It’s not very difficult to reach back into our memories and grab hold of our favorite Christmas. You can close your eyes and find yourself unwrapping that gift you never expected and squealing with delight to know that it’s really yours. Maybe a creative costume made for your favorite Halloween, or a budding relationship marked your favorite Valentine’s Day.
I didn’t expect to have a favorite Good Friday. Favorite isn’t really the right term. But one particular Good Friday brought with it a wave of meaning, creating an entirely new understanding for the day than that which I had experienced before. It was the Good Friday when I started to get it.
It was spring of 2013, and I was studying abroad in Turkey. We had made it through a long trek by bus and finally arrived at our glorious destination: the Goreme Open-Air Museum in Cappadocia.
. . .What’s that? An image hasn’t already come to mind? Allow me to give you one.
These openings in the rocks were the thresholds of churches where persecuted Christians gathered for worship and remembrance of their Savior, Jesus. Of all the places I was excited to visit on my trip abroad, this location was my #1. It felt like holy ground.
While the outside of each cave looked unassuming, we stepped inside the sanctuaries with wonder, shining our flashlights to illuminate the mystery of what had happened here. We found smooth, rounded ceilings and the remnants of symbols painted on the walls. Chipped red crosses marked the spots where they gathered to share the bread and the wine. As an American Christian, I can hardly fathom what true religious persecution looks like. These cave churches started to help me form a better picture.
I had studied this place at length before we arrived, and there was one church in particular that I was anxious to see: The Dark Church. The Dark Church had a somewhat hidden doorway which kept practically any light from reaching inside. Because of this, the gorgeous, intricate murals that covered every inch of space had been incredibly well-preserved. (Plus, they were covered in pigeon poop for centuries, which also turned out to be a helpful preservative. Who knew?!) The Dark Church was the gem of the Goreme Museum, and I could think of no better way to honor the day of Good Friday than getting to pay a visit to this holy place with my friends.
As it turns out, Furman University had covered our entry fee for the museum, but The Dark Church required its own payment. Our professor told us that if any of us wanted to see it, we would have to pay the fee ourselves. He then walked right up and bought a ticket for himself—clearly he had come all this way and wasn’t going to miss it—and I followed him to purchase my own. I truthfully can’t remember if we were the only ones to do this, but we were certainly the first people in our group to take the plunge.
We didn’t visit the church together exactly. Though we entered around the same time, my professor and I never spoke. This was a personal experience, and I had come to behold something powerful, beautiful, and ancient.
Given the day, it’s actually quite fitting that this experience started with an unexpected payment. Good Friday is about a loss that no one saw coming. Despite the warning signs, people were stunned by an event that clearly marked The End. We remember the day as one where hopes were dashed, where all of our visions of the future were destroyed in one fell swoop.
After wandering through the dark and winding tunnel that marked the entrance to the church, I stepped out into what felt like a new world. Though dimly lit, my eyes were stunned by the color. Covering the walls, the ceilings, and even the little alcoves were extraordinary paintings of the life of Jesus, from his birth through the ascension. The white space that dominated the rest of the caves was completely nonexistent here.
By the soft glow of the candles, I journeyed through the story of Jesus’ life. In the images of him as a child with his mother, the hope is palpable. The promised child has arrived and those close to him know that he will bring forth something that the world has never seen before. Venturing further, there are pictures of Jesus as an adult at his baptism, his transfiguration, and the raising of Lazarus. He is glorious, powerful, and my eyes are drawn to his in every scene. He is captivating. He’s shown entering Jerusalem with recognition and praise, followed closely by the Last Supper.
As I stand before this picture of men gathered around the table, I think about how no one besides Jesus understood the gravity of this moment—how this image of 13 guys in robes sitting on the same side of a table would become so widely recognizable in our world and bear the heavy name of “The Last Supper”. I think about tragedy and how it strikes as quickly as something catches the corner of your eye. You turn your head, and it’s already gone. We often have no idea that we are living our “lasts” until that unexpected event separates time into a before and an after. The disciples didn’t know, and they marched right along.
