John 18:1 – 19:42
Rev. Elder Ken Martin
Tenebrae is possibly the oldest continuously observed liturgy in Christianity. Dating from the third century, it is a solemn commemoration of communion traditionally observed on Good Friday. In this service, eight candles are gradually extinguished, taking the worship space slowly from light to darkness. Tenebrae means darkness, and the candles symbolize the denial and flight of Jesus’ disciples and friends during his arrest, trial and crucifixion.
Recently, I passed a wreck on a country road near our home. I could see the flashing lights far ahead, but there were so many cars backed up, it was hard to see what had happened. Traffic was backed up not because the road was closed but because everyone wanted to see. People slowed down to stare at the crushed metal, the broken glass. They looked around for victims or survivors. We’ve probably all done that.
Today, the wreck is right here. We have all pulled over to see what has happened. It is horrible, but we can’t look away. We want to know what has happened, but in the end, it will defy our understanding.
There will always be someone ready to give a simple, easy answer. Some will say things like, “The only way to appease God was with innocent blood. So Jesus had to die because he was innocent.” They will say that without ever stopping to think what that says about God. Others will say, “We are all born guilty, so unworthy and stained by Adam’s sin that the only way God could save us was by sacrificing Jesus.” They will say that without ever stopping to think what that says about us.
I admit it. Every year when we get to this part of our faith story, I want to skip it. The wreckage of the cross breaks our hearts because we know that, of all people, Jesus does not deserve to be there. Why can’t we just go from the cheering crowds of Palm Sunday to the glory and hope of Easter? It is because God insists that we cannot understand and experience Easter until we have entered fully into what has gone before.
When we are faithful and tell the whole story of the life of Jesus during this week, it makes almost impossible emotional demands of us. These events evoke the most fearful and abhorrent feelings we can ever imagine. And then literally over night, we celebrate a hope and joy we could never have imagined. This is a story of the most extreme and dramatic tragedies and joys that life can hold. Jesus lived these extremes so that we would never doubt that he is capable of understanding anything that we might experience. Because of Good Friday, we never have to doubt the presence of God as he did. The one who was abandoned promises us that we never have to be alone. What could we ever say or do that would shock him? How could we ever question God more deeply than he did?
The one who suffered most becomes the comforter to those who suffer now. In the darkness of Good Friday, we are asked to look at the things we dread and fear the most: denial and betrayal, fear and suffering, rejection and abandonment…and finally death. These things are real in our lives and in the lives of those we love. And yet, through it all, we are asked to be faithful. For those few closest to Jesus 2,000 years ago, the question of faithfulness and loyalty versus betrayal and abandonment was to him personally. Would they stand with him in his suffering? Would they remain true to what they were beginning to believe about him? Or would they run out of fear and indecision?
We were not there then. But the question still remains. Will we be faithful to the promises we make? Will we flee when we are called into Christian community that holds us accountable for our lives and actions? Will we run when we are asked through prayer and service to be with those through whom Christ is suffering today? Where are the crosses standing in our world today; who is being crucified today? Who is suffering at the hands of the same injustice, greed and power that crucified Jesus? Who is being despised and rejected and oppressed? Will we be faithful to create a church in the name of Jesus Christ where they are not forgotten?
There are almost as many question marks as periods in this meditation. I suppose that is an admission that Good Friday still defies my understanding. Except for this…at the end of the Tenebrae service, when darkness appears to have overcome the Light, there is a ninth candle. It stands alone, its tiny flame struggling to hold back a world of darkness. Its little light holds the only promise that can make any sense of Good Friday. It is this…with God, the worst thing that happens is never the last thing that happens.