Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Good Friday, the end of the world

Attributed to Jan van Eyck
Attributed to Jan van Eyck

Attributed to Jan van Eyck

I entered my mother’s hospital room that morning in December 2012 feeling exhausted and afraid. The bad news was to come fast and thick all day, her sixth in the hospital: cancer cells had been discovered in her spinal fluid. Her blood test showed a protein count that was twenty times normal levels. Cancerous lesions had been found in her skull and bones.

So there was every reason for Mom to have tears in her eyes. I’m pretty sure she knew by then that she was dying, and fast, though we did not openly discuss it for several more days. So it might have seemed natural that she was crying softly while she ate her Cream of Wheat and got a sponge bath from a nurse’s aide while they both gazed intermittently at the television.

But Mom wasn’t crying about the pain of cancer having spread to her bones or the new fear of it being in her spinal fluid, or even about losing her abilities from day to day, right before our eyes.

She was crying because of what was on the television.

And what was on the television was Newtown. “There’s been a shooting at a school in Connecticut,” Mom told me. We watched in horror as reports began coming in about more than two dozen children murdered in cold blood, and the teachers who tried to protect them.

How could such a thing happen?

This past weekend at the Festival of Faith and Writing, I heard Anne Lamott give a beautiful talk that ranged in typical Lamott fashion among all kinds of topics, from writing and suffering and God to her crazy dogs and the fact that her pants wouldn’t fit properly. I’ll probably forget a lot of what she said, but here is one thing I won’t forget:

She realized as she was watching the Newtown coverage that December 14, 2012 was Good Friday, the end of the world.

It wasn’t Good Friday chronologically, but it certainly was theologically. That’s how it felt to me, sitting in my mother’s hospital room. Death was clearly coming for her—in fact, in just over two weeks—and as impossible as that was, how much more impossible that first-graders who had been learning their letters might have glanced up from their worksheets to the last thing they would see in their six or seven years of life: a young man pointing a gun at them.

It was Good Friday, the end of the world.

All of us have Good Fridays in our history. You can’t live too long on this earth without suffering, even if it’s not so horrifying or unthinkable as Newtown. You suffer ill health, or a loved one is dying. You lose your job and a part of your identity. You come home from a war and are traumatized by all you have seen and done.

There are a million and one ways to suffer, and in fact many of us suffer so much that we become inured to the suffering of others.

I preached a sermon today that focused on this question using this painting from the 1420s or 1430s (attributed to Jan van Eyck). I won’t go into the details of the painting except to point out how it encapsulates Jesus’ evocation of Psalm 22 from the cross. He’s surrounded by people who ignore his pain or even mock it; those two guys on horseback to the left seem thoroughly delighted by today’s multiple crucifixions—three for the price of one!—and are probably wondering whether anyone thought to bring a picnic.

And the few members of Jesus’ inner circle who have showed up for his death are positioned far away from him, in the foreground of the painting. Apart from John, none of Jesus’ twelve disciples are even present—not in the painting, not at the cross.

What great measures we take to avoid suffering—our own and other people’s. We can hardly bear it. We look away, change the channel, find a distraction.

But after Newtown, I have an unforgettable image of what God’s compassion might look like. And that is my normally stoic mother, staring at the television with her eyes filled with tears. Her body was riddled with cancer and she was experiencing deep physical pain, but any blindfold she might have once worn to avoid seeing the suffering of others was now discarded.

All that remained was pure compassion. Suffering with.

“There’s been a shooting at a school in Connecticut today.” In other words, somewhere, for someone, today is Good Friday, the end of the world.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Thank you. Though you didn’t intend it, your words remind me of my self centeredness. As much as I proclaim Christ – I probably would have been absent from the crucifixion too. Thank you for continuing to share your pain in order to teach us.

  • Newtown was the day God died. He was 48 years old.

    That day.
    I realized I did not need a God which could give parking spaces and heartbeats to such killers.

    The claims of a God who intervenes was revealed to be the cruelest of jokes.
    God can’t help anyone and neither can Snoopy or Gandalf.

    Then the sky opened and I realized that I was done with myth.
    It was finally time to understand why people like myself forced this cultural delusional nonsense onto our lives – why we fearfully resist the obvious open door to freedom.

    What I see now is that a life of prayer and wishing is internally and externally destructive. Death is final. Waste no time.

  • This is one of the most beautiful, and most moving, blog entries I’ve read from you. Thank you.

  • Thank you. This post has made a great impression on me. This same day I read another article about Vegar and Christy Svanemyr that seemed to share the same sentiment; To be truly awake is to be vulnerable to the world, taking it in. “Feeling” the world and not shutting it out. And taking part in the suffering of others.

