Good Friday In Jail

I don't realize how awkward my facial hair is until I put on some nice clothes but forget to shave. Then I look like a homeless person who stumbled upon a bag of moderately-used semi-formalwear, all scruff and argyle. And this is how I dolled myself up to sing at my church's Good Friday service this morning.

Now please realize, I never dress up for church. Never have, never saw much need to. I don't mean any disrespect by it, no latent irreverence toward authority, I simply don't care much about my clothes or appearance. In fact, growing up without money for my richer friends' fancy jackets, backpacks and light up sport shoes made me pretty Zen about the whole style thing. Instead of dressing for fashion I dress for comfort. Basketball shorts, t-shirts, sandals (even in February), easy. Plus, I like to think I walk with God as much outside the church as in, so I never felt a need to gussy up for the in-house stuff.

It's different when I'm up front singing, though, I recognize that. Maybe in a perfect world nobody would mind seeing me up there in all my shaggy, flowy-garbed glory, but this world is not that one, and I recognize there are appropriate occasions to don one's Sunday best (so to speak). For instance: job interviews, Christmas cards, funerals.

And perhaps this is why I especially do not mind dressing up a little for Good Friday. It is a funereal holiday after all, a day to kneel beside the casket of our Lord Jesus, to sob, slobber, and wail over him.

"Good" Friday is a day to mourn, to abide the Deep Sadness, as did Christ's own comrades and disciples in the moments, minutes and days following his brutal execution. They saw their leader, mentor, friend and Savior tortured and nailed to a plank of wood. They watched hope suffocate, stood by helpless as love bled out, looked on as God died.

You see, this is exactly the point of this whole thing: God died that day. We don't often say it in such stark terms because we're afraid of allowing our God to appear weak, but the plain truth of the matter is that is exactly what He became, and not just that day but His whole time on earth. A God clothed in skin, dressed in true humanity is an aberration, a logical contradiction. Power never gives itself up. Never. 

Except out of pure love it would appear. On this day, two thousand years ago, Power laid down and allowed us to destroy It, all to affirm that God is at His core, first and last, love. Only loves dies for another. And only this supreme love, expressed through sacrifice, can undo the brokenness of the world. The deepest, oldest magic at work.

I wonder if Jesus saw Easter coming the whole time, or if his being truly human in those moments limited his sight to only that which lie just ahead: the pain, the death, the grave. You wonder when you see Him in the garden with his disciples, waiting for the betrayer to come and take Him away. He sweats blood, begs his friends to stay awake with Him. He is lonely, scared. He implores the Father to take the cup away, one shard of God's heart begging another to find some other way.

Sometimes we skip over the pain of the cross, compartmentalize or commercialize it. We make it pretty, dress it in Sunday clothes. The sparkly necklaces, keychains, bumper stickers. We set our sights on Sunday, even on Friday and in doing so we shortchange the grieving process. How American. But the trouble is without crucifixion there is no resurrection. Without the bad news first there can be no good news.

What I think I love best about the Jesus story is its willingness to bottom out, to sink down into the depths of the human experience. Bloody, filthy God, hung on a tree, mocked by the spectators. How unseemly.

“Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central event the humiliation of its God.” - Bruce Shelley

And how scandalous of these Christians to claim God would ever sink so low as to die for them, for any of us. To think that pure Strength, Power and Justice would ever become sullied by anything so petty as human death, it chafes against any reasonable notion of God.

But this is the Jesus story. Not always the way we talk about it, but still.

We Christians sometimes seem to speak as if God is afraid of getting His hands dirtied by us wretched, filthy things. But we forget we are talking about a God who became our mistakes, our sicknesses, our sins, and then died. The God who died, because we killed Him.

This is the hope of the Jesus story, of the cruciform Gospel. Only the cross can speak to both the heaven and hell in us.

Because of the Jesus story I can now see the light, even in the pit. I see the base of the cross stretching into the sky and onto Resurrection Day. I see the drips of blood working backward up the wooden pillar until making contact with the air, instantly transforming to water and then to sprays of gold mist: glory. I see the blood of deepest pain become the Glory of God, the reflection of paradise on still pool waters. And suddenly I know. I feel. And I can be. And I can be in the arms of my God who stoops down not just to earth but into the very pits of hell to hold me while I squirm and resist and sob and finally settle enough to be held, and loved, and chosen.

Because of the Jesus story I know God does not just think well of me, He in fact delights in me and has gladly laid Himself down, not just for me, but for every man, woman and child who has ever lived.

Which brings me back to how I spent this afternoon. I shuffled straight from church over to Serbu, the juvenile detention center where I work, for a short shift. It was largely uneventful, which is usually preferable to the alternative at Serbu. But even a short, uneventful shift at a kid jail makes for a jarring transition from singing, clapping, and praising God with a congregation of mostly older Jesus followers. I went from reflecting on Jesus in a church building to reflecting on Jesus in a jail cell.

And I think I saw Him more clearly in the cell.

For on Good Friday God is not first in the churches, in the cathedrals or temples, but in the slums. In the cells, in the ghettos. He is with the poor, the broken, the sick and dying, the hurting, addicted and messy. 

Maybe on Easter Sunday we can celebrate the triumph of our God, but on Good Friday we must honor His willing defeat. We must go there, into the darker parts of ourselves and let this bloodied God in. 

Christ warned us that to live we must first die, then He modeled it. He spoke of a seed which in season must die before blooming. And on my way out of work I saw such bleeding beauty as I can only imagine was on display that day, on the cross. I saw a sea of pink, of trees shedding their flowers in order to enter into a new season of life.

And I took a picture, because that's about all you can do to remember those moments when God lays out before you. Take a picture. Write it down.


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