Why did it have to happen this way?
Maybe there is a clue in an odd juxtaposition today, a liturgical collision, if you will.
On the Christian calendar today—March 25—is usually the Feast of the Annunciation when we tell the story of the Archangel Gabriel’s visit to Mary and the miraculous conception of Jesus. This alignment is rare. It has happened only 3 times in our lifetime, including today, and it will not happen again in this century.
What does it mean for these two events of Jesus’ life to be on the same day? I am struck mostly by Gabriel’s primary message to Mary that echoes down the ages to us: “Nothing will be impossible for God.”
We usually think of this as a statement of hope, perhaps the definitive statement of Christian hope. But what if it not only points to the ability of God to bring miracle to human life, but the ability of God to embrace the entire reality of human life, even to the point of the suffering and death Jesus experienced on the cross?
What if Gabriel was saying, “It will not be impossible for God to experience the greatest depths of human rejection and suffering”? “Nothing will be impossible for God” is not only about the miraculous birth, but also the horrific death.
It seems to me this brings home a question I think we all need to contemplate on this day. Do we really want a God for which this day is not impossible? Do we really want a God who suffers and dies?
Why did Jesus have to suffer and die? Wasn’t it enough to teach us about the kingdom of God? Wasn’t it enough to give us a Golden Rule and a Summary of the Law, a Sermon on the Mount and a bunch of pithy parables? Weren’t they enough to make the point?
Why did Jesus have to suffer and die, for his life to be made a sacrifice? We might be inclined quickly to say, “But Easter made it all better!”
We all have a tendency to want to jump over today and go straight to Easter. Why must we stay here? What good is Good Friday?
I was reminded of these questions by a dear friend of mine, a priest, who lost her oldest daughter, age 34, to a strange liver disease several years ago on Palm Sunday. She wrote to several of her friends later that week,
When it comes to Easter joy, I fear that I no longer know what I'm talking about. Everything I've previously written now seems to me as if penned by some stranger in a foreign tongue. . . . I am humbled, this year, not to be able to rush the resurrection. To have to live it. Breathe it. Weep it. Wait it. Hope it. Live though it as a mother dies to the pain of her labor so that she may bring forth new life.
The truth is that we live in these three days all our life, not just Easter. The suffering of Good Friday is our constant companion in this life. Bombs in Brussels, politicians cynically playing on our fears, sudden death of the young, or the old, for that matter, mental illness that robs you of normality again and again. Much of life is actually lived in tomorrow—Holy Saturday—the day of waiting, of teetering on the edge between hope and despair.
Easter is our hope, and we Christians dare to proclaim that it is our reality, but we have to be honest enough to say, it is so only by faith. Easter is a glimpse of all our Good Fridays undone, enough of a glimpse to give fuel to hope and even to joy, but never enough in this life to make Good Friday go away altogether. For that we still wait.
Why did God have to do it this way? Do we really want a God who had to do it this way?
The answer is often given to us in the logic of a theory of atonement that says it had to happen this way to fulfill the requirements of God’s law. Jesus had to sacrifice himself for the sins of the whole world, because God requires bloody sacrifice for sin. And because Jesus was also God’s Son, the sacrifice of his life was enough for all.
That is one answer, with some biblical authority to back it up.
But there is another answer. Jesus’ death is not only about sin, but also, and perhaps mostly, about suffering.
How can we trust a God who does not know the absolute depths of what it means to be human? How can we trust a God who has never been rejected, who has never suffered, who has never died? How can we trust a God who has never lived the reality of my friend and her daughter, and all our realities of life falling short of what we had hoped and dreamed?
Jesus’ death on the cross is about God’s utter solidarity with us. Jesus did bear the sins of the whole world on the cross. That is important to me. But what is more important to me is that Jesus also bore the suffering of the whole world on the cross.
This is why I am a Christian, because nothing is impossible for God, even this day, even bearing the suffering of the whole world. And because of this reality—Good Friday—I can trust this God enough to believe that Easter is possible. I can hope for a day when it is all undone, and you and me and all who have suffered are so sure that there will be no more Good Fridays that we cannot stop singing and dancing for joy.