Photo: Bryce Nicholls

Good Friday

The day God died

How do you speak of Good Friday?

We don’t really see Good Friday in terms of imagining it as a day when God died. To the contrary - we meditate and talk about the death of Jesus. In speaking of the death of Jesus on Friday, we – intentionally or not – acknowledge that the man from Nazareth died, but not God. God seemed to be absolved from any real suffering, let alone death.

Yet, a renowned German theologian Jürgen Moltmann reminds us, it wasn’t just a man from Nazareth that hung on the cross. It was Godself.

When the crucified Jesus is called the “image of the invisible God,” the meaning is that this is God, and God is like this. God is not greater than he is in this humiliation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in his humanity. The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about ‘God’ is to be found in this Christ event. “The Crucified God” pg. 205

I know there is a temptation to see Good Friday through Easter Sunday. We know how the story ends. We know that Christ's death by crucifixion is closely followed by his resurrection. Our predisposed knowledge of Easter Sunday colours our understanding of the events that unfolded on Good Friday.

But the first disciples did not know any of this. They did not know how the story will end. They did not expect resurrection. They were in hiding, fearful of the authority that had killed their leader. They witnessed how the life of Jesus concluded in unbelievable pain, despair, and death, and they probably thought this was the end to his ministry. We call Good Friday "good" because we look backward at the crucifixion through the lens of Easter.

Good Friday invites us is to live in this moment. Can we step back into the shoes of the first disciples and imagine what they went through on that first Good Friday? Can we imagine their fear, doubt and despair? Can we grasp the grief they must have felt? With their leader dead and gone, they were sheep without a shepherd. They had every reason to doubt the divine provision.

The challenge of Good Friday is to reimagine this struggle, not just because of what it says about God, but also because of what it says about us and the life we are called to live as followers of a crucified God. Can we meditate on the fact that the Good Friday is the day God died? It would seem absurd to imagine the death of God. But if Jesus was the Word made flesh - the Logos - as the gospel of John claims, if he was the embodiment of God, then the suffering death of Jesus is also the suffering death of God. In Jesus God was crucified!

Let me end this reflection with a Parable of the Madman by a German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche, the son of a Lutheran minister. In 1882, Nietzsche pronounced, perhaps, for the first time that “God is dead”. The parable is as follows.

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: "I am looking for God! I am looking for God!"

As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

"Where has God gone?" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us - for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto."

Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling - it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars - and yet they have done it themselves."

It has been further related that on that same day the madman entered diverse churches and there sang a requiem. Led out and quietened, he is said to have retorted each time: "what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?"

What is most interesting about this parable is that one would think that the death of God would be on the lips of the secular, enlightened humanist atheists. One would think that an atheist would be telling this to the churchgoers. But, far from it, Nietzsche did not have an atheist breaking the news to the pious religious believers that God is dead. That would be our expectation. Nietzsche reverses it. It’s the religious figure - labelled as madman - who is breaking the news to the secular, enlightened humanists about the death of God. This religious figure jumps into the midst like an Old Testament prophet would, declaring the death of God to the atheists of the day. He is addressing those who don’t believe in God, those who are doubtful about the existence of God. Maybe his message is plain and simple: “you have no idea what I have discovered, the God you don’t believe in does not exist.”

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Who else than the Messiah Himself can be born in a grave?

My Good Friday reflection concluded with the parable of the mad man that was written by Frederic Nietzsche back in 1882. The parable is about a man who is perceived mad by the onlookers as he goes around announcing that God is dead.

The parable gained incredible popularity in 1960s. Several newspapers and magazines, including the Time, asked: “Is God Dead?” The question created quite a stir. It referenced Nietzsche’s parable as the inspiration behind the “God is dead movement” which insisted that “man” has killed God because “man” has evolved beyond our need for gods.

Nietzsche went on to develop this insight in his book The Twilight of the Idols. As far as Nietzsche was concerned, he envisioned a world emptied of meaning and filled with despair. Nietzsche predicted that the western world is destined to collapse into nihilism due to a consistent decline in the traditional belief system. Walter Kaufmann, an American philosopher, writes that Nietzsche “felt the agony, the suffering, and the misery of a godless world so intensely, at a time when others were yet blind to its tremendous consequences, that he was able to experience in advance, as it were, the fate of coming generation.”

Was Nietzsche right in his prediction? Did the world descend into nihilistic chaos?

The generation following Nietzsche in many ways seemed to have experienced the fate he had foretold. In a way, Nietzsche was right. The first World War exterminated Western Europe’s faith in modern progress. With the reality of war, the anticipation of the promise of a better future was gone. The dream of enlightenment suddenly turned into a nightmare.

The disintegration of the Soviet empire also cancelled faith in Marxism as the guarantee of progress -- Marxism’s promise of a better world never came to fruition. And though there seems to be continued belief in a better future through modern means, many in the face of climate change appear to be accepting the evidence that hope in progress through human means is an empty pursuit.

