain or grief I felt as much as I remember what happened after the shock of loss wore off. What I remember is our inherent vulnerability. In the days and weeks and months after something I projected value onto is ripped from me, I am always acutely aware of the fragility and preciousness of this experience we call life, and the tendency we humans have to embed our hope in “stuff”—as my friend Elizabeth Dulemba just did a TED Talk about. But mostly, I remember the quiet jubilation of the moment I came to the end of the grief and found myself, beaten and bruised, but still standing, and loved just the same (by the people who mattered) as I had been the day before.
Life is going to kill us. One way or the other, we’re not going to get out alive. We may guess, within some pocket of time, when it will happen, based on family averages or medical research, or it may come out of nowhere. Certainly the people who were getting ready to fly out of the Brussels airport or travel on a metro train this week didn’t know they were going to die. When Garry Shandling woke up yesterday, he had no idea that before the day was out he would exit this plane of existence.
The same guy who denied that he knew Jesus three times would finally get it and would, as it happens, die himself years later on an X-shaped cross, allegedly upside down. We’re not sure exactly how Paul died, but it’s fairly clear it was not from natural causes. And Stephen, the martyr whose death at the hands of “religious sorts” like Paul himself, the one that got him thinking maybe he was on the wrong side of things, no doubt understood. What they understood, I’m convinced, is that death isn’t the end of us. Whether we live on after, in spirit, as the disciples proclaim Jesus did, or forever in the hearts and DNA of those with whom we share our souls, or in the legacy of discoveries made that benefit humankind, the fact that we die changes nothing about who we were or whom we loved or who loved us. Our focus should be on what that memory, that legacy will be.
But here’s the rub. Not one of those disciples—and none of us—would likely ever have understood but for the death of Jesus. He had to die, otherwise it would have been just another close call. Nothing would have changed— noone would have been transformed if he hadn’t. If he’d survived physical death in the “normal” way, the same old thought patterns would have kicked back in for those around. There would have been no impetus, no requirement that they process a new way forward as there is when there is no way to go back. There could be no platitudes, no possible continuation of the way things had been before. There would be no Jesus and his gang wandering around the Galilean countryside anymore. And they had to make sense of it all somehow. We have to make sense of it all somehow.
The way I see it, there is only one way to make sense of it all—and avenging the deaths of some by bringing about the deaths of others is not it, whether we’re talking about the murders of other people or attempted assassinations of character so prominent in our political and public discourse today. I commemorate Jesus’ death as a reminder that those who don’t know they are loved believe love itself is scarce and must be competed for, even to the point of death. It’s the ugliest form of sibling rivalry around and an insult to the honor of Love itself. But more importantly, I am reminded that life to its end is sacred and holy, and in every form, eternal—extending far beyond death itself.
To think of it in any other way is, for me, to turn it into Black Friday again, to mean Jesus may as well have not lived at all. And I refuse to let it be so.
It was a very good day. And I remember. Blessings to you all.