More than half a century ago, there was a fifteen-year old prisoner in the Nazi death camp at Buna. The guards had discovered a cache of arms belonging to a Dutchman at the camp. The Dutchman was promptly shipped to Auschwitz, but his young servant was left to face the guards. The little servant, like his Dutch master, was cruelly tortured, but would not reveal any information. So the SS sentenced the child to death, along with two other prisoners who had been discovered with arms. In his book Night, Elie Wiesel remembers what he saw as a fifteen year old Jew:
One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us; machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains—and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel. The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him. This time the Lagercapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him. The three victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. “Long live liberty!” cried the two adults. But the child was silent.
“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked. Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. “Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. “Cover your heads!” Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive.
Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged, but the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive .For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?” And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.”
It’s Good Friday, the day that forever binds together the heritage of Christian and Jew. The day when the hope of Passover crashes onto the rocks of reality, where life kisses death on the killing fields of the powers and principalities. For weeks now, as he has slowly made his way towards Jerusalem, Jesus has had a cloud over his normally sunny nature. He senses the darkness ahead, but is drawn inexorably towards it, like some sort of reverse moth.
Did he think the week before that it might turn out all right? After all, there was the crowd, shouting hosannas; the palm branches spead out before him; the songs proclaiming him Messiah, the Son of David. He had admitted to the man born blind that he was the Messiah, now, wasn’t it time for God to glorify his name? Hadn’t he heard God’s voice rumbling in the thunder? Hadn’t he raised his friend Lazarus from death, acknowledging, finally to Martha, that yes, he was the Christ, the One coming into the world. But it all unraveled so quickly. There was the plot to kill Lazarus, and Mary rubbing her tears into Jesus’ tired feet. His friends began to share his dread. They should have been on top of the world, but the world was spinning out of control.
As the week dragged by, they met to share Passover together, and Jesus ruined the celebration, by washing their feet and talking about death. When the last of the sun disappeared behind the Temple’s dome, it felt as if it could never rise again. After dinner, they went out to the garden to pray. It was late, and the disciples were tired. They nodded off, leaving him to beg God for a way out of the mess. Suddenly the garden was lit up with torches and the glint of soldiers’ swords. Judas was there, returned from his errand with eternity. But where was God?
The trial was a joke: first, the all night session in the religious court, then on to Pilate’s palace and the rendezvous with what passes for justice in such places. A politician, more concerned about his popularity than about standing up for what is right, held in his hands the fate of the man who loved the world. When the choice is life or death, politicians’ hands are a poor place to be.
And then came the long, sad parade up the hill to Skull Place. The soldiers are only doing their job as they drive the nails into his hands and feet and lift him up on the pole so he can see once more out over the beloved city. There is still time for God to act, still time for the heavens to open up, still time for one lousy little miracle. His mother prays and weeps. His friends hide in the shadows shaking with fear. Please, God, they cry, where are you? Do something. Stop this before it’s too late. The sky is growing dark and the wind is picking up. God sits idly by and watches. The life is draining from Jesus. His breaths come, labored and slow. He’s thirsty, but all there is to drink is the bitter wine of the Roman guards.
And then it’s finished. There’s nothing left but a lifeless corpse, hanging limply in the wind. The Romans had killed a new vision of peace and equality, a new kingdom of freedom for all people, a place where the blind saw and the lame leapt like antelope. The God they had come to believe in hung there with Jesus, just as dead as could be.
Good Friday happened the way it did, because there is something very wrong in the world and this is the only way it could be set right. It was God’s way to tell us that our way of setting the world right is not God’s way. This afternoon, if you were in New York City, where the great cathedral of St. Patrick sits across from Rockefeller Center, you would understand. In the plaza sits a magnificent sculpture of Atlas holding the world on his shoulders. Inside the cathedral, looking out on that sculpture is a crucifix bearing the likeness of Jesus, the One broken by the world. Which icon speaks the truth ? Is the world upheld by humanity’s godlike strength? Can even an empire which claims to be righteous bring justice to the world? Or is the world upheld by the crucified One who loved until the end? Upon your answer everything turns.
For this is the day when in the death of God all that humanity has built crumbles. Burn the flag, it is only a piece of cloth. Tear down the palace, it is only an empty ruin. Throw your money on the Temple floor, it is only worthless scrap. Today even the church is dark: without its own self-righteous certainty. There is nothing to eat here, nary a drop of water or holy wine to drink. All of human effort, all of human wisdom, all of human progress, all of human pride, all of it—finished, finished, finished.
It is finished, but it is not over. We have not finished with it until we understand that the suffering of the innocent people of Darfur or Falluja or Kabul is the suffering of God. That our suffering is God’s suffering. That God twisting on the gallows and God hanging from the cross is God setting the world right. We are an Easter people, yes, yes—but we live in a Good Friday world. We live in the midst of death, but we share that death with God. Whatever your pain, he bears it. Whatever your fears, he trembles. Whatever your loss, he groans with it. It is finished, but it is not over, not by a long shot.
Listen now in the silence of God’s death. Listen in the emptiness of a godforsaken land. Listen in the dark wind of the long night of weeping. Listen—do you hear it? The creak of the gallows? The cracking of the wood of the cross? Listen—something’s stirring. It’s finished, but it is not over. Amen.