N.B., Scripture [marked GNB] are taken from The Good News Bible published by The Bible Societies/Collins ã American Bible Society.
Good Friday is the grand climax (even if not the last day) of the Christian season of Lent. I had followed the traditional idea of using this six week season as a period of reflection, and as stated elsewhere, my reading led me to the conclusion that I definitely did not believe in God in the way that Church of England priests are supposed to believe in God, i.e., a supreme being who created the universe. I am, however, still spiritual and continue to regularly worship at St James Piccadilly (London). It is just that my worship is not directed to a creator God, even if that is the meaning of the words that I am listening to, saying, or singing.
These reflections are based on the thoughts that came to my mind as I sat in a beautiful Good Friday service in the beautiful church of St James, Piccadilly. Before the service began I was reflecting that Good Friday was a day that I could believe in. When I was working as a priest in Cork I took a holiday to Venice. While there I visited a lot of churches, and there are plenty to choose from in that city. At the time, I was struggling to continue in having any faith in God and took to praying in front of whatever stain glass windows or statues I could find, pleading with a God who might be there to show me the way back to faith. These prayers were not answered, but in one church I was praying in front of a depiction of Jesus on the cross. I reflected that I could believe in that Jesus, who gave up his life for others, even if he did it empowered by a faith in God that I no longer shared. It was Easter’s story of God raising Jesus back to life that I struggled with, indeed I struggled with the notion of God. So Good Friday with its focus on the death of a human called Jesus is a day that I can believe in.
These reflections are based on what thoughts I was inspired with as I listened to Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Jesus, played by a string quartet, and to Gospel readings containing those words that Jesus is reputed to have spoken from the cross. Of course, there will be those who take offence that I write that Jesus is reputed to have said these words, because it is in the Bible, so Jesus must have said it. Fact. End of discussion. Well, no, actually, and Good Friday services based around these seven last words (the Bible bits, not Haydn’s composition) are a very good example of why taking the Bible literally means that we cannot take it to be recording simple historical facts. The penultimate last word comes from John 19:30 where Jesus says, “It is finished,” [GNB] bows his head, and dies. A good climax to a Good Friday service, except that it is not the climax, it is only the sixth of seven last words. Up pops Luke 23:46 telling us that Jesus says, “Father! In your hands I place my spirit!” [GNB] and dies. Both cannot be historically correct accounts of Jesus’ final words, so to take the Bible literally, we have to take it literally, i.e., as a work of literature, or in the case of the Gospels, four works of literature.
First Word: “Forgive them, Father! They don’t know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34 [GNB]
In the light of my Lenten reading confirming that I did not believe in God, I did feel that Jesus had the advantage of me here. In the early stage of his crucifixion he directs a call to a God in whom he believes. That may have helped to sustain him through some of the early pain in the awful suffering that is a Roman crucifixion. I would like to believe again in a God to whom I could turn in a crisis, but I have no such faith. Jesus did and it must have helped him.
Second Word: “I promise you that today you will be with me in Paradise with me.” Luke 23:43 [GNB]
As I do not believe in God or the resurrection of Jesus, I do not believe in an after-life (at least not in the sense that Jesus believed in one). Therefore, I cannot relate to the usual understanding that Jesus is telling the criminal with whom he is having a conversation on their crosses, that today they will both be in heaven. That traditional understanding of these words of Jesus is difficult for traditional Christians to believe in as well. This is because they believe that Lent has one more day to go (Saturday), before the resurrection happens at dawn on Easter Day (Sunday), so Jesus is not going to be in Paradise (heaven) on the same day as he is speaking to the criminal on the cross. So maybe Jesus means something else. Maybe something has been lost in translation. Jesus spoke Aramaic, a language that I know practically nothing about, but I know a lot about Greek, the language in which the New Testament is written. In Greek, paradise is the word for a garden. So maybe Jesus was linking back to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he spent a night of agony wanting to be spared his predicted death. Possibly, he was telling one or both criminals that today they would be sharing the agony that he went through in the Paradise of Gethsemane.
Third Word: “He is your son. She is your mother.” John 19:26-27 [GNB]
Jesus is directing these words to his mother, Mary, and the person whom the Gospel refers to as the disciple Jesus loved, but traditionally called John. This reflection is one that I prepared earlier, in that it is the only one that derives from on-going reflections about the crucifixion scene. John is at the cross with the women, while the other three Gospels depict the male disciples as hiding from the authorities. This leads me to reflect that John’s place was seen to be with the women, not with the men. Maybe John did not fit in with an otherwise macho culture among the male disciples. Maybe he was gender variant or very camp, or just not seen as terribly male by the other disciples, and not seen as a threat by the authorities. Or maybe tradition is wrong to named the disciple Jesus loved as John, maybe this disciple was one of the women. If John was the disciple Jesus loved and if he was not very macho, maybe he had been thrown out by a macho father and Jesus was suggesting that he link up with Mary, and we are told that Mary moved in with John from that day onwards. Why Mary needed to move in we do not know. She had sons other than Jesus, one of who (James) would later become leader of the Christians in Jerusalem.
Fourth Word: “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” Mark 15:34 or Matthew 27:46 [GNB]
Is this the point at which Jesus joins me in no longer believing in God? His faith in God was easier to maintain when he was first placed on the cross, but now as the pain increases, maybe his faith has decreased to nothing. That would mean that he now has to face his pain alone without the comfort of God. That is the great irony of believing in a God who helps in time of trouble. It is much easier to maintain that faith as a pious hope in untroubled times, but much harder to keep the faith in the midst of the deepest troubles when you most need that help.
Fifth Word: “I am thirsty.” John 19:28 [GNB]
Jesus is by now deprived of the comfort of his belief in God. God has abandoned him and so he is more exposed to his physical pain and he cries out in human need. In the process, he places himself at the mercy of his fellow humans, who respond by giving him some wine on a sponge. One of the advantages of losing faith in God is that it means that you must be more attentive to the support that you can receive from your fellow humans.
Sixth Word: “It is finished!”
The service that I was at was the traditional three hours of observation from noon to 3pm. This led me to reflect that by the time Jesus was declaring the end and finally dying, he might have been agonising about why the agony lasted so long. Maybe his thoughts ran along the lines of “I agreed to die, but not to this manner of dying. In the Garden of Gethsemane I asked my friends to watch with me for one hour, but why have they had to watch me dying for three hours?”
More prosaically, was Jesus simply saying that there was no wine left in the sponge and asking, Oliver Twist style, “Can I have some more, please?”
Seventh Word: “Father! In your hands I place my spirit!” Luke 23:46 [GNB]
My muse had been good to me up until this point, but she was now silent. Maybe this was because if I was to follow my theme of Jesus having lost his faith in God, this final cry would be his return to faith. I cannot relate to this as a final word of Jesus, as I myself cannot return to such a faith. Of course, there is also the problem noted earlier that Jesus is already dead by this time, according to the sixth reading. I prefer the theatre of the desolation in John’s words, and Luke is just far too pious for my liking. You have to pay your money and make your choice, as Jesus cannot have said both the sixth and the seventh words.
These probably come across as rather odd Good Friday reflections, but that should not be too surprising for someone who cannot believe in the triumph and celebration of Easter Day (but I joined in the celebrations to be with friends). Good Friday was, however, one day in my regular attendance at St James Piccadilly when I could say, “This is a day I can believe in.”