(RNS) — “For weeks now it has been evening,” Pope Francis remarked in his 2020 Urbi et Orbi (the Latin means “To the city and to the world”) address, in the initial days of the new and very frightening COVID-19 pandemic.
All over the world, our streets were empty. Our stores were closed. We were confined and alone, and the sirens of ambulances were our constant soundtrack. When, on the rare occasions we risked stepping outside, the gestures and glances of those we encountered, who, upon seeing us from a distance, usually chose to cross the street, mirrored our own fears and confusions.
Not unlike the disciples in the Gospel accounts, whose dreams were shattered by the reality of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, we, too, were caught off guard by what we never imagined could happen and were not quite sure what to do. We wanted to act but were not sure how. We wanted to be helpful but were told to stay home. We wanted to do anything to ease that sense of helplessness in us and maybe even in others, to feel like the stories coming out of our hospitals were simply not true.
Commenting on that, and connecting it to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, Anglican priest and theologian Sarah Coakley has said that medical professionals tell her that one of the key components of nursing training is learning what she calls “the discipline of staying”:
The doctors may come and go, fleeing if need be from what they cannot con- trol or alleviate; but the nurses stay. They are taught this business of ‘staying’ to look on that which others cannot bear: the suppurating wound; the face horribly disfigured by burns; the gangrenous limb which awaits amputation; the agony of death itself.
I see this movement — from a practical, solution-based way of doing, where we can feel that we have some control over what goes on, to a more passive way of being as one of the key lessons every Good Friday.
While much of Jesus’ public life and ministry has been about doing, commending, teaching, healing and actively inviting people to taste and experience the miraculous presence of God in their midst, the moment his passion begins, all of his activity stops and he can no longer do things for others. Now, things are done to him, and “passiveness, non-activity, absorbing something more than actively doing anything” begin to define him.
Strangely enough we are told that “we are saved more through Jesus’s passion … (and passivity) … than through all of his activity of preaching and doing miracles.”
Could it be that our situation today — with its many pandemics — calls for more of this kind of witness, of simply being with, no matter how hard, no matter how devastating?
Accepting this call to show up in this way is hard. We are all tempted by a return to normalcy. We just want things to get back to how they once were. And while moving into the practical will have its time and place, the Good Friday experience is not about that. Good Friday is about the pain. Good Friday is about our helplessness. Good Friday is about joining Mary, at the foot of the cross, and witnessing with her all of our hopes being crucified and killed.
Were we wrong? Were we fooled, or misguided? Was our hope entirely misplaced?
Good Friday is also about self-examination, remembering that, while what we are experiencing during times of crisis is not a punishment from God, it is a chance to re-evaluate our lives. Every crisis offers us this. This is an opportunity to seriously examine and wonder about all the shadows of our society’s mindset that a crisis has revealed.
Those shadows, you know, all those things we see on the news almost daily these days, include our mixed priorities that favor profits over people, and our politicians who tell us that our elders shouldn’t overburden our struggling system, that they should simply be ready to sacrifice their lives to save the economy.
They include our constant refusal to acknowledge that our common life depends on one another’s toil. They definitely include our increasing economic inequities; and, during the pandemic, they included our unwillingness to pay those who never stopped working because their jobs were considered essential, and if they had been allowed not to work they would have inconvenienced our lives of conveniences.
A Good Friday understanding is about looking at all of these situations and asking ourselves: How much of this have we participated in and consented to? How much of this is done in our name? How much of this motivates how we live as individuals and in our communities? And are we ready to confess and ask God for forgiveness for the part we played in all of this? Are we ready to commit to change? The resurrection that we await isn’t about returning to normal; it is about transformation. It is about change that you and I can commit to after this immense suffering.
The great Carmelite priest and spiritual director St. John of the Cross uses an image of a burning log of wood in one of his treasures on the mystical life to describe the way of the cross and the way to the resurrection that awaits a faithful soul.
The soul is purged and prepared for union with the divine light just as the wood is prepared for transformation into the fire. Fire, when applied to wood, first dehumidifies it, dispelling all moisture and causing the wood to shed the tears it has held inside itself. Then it gradually turns the wood black … and even causes it to emit a bad odor. By drying out the wood, the fire brings to light and expels all those … unsavory accidents that are contrary to the nature of fire. Finally, by heating and enkindling it from without, the fire transforms the wood into itself and makes it as beautiful as it is itself. Once transformed, the wood no longer has any activity … of its own. … It simply possesses the properties of fire and does the work of fire.
When we approach the darkness of Jesus’ suffering and death and come to terms with the suffering of so many in our world today, we all may come to the light and experience the transformation that St. John of the Cross describes. We might remember that there is no resurrection without the cross and that the message of Good Friday is not to be strong but to be weak. The future may be about proclaiming the victory, but today is not.
To grasp Good Friday is to let go of our self-agency and lay our strengths at the foot of the cross. To let the circumstances we are experiencing work on us, squeezing out all that is not essential, and make space in us for God. We move from action to passivity and abandon ourselves into God’s hands. Like the wood prepared for its task in the fire. We pray and weep and fast until we can honestly and truly say, “Not my will but your will,” as Jesus said to the Father from the cross.
And the moment our hearts have the courage and readiness to pronounce those words, there will be very little left of us there. It seems to me, that is the goal of the Christian life. That is what Easter signifies for the journey of transformation that our souls are on. To cease to exist as we are so we may be brought into existence as God intends us to be.
Then, we have the opportunity to become more beautiful than we dare to be, and freer than our circumstances allow.
(The Rev. Adam Bucko is director of The Center for Spiritual Imagination at the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation. This article was adapted with permission from “Let Your Hearbreak Be Your Guide.” Copyright © 2022 by Adam Bucko Published by Orbis Books. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)