The sense of emptiness pervades the post-war world. Today most individuals are not fervent war supporters. Instead, the modern individual seems to be searching for a cause that will give meaning to their lives in different ways. Yet, this search for meaning appears to be a lost cause. Despite the high standard of living that we enjoy, the question remains: what is it all for? What is the purpose of it all? The question seems to grips all of us in our moments of solitude. Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, noted that in the West evermore people today have means to live, but no meaning to live for.

It is quite remarkable that Nietzsche was able to prophesise this nihilistic mood, which has survived to this day. He surmised that the modern world would not only lose faith in man but, at the same time, will also declare its independence from God, so that there is neither faith in God or faith in man, leaving only faith in nothing, which will lead to despair and disappointment.

He concludes the parable by noting that the mad man went into several churches announcing that God is dead. Each time, when led out of the churches and asked what he thought he was doing, he replied: “What are these churches now if not the tombs of God?”

Shall we not ask this Nietzschean question to the church of today: what are the churches now if not the tombs of God? How shall we answer this question?

The obvious answer would be to say how churches have become cultural monuments. They symbolise culture and time when religious observances were central to life and community.  Not anymore. They are no longer at the centre of things. The belief in God no longer animates our communities, and it is no longer the central guide to our lives. The magnificent structures and buildings, if not entirely extinct, seems to be vanishing and crumbling away.

But there is another answer to the Nietzschean question. It comes from the late Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich. Tillich worked within the same intellectual tradition as Nietzsche (known as existentialism). He tells the story of a witness in the Nuremberg war-crime trials who testified that he had lived for a time in a grave in a Jewish graveyard, in Wilna Poland. It was the only place he--and many others--could live after fleeing the gas chamber.

During this time, the man recorded an event; it was a description of a birth. In a grave nearby, a young woman gave birth to a boy. The eighty-year-old gravedigger, wrapped in a linen shroud, assisted. When the new-born child uttered his first cry, the old man prayed:

"Great God, hast Thou finally sent the Messiah to us?

For who else than the Messiah Himself can be born in a grave?"

This is a remarkable story, it carries unprecedented emotional value and tremendous symbolic power. It transcends anything a human imagination could have crafted. It breathes new life into our Christian symbols, which seemed to have lost a great deal of its power because it is too often repeated.

It is too easy to forget that the manger of Christmas was the expression of utter poverty and distress before it became the place where the angels appeared and to which the star pointed.  And we forgot that the tomb of Jesus was the end of his life and of his work before it became the place of his final triumph.  And for these reasons, the question of the eighty-year-old gravedigger corresponds profoundly to our Easter celebration: for "who else than the Messiah himself can be born in a grave?"

Do not these words describe almost exactly the paradoxical nature of Easter?

The old man was wrong to identify the new-born as messiah. But he was right in another sense, for only God could do something as incredible as cause life to be born in a grave. This is exactly what happened on Easter morning and is the greatest of all symbols of God's ingenious resourcefulness. Out of that awful matrix of death and tragedy, life began to flow - for the Messiah himself was born in a grave.

It is not hard to hear these sentiments today, in a world where there are so many places like the Jewish cemetery in Wilna. At times the Easter proclamation of victory over death seems oblivious to the daily human struggle with the continued grip of death on life–the pandemic, famine, political oppression, economic crises and continuing attempts at genocide.

We know about the horrors of our history and we can hear the news in our own living rooms as people around the world succumb to death and despair. We know that greed and hatred are the go-to responses of far too many and that humanity has a long way to go before we can live in harmony. But we take solace in that fact that Easter is not here to cover the pain of grief and the reality of death with loud music and bright colours. Instead, the Easter message begins in the dark tomb – reminding us that the Christian hope was actually born in a tomb.

So, in reply to Nietzsche’s question, “What are these churches now if not the tomb of God?”, I want to say yes because the ultimate paradox of Easter is that life is born in a grave. That something purposeful emerges out of chaos. That the tomb of Jesus was the end of his life before it became the point of departure for a new life. I want to say yes, because the churches, as dead as they may seem, can unleash life, can become a place where new hope is kindled. I want to say yes because Christianity itself is founded upon an empty tomb – indeed in a graveyard.

And finally, I want to say yes because the news of the empty tomb cannot be separated from the words and actions. Resurrection is not an abstract concept, unconnected with the real world. The resurrection of Jesus is an invitation to live as Jesus lived. Just as there is cruelty, brutality, selfishness and abandonment, so there are values and principles that cannot be killed but rise again - often in unexpected ways. What is repressed today returns tomorrow.

There is an insightful Mexican Proverb that speaks of this reality:

“They tried to bury us. They didn't know we were seeds.”

Life finds its way, despite the fiercest efforts of death to stop it. Persistent. Pervasive. Persevering. Even, invasive. Injustice, defeat, and death are not the final words, because life and love will find a path, a place, a way to grow and overcome our failures and fears, our prejudices and hostilities.

Indeed, Easter reminds us that life persists and pervades. It will flourish where buried. It will not cease to surprise. This is the paradox of Easter, that life is born in a grave. That something purposeful springs out of chaos. Death becomes the source of life. And, the tomb becomes the point of departure for a new life