Friday, 3 April 2015

Finding light in the darkness: the paradox of Good Friday

As a minister in the Uniting Church of Australia (UCA), one of my tasks is to create liturgies and sermonic reflections for Sunday worship. In the UCA, there is a great deal of room for creative services and creative ways of telling the narrative that constitutes the Christian story, especially at Easter, one of the high Christian festivals in the liturgical calendar.

I have often wondered how much liturgy really does ‘transform the people of God’. Creating a liturgy theoretically should reflect the transcendent creator, and the whole thing should be a spiritual and an inspired experience, reflecting the original Greek word where inspired meant to literally breathe in God.
Liturgy also allows for the possibility of creating a space in which we ‘lose ourselves’ and where we might imagine, through prayer, what other people’s lives are like and walk for a time in their shoes. Such imagining hopefully gives us empathy for the problems which face the world, and allows us to become collectively empowered by our experience to find sympathy and compassion for them, and by ‘seeing’ the world in a different light, be prompted to act upon this individually and collectively.

Creating a liturgy for Good Friday is always a challenge. Exploring how the story of Jesus’ suffering and death relates to people in a contemporary world, and how it might help us to make sense of our suffering in a world that is deeply flawed and broken in so many ways is not easy. Transforming the people of God through such a story looks near impossible.

This year it was much more challenging. Less than two weeks ago I experienced first hand the brokenness of this world through the suicide of a cousin who was also a good friend. For me, it was totally unexpected. I offered to take her funeral service, and found myself among a family equally bewildered by her action, and the notion that for some of us, life too easily falls into despondency and collapses into a despair that is beyond the reach of even the people that loved us the most.

Violent death by one’s own hand carries with it many stigmas and unresolved issues. Denial, anger, guilt and unanswered ‘what ifs’ haunt the minds of those left behind. Hope and healing can seem a long way away.
All of us know that the story of Good Friday is too good to be true in that it resolves on Easter Sunday with a happy and rather miraculous ending. Hope and healing are just two days away.

So while the miraculous might cause congregations to go ‘phew’ and vault over the darkness that is Good Friday, I found myself instead wanting to stay in the darkness for a while, aware of the hurt and the sadness that sat within but had been suppressed over the last week.

Too often religion is used to dodge these so called ‘dark emotions’, by focussing on praise, thanksgiving or restitution. The story of Jesus’ final days is an important narrative that can allow people to become mindful of their own emotions and the effect on their bodies, and to experience them rather than avoid them.”One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of Light, but by making darkness conscious” Carl Jung once wrote.

As I sit here with my story of grief and despair, listening to the evening news where there are many such stories in our broken world of grief, despair and fear, I nonetheless attempt to find a defiant hope, and of connecting with an apparently austere and absent God through the story of Jesus’ violent death.

At the moment, Good Friday seems to me to be more about ‘endarkenment’ rather than ‘enlightenment’. It is about pondering the deep paradoxes of Christianity, and remembering that our lives are not neatly divisible into two halves, where pain is bad and pleasure good, brokenness is failure and wholeness is good, and light is desirable in our lives and dark is sinful. If we are committed to fullness of life, then we must embrace both halves of the equation. And through this we can find healing.

Today was about entering the symbolic darkness that is Good Friday and learning to sit with the brokenness and pain that sits at the heart of the Good Friday story.

Today was about simultaneously facing the terrors of the cosmos whilst defiantly claiming God is a God of personal love. Today was about exploring the paradox of suffering not by deciding that God is indifferent to our fate, but by proclaiming that the same God willingly suffers that fate. In one of the great paradoxes of Christianity, God’s presence and divine consolation is found in the cross, and it is this that sustains a living faith. The story has indeed become redemptive.

I ended today’s liturgy with a poem, The Coming by RS Thomas, as it seemed to express something of the truth I was grasping for.The Coming has a strange effect on me: when I read it, it creates a moment where I just ‘know’ its meaning, something viscerally reacts in me and in a flash of understanding, I get what it is about, but generally fail to articulate in words. It is a sensory rather than a definitive thing, where the possibility that the cross shows us how an absent God that is longed for but seemingly absent can in fact be known to us through his identification with our suffering. It also makes the death of Jesus somehow his own choice, rather than an enforced destiny by a vengeful God needing a blood sacrifice to forgive humanity’s sin.

The poem also invites us to hold out our thin arms to the starkness of the bare tree, and it articulates the son’s simple but profound declaration of empathy with humanity. “Let me go there”, says Jesus, a request that somehow identifies with the question of Simon Peter in John 6:68, who in his humanity and his lostness says: “Where else could we go, Lord?”

The Coming

And God held in his hand a small globe.
Look, he said.The son looked.
Far off, as through water, he saw
a scorched land of fierce colour.
The light burned there;
crusted buildings cast their shadows;
a bright serpent, a river, uncoiled itself,
radiant with slime.
On a bare hill, a bare tree saddened the sky.
Many people held out their thin arms
to it, as though waiting
for a vanished spring to return to its crossed boughs.
The son watched them.
Let me go there, he said.


  1. Elizabeth - this is so perfect - for years I have battled the concept that 'we can't leave them there - you have to give them hope' on Good Friday.
    Just this day I saw TV news of a church handing out Easter Eggs at the conclusion of the Good Friday service. Yes - there will be celebration but for today; Jesus said 'it is accomplished'
    Sensitively and beautifully written with the poem the perfect finish.
    Thank you

    1. Thank you for your comment, Don. This Good Friday was a hard one for me and I was trying to write it out, as it were, in a way that made sense.