And all of a sudden, there it is: the crucifixion. There seems to be no warning before this image assaults my eyes. The horizontal beam of the cross on which Jesus’s hands are nailed stretches across this fresco like the wings of an albatross. The visual impact is staggering. Tears fill my eyes as I stand there, drinking it in, on today of all days—the day the church remembers. Similar to the rest of Byzantine art, this rendering of the crucifixion isn’t very bloody. Jesus doesn’t look beaten or whipped, but his expression reveals a different kind of brokenness. He is in anguish. How great the pain of searing loss.
The image of his lifeless body hanging on the cross abruptly punctuated his message that the Kingdom of God is at hand. As his followers looked on, it’s clear that the world they had shared had ended. What would tomorrow look like? How do you go back to life before Jesus in light of knowing him? What does this loss mean? How? Why? What do we do?
Have we encountered moments in our lives when we have asked similar things? How? Why this? What do we do now? Will we ever move on from this?
In discussing her latest book about life with her stage 4 cancer diagnosis, author Kate Bowler says, “Instead of ballooning more securely in the idea that everything was definitely going to work out for me, I’ve had to seek God in the darkness and the brokenness. This is a Lenten book written for a Lenten people. Jesus’ witness requires that we learn to stare down the abyss and walk towards our own deaths.”
Standing in that cave, I realize that first, we remember Good Friday because in life, we will find ourselves in the midst of great loss. In Lent, we go through the rhythms of losing what is precious. This is not a happy skip towards Easter. Lent, culminating in Good Friday, is a death march. During this time, we pick up our crosses, and we follow our Savior into sacrifice. We bear witness to his suffering and death, and we force ourselves to open our eyes when the things we cherish are taken from us, be that our circumstances, the people we love, or eventually for all of us, life itself. It’s a time when we stand with the suffering, knowing that not even Jesus was immune, and we stare down death together. Good Friday makes space for grief that can’t be explained away by reason. We can’t assign any kind of secret purpose or meaning to the crucifixion as we stand there before it as the disciples did. Good Friday gives us space to say this shouldn’t have happened, this isn’t right, it’s not okay.
And secondly and powerfully, we remember this day because there is not a single step on our march towards death that our God has not walked before us. God is present in every ounce of our suffering, our grief, and our loss—not as the cause of such things, but as our co-sufferer, our co-griever. There is not a bit of pain that he hasn’t known. Truly I tell you, we have not been abandoned here in the darkness. God knows the journey, and God walks with us—every step.
As I stare at the crucifixion painted before me on the walls, I feel deeply that we are not at Easter yet. I am standing inside The Dark Church—the cave where light doesn’t shine, and it fits the day perfectly. Everything has not worked out for us. The people who settled here amid persecution and painted those first chipping red crosses knew this deep in their bones—suffering is interwoven with this story, and God is right in the middle of it. We watch as our greatest hope lies limp on a piece of wood. And yet, loss does not mean God has stopped speaking. His willingness to die speaks volumes to us. He walks the road of suffering that we all hope to avoid, but none of us are able to. And even on that cross, Jesus forgives his killers and tells the criminal hanging next to him that he too will be in paradise—that he too is a child of God deemed worthy of love and redemption.
We don’t see that redemption yet. We aren’t sure it’s even possible. It is unfathomable to us while our eyes are still fixed on the cross. This is part of the great mystery of Good Friday—Jesus is gone and yet his life is still speaking to us.
I’ll end this post the way Jesus ended his life: by pointing to the truth of Psalm 22. I think Jesus would have us read the whole thing.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
3 Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
6 But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8 “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10 On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
12 Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16 For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled;
17 I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
19 But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!
20 Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog!
21 Save me from the mouth of the lion!
From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
22 I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.
25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
28 For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.