Being post-Catholic at Easter, I think of the Jesus story with a wistful sort of yearning. Good Friday’s service, the Veneration of the Cross, was always my favourite service out of the entire Catholic calendar, even better than Christmas in my estimation.
I explained the Easter sequence to my husband last night, and in so doing, realised how the Easter and Lenten gospel readings are really the best part of the church calendar, because they tell a consecutive narrative, building up to the Easter week, and the culmination of how Jesus came to his dark end.
For those of you who might not know the detail the same way that a post-Catholic does (the only other story I know quite so well is Lord of the Rings), Lent starts with Jesus heading into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. He is soul searching. He is alone, trying to face his demons. In the story, Satan tempts Jesus with various visions of an easier road, but Jesus resists. And at the end of his 40 days, he knows what he has to do.
Jesus was at the top of his game. He was gathering followers and momentum. People had started calling him the Messiah, the Son of God, and he picked up on the poetry of it, speaking of God as his father. He asked people to be their higher selves, suggesting that we turn the other cheek rather than strike back; that we focus on the delight in small things, rather than constantly wanting more. Jesus’ God was like a really great parent rather than a god; according to Jesus, God was loving and kind, rather than easily offended and vengeful.
But the crows were gathering. The powers of the existing, dominant religion wanted him to stop firing up dissatisfaction with the politico-economic, temple machine. And so Jesus meditated on it in the desert. And he emerged resolute, like Aragorn after gazing into the Palantir, or like Harry Potter after he buries Dobby and knows what he has to do.
Jesus went to Jerusalem, where he knew his life would be in danger, but where his own principles told him he had to go if he were to really change things. On Palm Sunday, the beginning of Easter’s Holy Week, Jesus entered the city on a donkey and people threw palms at his feet to pave his way. But despite all the adulation, he knew it would be short-lived, like all fame. On Holy Thursday, Jesus ate the Passover meal with his best friends. He already knew that Judas was scheming to betray him, but he had chosen the path of non-violence and he was going to see this thing through. He also knew that his best friends, full of wine-fuelled bravado and riding high on the attention, would not stand by him.
Why couldn’t he have done a runner? Because that would have been cowardice; because that would have meant he did not believe what he preached, and Jesus was a man of his word.
But he was only human, and he was sad, and no one wants to be alone. So he went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray on it and asked two of his best friends to stay with him and keep watch. Jesus begged his God to let things go some other way. When he came back to his friends, they had fallen asleep. They couldn’t even stay awake for a few hours for him. You can almost hear Jesus sigh down the years.
Judas came with the guards, and kissed him on the cheek as the signal that that was the one to arrest. Jesus’ friends, who had so recently professed that they would stand by him no matter what, all went to Splitsville.
The rest is pretty well known. The trumped up charge they got him on was calling himself the “King of the Jews,” although throughout his interrogation he refused to say it, and indeed, the gospels never have him saying it – it was a political twist on his words, “son of God,” so that he could be committed for a crime against Caesar. The Roman representative in Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, could see that Jesus was a smart, good man. He put him up for release – it being Passover and a key Jewish holiday, the Romans let the Jews select a criminal to free. According to the story, Jesus’ enemies amongst the temple hierarchy paid off the crowd to vote for Barrabas, a nasty piece of work. Jesus was to be executed.
Where were his best friends during all this? Peter, whom Jesus had told would betray him, did exactly that. He loitered outside the jail while Jesus was interrogated, and when some of the guards accused him of knowing Jesus, he denied it – three times, apparently. When he realised he had done exactly as Jesus had predicted, he ran off in shame. That shame would fuel Peter to set up an entire church around Jesus’ words. It’s a powerful, powerful emotion.
But first, torture and humiliation. Jesus was whipped, and then dressed in a ludicrously lavish robe and a crown made of thorny branches, a joke on the “King of the Jews” allegation. He had to carry the cross they would execute him on through the streets of Jerusalem, and he kept falling under its weight, piling more shame on top of despair. The Romans got a stranger from the crowd, Simon, to help him carry it, and a kind woman wiped his face for him. His good friends were nowhere.
Finally, he reached the execution ground. They nailed him up. On either side of him were other men being executed. One jeered at him whilst the other asked him to put in a good word for him when he got to heaven; although Jesus was dying, alone and far from the highs of the last few years, he spoke to the man with kindness.
Jesus was a man abandoned. It was one thing to commit to seeing something through on principle; but for all he really knew, he was dying for nothing, as so many men and women have died for their principles in lonely corners of the world before and ever since. There is little poetry in death, and we none of us have control over our final thoughts, or words, or deeds before we die. At his feet, the guards gambled to see who would win his robe.
Finally, his ageing mother and one of his best friends, John came to see him. I don’t know if his step-father, Joseph, was still alive or had simply refused to come and see him. At least he was not alone when he died, and that is something. He told them to take care of each other.
“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” he cried. Poor Jesus. One of the guards, checking if he was dead yet, stuck a spear into his side, and thankfully cut deep enough to speed this torture to its conclusion. “It is finished,” the gospel has him saying. Not long after, he died. Because it was the weekend, Mary and John couldn’t bury him properly, so a rich man and quiet Jesus sympathiser, Joseph of Arimathaea, offered a nearby tomb. Again, Jesus cared for even in his death by strangers while his friends hid. The story of Jesus is the story of being alone.
The resurrection never really rang true for me. I would love to think of Jesus getting up a few days later, all happy and glowing with an inner light. But I don’t believe it happened. Instead I think what really happened was this:
After lying low, Jesus’ friends organised a clandestine meeting a few weeks after his death (on what is now Pentecost Sunday). His mother was there too. The group agreed that they had to do something. Peter was probably pivotal: never having a chance to tell someone you are sorry is an incredibly powerful motivator, and Peter never let it go. He used his grief and his remorse to power him outwards, tirelessly pressing on to spread Jesus’ teachings. In that way, they thought, Jesus was really alive again. At his own death by execution on a cross, Peter asked to be hung upside-down because he was not worthy to die in the same way as Jesus had. What a heavy burden to carry.
As I said, Good Friday was always my favourite of the Easter services. The church stripped bare. The candlesticks, the colour, the music, gone. The crucifix behind the altar, draped in cloth. A plain wooden cross placed in front of the altar, for veneration. We hear the story of Jesus’ sadness; we remember that we all ultimately die alone. We know the truth of death as we know no other truth in our lives. For the hour of the service, we can put out of our minds the excuses, the games played on Easter Sunday to pretend that it was otherwise. It was not. Jesus died, tortured, humbled, shamed. By the time he died, the principles of his life had faded in the pain of his death; but we know he was still a man of his word by what he said to the strangers and his mother and friend as he died. Jesus was a good man to the very end, and for that we are grateful.
For, even though we must die alone, and even though the world can be a harsh and unforgiving place where unfair things happen to good people; even though we can’t see the point in dying young for the sake of a few words; even though most of us, like Jesus’ friends, would rather stay hidden and accept a lesser sort of worldview than die ourselves; we are grateful for people like Jesus, who believe in something, even if they no longer believe in salvation. To me, that is an even greater demonstration of the principles Jesus lived by, than if he really did die, thinking all the while that he would come back to life.