Arguments for Easter: A price for redemption: In the second article in a series for Holy Week, the theological writer Elizabeth Templeton considers answers to questions about the meaning of Good Friday.
Friday 01 April 1994
I don't remember exactly what I said: something like 'That's Jesus, and his enemies killed him, and that was the way they did it. That's a statue of him on the cross on Good Friday.'
My minimalist theology got its come-uppance with his next unscripted question. 'Why's it called Good Friday?'
Why indeed. I knew all the official answers, that without the crucifixion there could be no resurrection. That it was the price of our redemption. That this death was the defeat of death. But even for me, who had lived with all that accumulated meaning for half an adult lifetime, most of these answers were code, and some of them, when deciphered, ugly and meaningless. Certainly I would have felt it was cheating to throw them at a three-year-old.
I remember also once being part of an interviewing panel for a staff member for the Student Christian Movement. One of my interviewing colleagues asked each candidate in turn: 'Suppose someone at a bus stop asked you, 'What do you mean by the resurrection? My bus goes in three minutes.' What would you say?' One by one they fumbled and gasped answers, after the initial paralysing impact of the question. Later, we asked Tim what he was looking for. 'I was looking for someone who would say, 'If you want to hear my answer to that question you're going to have to miss your bus.' '
Is it so important because it was, as it certainly was for Paul and the later Gospel writers, the focal constellation of events? And if so, why? Was it, like the killing of James Bulger, or the discoveries in a Gloucester cellar, the Gallilean tabloid headlines for a day or two? Hardly. Such deaths were two a penny.
Was it because the first followers had quite different experiences from anything anyone has had since? Breakfasts on the shore, appearances through closed doors, unexpected fellow-travellers who suddenly said a word that made the penny drop? Are we so wistful for such immediacy that we hang on to the possibility even a hundred times removed through the mists of history and tradition? Those who experienced told those . . . who told those . . . who told . . . until poor us overhear at some exponential remove, and take it on trust or on authority?
Or is it just because it happens to have got into the Christian calendar that we have learnt the habit of concentrating on it? Is it an example of what Don Cupitt calls a 'construct', a piece of significant narrative turned into metaphysics, given an absolute cosmic status when its proper rating would be as a good yarn?
Such questions can't be answered on the cheap. The virtue of the sorely-to-be-missed Easter proclamations we have had, till now, from Durham, has been their candour about the wrestling we have to do to engage with Easter with adult integrity.
This wrestling is not against faith, but within it. For it involves the addressing of the events of Holy Week with all that we can bring to them: wonder, fear, love, hate, thought. The sharing of all that with one another might give us a far greater sense that we are trying to explore a present strangeness, not to handle something deposited by the remote past.
For Kierkegaard was right in his contention that there are no disciples at second-hand. Either you encounter and are encountered by the living God, or you listen, with varying degrees of wistfulness or scepticism or resentment to the claims of believers.
To be a disciple at first hand, whether in the 20th century or the first, is to want to follow the clues about these Easter events in hope. It is not necessarily, I believe, to be able to assent to this or that credal statement, though there are suggestive and singable credal statements. It is not necessarily to be sure of anything, though one sometimes encounters Christian confidence which is open and exploring rather than smug and exclusive.
In relation to this sequence which we call the passion of Christ, it is to be drawn into offering one's own suffering and that of the fragile world for transformation, instead of being stuck in the horizon of meaningless pain.
In faithfulness to my three-year-old's question, I would like him to grow into some of the following awarenesses, even if I couldn't put them into easy words in the Bologna Art Gallery: suffering is not to be celebrated; it does not redeem; it is not any kind of punishment from God, whether direct or vicarious; but it may be the ultimate price of love.
Six months earlier, as we arrived in Greece for Easter, one of the more surreal moments had been the erection, in the nearby village swingpark, of a huge cross, crowned with a wreath of vicious thorns. It was secured in the ground by a number of taut tripwires, and one of our first experiences of that Easter was my daughter running home, knee bleeding from being pitched on to the swingpark gravel as she failed to notice a wire between her and the see-saw.
Maybe Orthodox children know to avoid swingparks in Holy Week, but as I bandaged up the knee and heard her say, 'I hate the stupid cross,' my unlocated soul did all kinds of theological gymnastics. Was she sharing in the process of atonement, bearing in her knee the unlooked for sins of the world? Was her knee part of the pain Christ bore? How could time be collapsed, so that the various atrocities of history past and present might share a sense of belonging together in a cosmic pain which demanded righting? How could God possibly right them, no matter what he suffered in the person of his son? What does it mean to right a wrong?
My main clue is that it has something to do with solidarity: with replacing accusation with identification. This murderer is me. This child abuser is me. This drunken, drug-dependent layabout is me. This saint is me.
It is crystallised in the deathbed confession of Alyosha's nurse in The Brothers Karamazov: I am responsible for everything.
Not something for a three-year-old to hear. Not something for a seven-year-old to hear. But for a man in his thirties? For God? For a maturing church?
Good Friday is good because it suggests that God's solidarity mandates the followers of Jesus and others of goodwill, to stand firm with the pain and distress of the world, to shun snug burrows of sanitised goodness. If God lives that's where his kingship might be visible, among the harvests of truthful and necessary pain.
Try telling that to a three-year-old at the bus stop.
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