  • What a beautiful message: We tend to get calloused to the suffering of others, given it’s ubiquity, yet compassion is “suffering with”. More importantly, “All of us have Good Fridays in our history.” And best of all, the phrase: “Good Friday, the end if the world.”

    It’s enlightening to draw the connection between our individual dark nights of the soul, the depths of our individual suffering, and that of Christ’s. Of course, the extremity of our own suffering never remotely compares to His. But whenever we recognize our own suffering as Good Friday, the end of the world, we may then also recognize that because of Christ’s suffering, our Good Friday afternoons may be followed by the perfect brightness of joy that is Easter morning.

    Two weeks ago, speaking of persecution and suffering to come, Elder Holland taught that the path of discipleship is difficult but worth it. And Elder Bednar taught that the burdens we carry can create spiritual traction.

    Of course, Good Friday, the end of the world, is not the end of the planet or of mankind. It seems like rather than is the end of the world. Yet it may well be individually the end of the world as we knew it. However, when we lay our burdens upon The Lord, our Good Fridays may indeed become the end of “the world” in the sense that Christ used the term (“I am not of the world”). Our Good Fridays may become the end of the worldly for us through Christ’s Atonement. Which, of course, is the Plan. No, there is no requirement that our paths to Repentance pass through a Good Friday, the end of the world. But, many of us are too proud to become new creatures any other way.

    Any true Good Friday, the end of the world is always a very near run thing – balancing on edge, one may in total despair and stripped of pride find Christ, or one may lose faith, embrace bitterness and blame God. Of all the tragedies, all the suffering and injustices one may feel compassion for, it is the suffering and hopelessness of those that lose faith in their own fiery trials, their own Good Fridays, the end of the world for whom I generally feel the most compassion.

    Mette Ivie Harrison bared her soul here and suffered a heavy burden made worse by so much insensitivity from others. But she made her already heavy burden heavier by embracing for a time a false assumption: “I couldn’t worship a god who would kill an innocent unborn child …”

    But Mette is finding faith again, overcoming challenges and leaving despair. Atheist Max stirs greater compassion. Newtown led him to believe “God can’t help anyone”.

    And others have looked at much larger atrocities and have lost faith. Governments have disarmed citizens and murdered them by the tens of millions. About 30 million were murdered by the government of China (1950-1975), about 20 million by the USSR (1950-1975), about 11.4 million by the government of Germany (1938-1945, including about 6 million Jews), about 10 million by the government of Japan (1937-1945), and on and on and on. Would a loving God, a benevolent God allow that?

    Sadly, suffering leads many to conclude that there ether is no God, or that there is no God they are willing to worship if such a God will allow their Mercy to die, or will allow the Newtown children to die, or the helpless, disarmed citizens of government after government to be killed by the millions and tens of millions. Such a God, they naturally think, is no God they can love.

    Error blinds too many eyes. Rumi said, “The intelligent desire self-control; children want candy.” We want life to be easy, we don’t want to suffer, we don’t want others to suffer. We can’t bear to dwell on the enormity of all the suffering so we get calloused to it. Like children, we just want a God to make it better.

    There was, of course, such a plan. There was a plan put forth by one seeking glory that had great appeal – no suffering, no unbearable burdens, no children dieing, no governments murdering citizens, no risk, no failure, no pain, no inequity, no inequality, no despair. We argued against that plan with our brothers and sisters for a long time. Talk about polarization! That argument was so severe, it was called war.

    But God’s plan prevailed. It involved agency, freedom, Liberty. It also involved trouble and trial, pain and sorrow. We knew it would not be easy, but we also knew it would be worth it.

    God loves us enough to allow us to suffer. He even loved us enough to allow Christ to suffer infinitely. And while we suffer, He suffers with us. We may not be able to understand the calculus now, but He understands it is worth it. And that is the Good News of the Gospel!

    So Happy Easter! More than anything else, Easter morning is the antidote to Good Friday, the end of the world.

  • Beautiful post, Jana. Having been a church staff member for over 17 years, I have always been concerned by the lack of – what word should I use? – respect? appreciation? for Good Friday in the Protestant churches I served.

    Good Friday (and even Maundy Thursday) was something to “skip over” to get to Easter. I asked a congregational member about this perception and she agreed (albeit problematically for me): “Good Friday is just so…depressing. My family does not want that. We need joy, not sadness. We love Easter!”

    There is something very sad in that statement. Is it a reflection of our American culture – our obsessive aversion to death and aging? I’m not sure.

    I have hope, though. At least the Eastern Orthodox Christians get it right with their liturgy: it’s a solemn event. And it should be shared. Not avoided.

    And my daughter, now nine years old, was born on Good Friday, 2005. There’s a theological message in that fact somewhere….

  • Agreed! Good Friday is indeed GOOD . . .

    And what a wonderful theological legacy for your daughter. Suffering and new life, all jumbled together.

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