Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16; John 18:19-19:42
“Things Fall Apart” is not the cry of defeat or self pity, it is the evocation of the best in the human person, because life is worth living. In the face of COVID-19, “Things Fall Apart”, on that original Good Friday, things fell apart: sin was defeated, virtue triumphed over vice, life overcame death—a new day dawned. Welcome to Good Friday, the goodness in Good Friday!
A story was told of little Andrew, who was sent to a public school for his first year of secondary (Junior High) education. At the end of the school year, Andrew failed all his examinations and came last in his class. His parents decided to send him to a different public school, so he could repeat there. At the end of the school year, John came last again in his class: two different public schools, two failures back to back. This time, Andrew was sent to St. Andrew’s Catholic School. And, at the end of the school year, Andrew passed all his examinations; and, what more, Andrew came first in his class of 25 kids. Andrew’s parents were happy at the turn of events, but wanted to know how he pulled it off. Andrew, they said to him, you went two public schools and twice you failed and came last, how come this your first year at a Catholic school your came first? Andrew replied, Mom, the very first day I stepped into my class in my new school, St. Andrew’s, and I saw a man nailed to a cross hanging on the wall in front of the class, as an example of what happens to those who fail, I sat up and studied hard: Mom, I do not want to be hanging up there at the end of the school year!
Poor Andrew saw in the crucifix hanging on the wall of his classroom, the punishment to be meted out to those who fail their examinations, and that gingered him up to work hard! The crucifix brought out the best in Andrew, and it can bring the best out of you and me today! In truth, the crucifix is not a symbol of fear, but of love, love understood as sacrifice. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . ” (John 3:16). Today, Good Friday, we see the meaning of “he gave his Son”—the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. That may appear harsh, how could one give up an only begotten son?
The story of the cross, and Jesus hanging upon it, is incomplete without the reason why he hangs there, not coming down. God is no God who loves just his only begotten Son, but part of what makes him God is the ability to love many, to love all. The story of the cross continues to be relevant because Jesus still hangs on the cross for one fundamental reason – love! The ignominy of the cross, and the life given upon it, is both a payment for sin and a collateral for salvation, human salvation.
The idea of collateral or mortgage is not familiar to most Africans living in continental Africa today, no thanks to a broken economic system, but an average resident of North-Atlantic is a debtor, made so by the system, so they understand the meaning of collateral and mortgage. In this analogy, the death of Christ is the free salvation given to every human being, the collateral on the basis of which our mortgage was approved is the blood of Christ, and the loan we received is citizenship of Heaven, but we need to keep paying our daily premium, because defaulting in payment leads to a revocation of our citizenship and a consequent loss of all our contributions, our citizenship. Worse still, there is an agent, whose responsibility is to make us default in payment – Satan. Those familiar with “fine prints” of insurances understand this better: while legal jaundice prevents an average person from seeing the fine prints in an insurance policy, the conjunctivitis of sin, stops Christians from fidelity to their mortgage payments – good deeds.
Before we are mistaken for a chronic capitalist, let us provide a Scriptural backing to what we are saying. Generally speaking, the long “Passion Narrative” of Good Friday’s liturgy can be divided into three, when we use a theatrical analogy: Scene I (Jesus before the religious leaders of his day), scene II (Jesus before the political ruler of his day), and scene III (Jesus on the Cross).
The gospel of John today shows a religious leadership antagonistic to Jesus. By crook or by hook, a motif necessitating a capital punishment must be found to do away with him. The religious leadership that should defend Jesus, the Son of God, and every human life, contrives death, not only within the spheres of religion, but moves in to corrupt the political jurisdiction. What a mess – a non-religious leader, Pilate, saw no motif warranting crucifixion for Jesus, but the religious leaders of the day will twist both the hands of Pilate and the congregation of Jewish people, and subvert justice – an innocent man was condemned to death. Scenes I & II show how religious decay spreads to every facet of human life; when God is expelled from human affairs, “things fall apart.”
Jesus hanging on the cross, scene III, proves that he is God, and that human wiles will never triumph over God’s plans and God’s goodness. Indeed, at the foot of the cross as well as on the cross, a new reality begins to unfold – despite the cowardice of Pilate and the conspiracy to commit murder by the religious leadership of the Jews against Jesus, “there, at the foot of the cross, stood his Mother and the disciple Jesus loved.” Love binds us to Jesus in an irrevocable bond! At the foot of the cross were those who refused to be cowed either by religious intimidation or political ideology, those who realized that love necessarily comes with persecution, and sometimes death. Yes, they were there at the foot of the cross, come what may! Today, such individuals are at the eyes of the COVID-19 battle!
It is one’s presence at the foot of the cross that proves one’s discipleship, one’s Christianity. Persecution brings out the true nature of a disciple, and the inordinate crave for affluence and the quest for power reveal the Judases in Christianity. On the cross, Jesus looks down and sees fidelity, and not persons: the fact that John’s gospel never mentions Jesus’ Mother and the beloved disciple by name, among those at the foot of the Cross, displays the meaning of Jesus’ death – he died for all, without exception; he died for the anonymouses in our midst. Also, his death begins the reign of his disciples, those who believe in him and are ready to die for their brothers and sisters.
To be present at the foot of the cross is to be ready to carry a cross of some sorts. “Woman, behold your son, son behold your mother,” could only be said to those at the foot of the cross. Because you (beloved disciple) have shown your fidelity so far, here is another assignment for you – take this woman and look after her. “At the foot of the cross was His Mother and the disciple Jesus loved” (John 19:25-27), but where was I and where were you? Here and now, in the battle against Coronavirus, where am I and where are you?
A sinner that I am, I am up and about in sin, while my Savior dies for me. He remains hanging on the cross because I continue to sin even here and now. Not only that, there is a positive side, even now, I have the opportunity to carry my cross and stop being ashamed of fighting evil, beginning with myself, and leading the fight within religious and political spheres. The tragedy of Jesus’ miscarriage of justice will be mine tomorrow, if not already, should I keep silent before injustices, wherever they are found. The militancy required of every citizen of the earth to flatten the curve of COVID-19 is an instance of my Christian engagement to save lives, including mine!
Since Christ died for my sins, I need to die to my sin, and be ready to die for my brothers and sisters, as Christ died for me. The concrete way to die for my brothers and sisters is the endurance of insults and spittle without retaliation, like Jesus did. This endurance is the premium I pay daily for the price Jesus paid for my salvation, my mortgage; this is my contribution – my good deeds – to make sure that my citizenship of heaven is not revoked; insults and spittle are the signs that I have understood “love” to mean sacrifice, not the desire for human platitudes and encomiums.
As it were, Jesus’ exaltation on the cross is his glorification. Isaiah was right: “See, my servant shall prosper, he shall be raised high and greatly exalted” (Isaiah 52:13). God has many sons and daughters now thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross; past, present and future generations continue to reap the fruit of Jesus’ sacrificial love for us. A serious battle against individual and collective sins is the only worthy gratitude we owe God for human salvation.
A Christian cannot afford to be naive. Sin is not just a reality for me, but for everyone; in this sense, Satan begins his assault against me from my concupiscences — what are my desires, what do I lust after? Yes, there is Good Friday because I was absent from the scene of fidelity by joining forces with sin, so my Savior had to die for my sins; but now, how do I bring him down from the cross, so that I can rise with him on Easter Sunday? When “things fall apart,” either because of sins or COVID-19, you need Good Friday—Good deeds, human solidarity against evil of all sorts!