Hidden And In Darkness
by Donald Schell

St. Gregory's Good Friday touches me most deeply of all our Holy Week liturgies, including Easter. Not just a meditation on Jesus' suffering and death, Good Friday is a safe and still place to remember the death that breaks our fears and sufferings and opens us to vast joy.

        It speaks in a quieter voice than Easter, but tells the same story: God tenderly and willingly drawing human suffering to heart and so transforming us. Though Good Friday includes the crushing recollection of the suffering people inflict on one another and invites us into the presence of our deepest grief, in its essence, Good Friday, like Easter, tells of Jesus' loving freedom and the power of God which is greater than our greatest longings. In both Good Friday and Easter we hope for and glimpse God's gift of resurrection which overcomes suffering, loss and grief. In both Good Friday and Easter we hope for and glimpse the radiant love that cannot stay sealed in a tomb. Though they speak with different voices, the two services say the same thing to us.

        My wife Ellen compares Good Friday to a nighttime garden: fragrant, quiet, and despite the darkness, unexpectedly safe. When we enter St. Gregory's, the church is dark and fragrant with spring flowers. Darkness is further suggested by black vestments and black hangings. Even our brightly polished Ethiopian processional crosses - usually like starbursts of shining, brass geometry festooned with vibrant African or Latin American woven streamers - brood with Guatemalan black streamers. But the fragrance and the tender singing of Alleluias make a garden for grief and hope to move side by side. In our stillness and silence we come to the presence of God secretly working in darkness. The Good Friday service ends with the gift of warm, freshly baked hot cross buns to break the day's fast - a mercy, a generous softening of whatever rigors we've tried to impose on ourselves. The fresh bread and the flowers are Jesus' embrace of us. They are his comfort, his encouragement, his asking us to meet him in this darkness. As we receive the nourishment of bread, we leave the church in silence. This is the only service of the year to end thus.

        Our Good Friday service shares much in common with our funeral service. At both, the St. Gregory's congregation lays flowers on the altar, either around an icon of Jesus' burial or around the urn of ashes. On Good Friday and at funerals, the congregation dances, as we do every Sunday.

        "Catholics," one Sunday School teacher said when I was a child, "worship a dead Christ, and that's why they have crucifixes in their churches. Protestants have empty crosses in our churches because we know and love a resurrected Christ. Good Friday is their day. Easter is ours." I didn't believe her. I had visited California Missions and seen horrifying, fascinating statues of Jesus as a tortured and disfigured corpse, but I felt the people making such images and praying in such churches must weep with love for the one who had suffered so. And weeping, I thought, they would feel Jesus' love for them.

        In May of 1962, driving down to Costa Rica with my Aunt Joann and Uncle Mike I bought myself a straw crucifix in a folk art market in Mexico City. I was fifteen, and I heard the Sunday School teacher's words in my head as I bought the figure. Later that summer, in Cartagena, Costa Rica, I looked with revulsion and incomprehension at a glass coffin in the back of the church that held a carved and painted, life-sized corpse of Christ. My uncle explained how the coffin was carried through the streets on Good Friday. I hated this funereal corpse as much as I loved my new straw crucifix. The body in the coffin made me wonder if my Sunday School teacher had been right, that Catholics simply worshipped a dead Jesus. "Somebody," I still heard the teacher's voice echo inside me, "should tell these people about Easter." For some reason I could allow myself to see Jesus' dying, but protested at being asked to see him dead.

        Ten years later, Orthodox Good Friday of 1972, I went to a little Russian congregation for their Good Friday. I was an Episcopalian by then, and we had already celebrated Easter, but on the Orthodox calendar it was still Good Friday, which was fine with me. Easter had missed me that year. I was unemployed, newly ordained and desperately phoning and writing, seeking work anywhere in the church.

        In my memory, that Good Friday had its own unique sound and scent. It was a spring night in Port Arthur, Texas, with crickets and bullfrogs, smells of salt marsh, black mud and flowers. In previous years, I had attended three Russian Easter liturgies and I was hoping that night for something that might heal me. In the candlelight I heard East Texas and South Louisiana voices singing the simple, tender harmonies of Orthodox chant, the haunting ebb and flow of voices hovering somewhere between major and minor. It was peaceful and comforting to wait and listen.

