A Good Friday Meditation on An Unlikely Text

by James Kiefer

There is a play by Jean-Paul Sartre called Morts sans Sepultre (‘The Living Dead’ -- literally, ‘The Unburied Dead’: one English translation calls it The Victors.) I have not seen or read it recently, but part of it goes something like this: The scene is the attic of a house in France during the Second World War. In the attic are a half-dozen prisoners, captured members of the resistance. It is night, and the next morning they will be taken out one at a time and tortured for information. None of them has any information of value, so they need summon no will power. There is nothing to do but wait, and then suffer, and then die.

But now the attic door opens and the soldiers throw another man in. He is the leader of the resistance for that region, but the soldiers do not realize this. To them he is simply someone caught out-of-doors after curfew, and so they are detaining him for the night and will release him in the morning. Now the other prisoners are in a different position. Now they have an active and not merely a passive role to play in what awaits them. They tell the leader, ‘Don't worry. We will hold our tongues.’ He begins to say, ‘I thank you, for myself, for the Resistance, for France. Your courage and your sacrifice will not be forgotten.’

Suddenly, one of the others, his fiancée, says,

‘Oh, shut up. Nothing you have to say could possibly mean anything to us. I am not blaming you. It is not your fault. But the fact is that you are a living man and I am a dead woman, and the living and the dead have nothing to say to each other. Tomorrow you go out that door to freedom and life, and I go out it to torment and death, and that fact puts an impenetrable barrier between us. I do not hate or envy you. I simply do not see you as a meaningful part of my universe. Now go sit down over there, and leave me to talk and hold hands with my brothers and sisters, the people with whom I shall be dying in a few hours.’

It occurred to me, when I read this, that an important reason for the Crucifixion is the breaking down of precisely that barrier between God and us. Without it, many of God's demands on us would be simply infuriating. Consider a driver seated at the wheel of a car as his associates try to push it out of a mudhole. He keeps saying to them: ‘Push harder! Put your backs into it! Don't give up. You can do it if you try. Oh, come now, you can do better than that. Keep at it. Two or three more good pushes and you'll have it out.’ And so on. They may remind themselves that it is essential to have someone steering, and that it is therefore unreasonable of them to resent his being where he is, but they would be other than human if they did not feel an overpowering urge to pull him out of his seat and send him sprawling face down in the mud. Note how different it would be if he were himself standing thigh-deep in the mud, shoving the car with all his might and gasping out encouragement to his fellow pushers. He might be saying exactly the same things as he was saying behind the steering wheel in the first scenario. The difference is that by getting into the mud and pushing with the others he has earned the right to say them. In just this way, God, by taking human nature upon him and living in poverty and dying in shame and torment, has earned the right to ask us to bear our burdens willingly. By forgiving those who have wronged him, he has earned the right to ask us to forgive those who have wronged us.

I have a friend with terminal cancer. What can I, with no comparable problems, find to say to her? I could say, ‘Keep smiling. There is nothing so self-destructive as self-pity, you know. So hold your head high, and face your fate unflinching, remembering that death is the shared destiny of the race.’ Perfectly true, but the normal response would be to hit me with the handiest blunt instrument. If, on the other hand, I pat her on the shoulder and say, ‘There, there, poor dear, I know just how you feel,’ that would be equally infuriating, because she is dying and I am not, and the plain fact of the matter is that I don't know how she feels, and we both know it. But Christ is in a different position. He can make non-negotiable demands, just as an officer can order his men to charge a machine-gun emplacement, provided that he himself leads the charge. On the other hand, he can offer comfort without sounding smug. He can say: ‘My daughter, you are going into the dark, and you are terrified. I know the feeling, for I once walked alone into that same darkness, and I was terrified. But you need not walk it alone. I have been there before, and I know the way, and what lies beyond. Come place your hand in Mine, and we will walk it together.’

An English chaplain in the First World War, Studdert-Kennedy, gave an address to his fellow-chaplains in which he said (approximately):

The one thing that you absolutely must do as chaplains is to go into the line with the men. The Army does not require it. As far as regulations are concerned, you are free to stay out of the trenches, well behind the front, and minister to the men before they go into combat and when they come back out for brief intervals. But if you do that, you will do no good at all. There is no way that you can talk about the meaning of life and death to a man who is facing death and knows that you are not. But if you go into the line with the men, if you get shot at and shelled and gassed along with them, then they will listen to you. And it doesn't matter whether you are eloquent. The fact that you are there with them when you don't have to be, doing your Master's business, will tell them something about your Master. Of course, taking this advice means that you may be killed. So be it. The more chaplains that die in the trenches doing Christ-like deeds, the better. Most of us will preach far better dead than alive.

In those terms, we may say that God has paid his dues, has earned the right to talk to us about suffering because he has endured it with us. He endured not only physical pain, but the torments of doubt and uncertainty and fear. In the Garden of Gethesemane, waiting for the soldiers to come and arrest him, he was clearly in great distress of mind. Some people think that this shows a character flaw -- that a truly great man, or a truly wise man, would say, ‘I never worry about things I can change, and I never worry about things I cannot change,’ and so would not have been bothered by the prospect of torture and death. I reply that a man who did not let such things bother him would have very little to say to the rest of us.

The beginning of the Passion -- the first move, so to speak -- is in Gethsemane. In Gethsemane a very strange and significant thing seems to have happened.

It is clear from many of his sayings that Our Lord had long foreseen His own death. He knew what conduct such as His, in a world such as we have made of this, must inevitably lead to. But it is clear that this knowledge must somehow have been withdrawn from Him before He prayed in Gethsemane. He could not, with whatever reservation about the Father's will, have prayed that the cup might pass and simultaneously known that it would not. That is both a logical and a psychological impossibility. You see what this involves? Lest any trial incident to humanity should be lacking, the torments of hope -- of suspense, anxiety -- were at the last moment loosed on Him -- the supposed possibility that, after all, He might, He just conceivably might, be spared the ultimate horror. There was precedent. Isaac had been spared: he too at the last moment, he also against all apparent probability. It was not quite impossible...and doubtless He had seen other men crucified...a sight very unlike most of our religious pictures and images.

But for this last (and erroneous) hope against hope, and the consequent tumult of the soul, the sweat of blood, perhaps he would not have been very Man. To live in a fully predictable world is not to be a man.

At the end, I know, we are told that an angel appeared ‘comforting’ Him. But neither ‘comforting’ in sixteenth-century English nor ‘ennischuon’ in Greek means ‘consoling’. ‘Strengthening’ is more the word. May not the strengthening have consisted in the renewed certainty -- cold comfort this -- that the thing must be endured and therefore could be?

[ C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964, p.42]

By enduring suffering, Christ does two things. First, he enables us to hear him when he speaks to us with authority about doing our duty even when it involves suffering. Second, he enables us to hear him when he speaks words of encouragement and comfort.

In one section of Thomas More's ‘Treatise on the Passion,’ Christ is represented as saying to a prospective martyr:

Art thou terrified? Do thy knees fold under thee? Then put thy hand in mine and walk with me, for I have trod this road before thee. In Gethsemane, I too was alone and afraid. I also sweated and shook. I also choked back the scream of terror. I also felt helplessness and dread. The man of stout heart, who will walk whistling to the stake with a firm step and a merry countenance, hath a hundred glorious martyrs in whose steps he may tread, but thou, poor, weak, trembling silly sheep, think thou it sufficient to follow only after me.

In Thy footsteps, Lord Jesus. Amen.

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