        Toward the end of the service, the priest, deacon and acolytes carried a life-sized icon of Christ's dead body right out of the church and into the damp spring darkness. An incense bearer and all the people of that congregation (including me) followed. The uneven grass squished under our feet as we circled the little church, doing our best to sing with the choir. When we arrived back at the door everyone bowed low to enter, because the icon was now stretched right across the doorway a little lower than chest height.

        Inside the church, the image of the dead Lord Jesus was laid on a table, and we all placed flowers before him in wholly indivisible sadness and joy. That joyful sadness touched my sad, unemployed heart. I resolved to offer people a like experience when I finally got a job in the church.

        The Bishop's Museum of Colonial Art in Morelia, Mexico houses about two hundred Mexican and Spanish crucifixes dating from 1505 to 1820. I happened on the Museum when I was in Mexico studying Spanish, and I spent an afternoon quietly thinking, praying and considering these images. Spanish and Mexican art of that period is graphic, merciless in its attention on Christ's physical sufferings, and I was not surprised to see careful, anatomical detail in the wounds in his hands and feet, the spear wound, and the marks from the crown of thorns. I had already seen crucifixes in which the artist showed an observer's knowledge of what a lash can do to a man's back. But I had never noticed images with torn knees. Each of these crucifixes had torn knees. I wondered whether these knees mirrored those of devout Mexicans making pilgrimages on their knees. But I also wondered what comfort Indio laborers who had been beaten and perhaps had fallen to their knees under a too heavy load could take from a Jesus who had fallen so often under his cross that his knees were torn down to bare muscle and ligament.



Good Friday Hymn,

Based on Clement of Alexandria

        I felt the artists of these images were trying to draw close to and identify with the suffering they portrayed. But oddly, it didn't feel like penitence, as if suffering itself had an inherent value. Rather, I saw these images speaking to suffering Indians who feared they were alone and forgotten. They hinted at a transforming power that dignified and re-humanized crushing indignity and suffering. Not flinching from literal injury or the dark and terrifying tortures inflicted on Jesus, the artists showed his suffering to bring us blessings we could not reject. The best of the images showed not only a tortured body, but also the dead face of someone I would want to know - a compassionate, wise, knowing, loving face. I thought these artists were carving and painting in a blessed, humanist spirit I recognized as friendship with God.

        Images of a God who chooses us as friends challenge us in almost the same way that images of a suffering God challenge us. To know a God who will be our friend and also to see the suffering of God, we must rethink what we mean by "God" and how we meet God.

        Some years ago a woman left St. Gregory's after a few weeks of attending and participating enthusiastically. I called to ask her why. She replied, "I just don't like the way you talk of friendship with God at St. Gregory's. God for me has got to be absolutely dependable, a pure and certain reality and there's no room in my God for friendship."

        In eighth century Palestine, one group of Christian monks, longing for a God who was far above our ordinary, conflicted human experience, taught that since God's real, essential God-ness could not, "by definition" suffer, the divinity of Christ only seemed or appeared to suffer on the cross. They defined God as the one who cannot suffer. In response to these monks, some followers of our St. Gregory wrote "One of the Trinity suffered in the flesh." Gregory's followers believed that the God who longs for our friendship took on all our human experience in Jesus, even our deepest hurts. They believed it so daringly that they began to speak of JESUS' suffering as precisely the sign and presence of GOD'S own suffering.

        When we seek God in Jesus' death on the cross, we allow ourselves to hope that our darkest moments of suffering, loss and death -even Jesus' or anyone's innocent suffering at the hands of others doing evil - may contain a meeting with the freedom, grace, creativity, new life and love by which we mark the coming of God in our lives. With different voices Good Friday and Easter both tell us that Jesus' suffering enfolds the overwhelmingly vast, seemingly endless magnitude of human sufferings in the power of God: unquenchable joy, the love stronger than death. Good Friday and Easter are not problem and solution, not poison and antidote, but each and both together are the life we live and die, the love of God seeking into life's darkest corners. In the dark joy of Good Friday I hear a stillness that just might be large enough to heal absolutely anything.

Donald Schell is presbyter of St. Gregory's Church.


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