Harrowing Of Hell
April 15, 2022

Good Friday

Susan Pitchford, Lay Preacher

Good evening. My name is Susan Pitchford, and I work on adult faith formation here at Epiphany.

 “Good” Friday? Seriously? People often want to know, why do we call this day “good”? It’s a day of tragedy, of injustice, a day of suffering and darkness and death. What’s so good about that?

Well, the short answer is “the salvation of the world,” of course. And there are really long answers: multiple theories of the Atonement try to explain exactly what happened, and how it brought about the salvation of the world. I once had a dream in which I went to a friend’s family party, and there were all these different types of brownies: one for every theory of the Atonement. I remember particularly the Penal Substitutionary Atonement brownies, which were so sinful and deadly that you had to let Jesus eat them for you.

But even if I fully understood all these theories of Atonement—which I don’t—we wouldn’t have time to go into them now. Still, I think we can look at what happened on that terrible, tragic day, and begin at least to understand why the Church has called it “good.”

Last night, our observance of Maundy Thursday recalled Jesus entering into the Upper Room with his disciples. It’s a place of intimacy, and when we celebrate the Institution of the Eucharist, we’re celebrating Jesus’ gift to us—being able to pass through that doorway and enter into that intimate place with him, and with each other, and with all those who came before us or will come after us—every time we receive his body and blood.

But tonight our gospel narrative begins with the words, “Jesus went out…” With his disciples, he passes through the door of that beautiful room, that place of warm, intimate community, and goes out into darkness. He goes out to face his own murder—the ultimate violation of community. Judas has already passed through that door, and John’s gospel—in which the details are always significant—has told us, “It was night.” Once Jesus crosses that threshold, and goes from the warmth and intimacy of the upper room out into the night, he will be giving up any security he might have had. He’ll hand himself over to the forces of hatred and violence. In Luke’s gospel, when the soldiers come for him, Jesus says: “This is your hour, and the power of darkness.”

In his Passion, Jesus took on himself all the sin and dysfunction of which humans are capable. A member of his inner circle—someone he’d taught, traveled with, eaten with for three years—one of his friends, betrays him. For thirty pieces of silver, which Exodus names as the price of a slave. One of his closest friends, who’d pledged to be with him to the death, denies even knowing him. And not once, but three times. The authorities of his own people, the people he’d come to save, only want to be rid of him. The officials of the occupying power are happy to oblige.

Pilate knows this man is innocent, but doesn’t have the spine to resist the pressure from the authorities or the crowds, who, only a few days ago, were hailing him as the Messiah. But the hosannas have gone quiet now, and been replaced by calls for his blood. The soldiers torture and mock him. He’s paraded through the streets of Jerusalem as the failed “King of the Jews,” and will pass through another door, a city gate that places him at last outside of Jerusalem which, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus himself had called the “City of the Great King.” It had been King David’s city. But Jesus is not looking much like a great king now.

And there’s an interesting twist here. We have Pilate offering the crowd a choice: shall he release Jesus of Nazareth, called King of the Jews, or Barabbas? Barabbas, we’re told, is a bandit, but the crowd chooses him for release over Jesus. Think about this: Bar-abbas means “Son of the Father.” Sometimes he’s known as “Jesus Barabbas.” Jesus was a common enough name, but again, in John’s gospel, every detail is significant. Nothing is included for no reason. The irony of this. Barabbas is like a photo-negative of Jesus the Christ, the true “Son of the Father.” He’s like all our anti-Christ impulses personified, and we, the crowd (who were singing those Hosannas only days ago),we  choose him, because we couldn’t carry our loyalty for five minutes in a paper bag.

Now, at this point I just need to stop for a moment, and acknowledge a terrible truth. Good Friday is a somber day for Christians. But it has also been, through the history of the church, an extremely painful day for our Jewish siblings. There is a very long history of violence and terror directed at Jews, not only on this day, but especially on this day, because they have been seen as responsible for the death of Christ. Having heard talk in John’s gospel about “the Jews,” Christians have emerged from church enraged, and gone hunting down their Jewish neighbors seeking revenge. Good Friday, and the Cross, are deeply painful symbols to many Jews who, even if they convert to Christianity, still find both of these very difficult to deal with.

All of this is worsened by this talk of “the Jews” in John’s Passion narrative. Now, it should be completely obvious, but somehow over the centuries many Christians have lost sight of it, that Jesus was a Jew. And all of his followers, initially, were Jews. He came as the Jewish Messiah, in fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Besides which, Judaism is where we come from. To talk about the Jews as “Christ killers” is like casting aspersions on the virtue of your grandmother. Just…no.

When John talks about “the Jews” acting against Jesus, I think it’s analogous to saying “the Russians” decided to invade Ukraine. It’s just shorthand for “the Russian authorities.” Even though surveys show high support among Russians for the invasion, in the context of an authoritarian society, public opinion polls are pretty worthless.

Anyway, in Jesus’ case, it was a subset of the Jewish authorities: remember, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were also Jewish authorities, and they’d opposed this whole thing. But the weight of the Jewish power structure was collaborating with Rome on that day, and so we hear, “the Jews.”

This doesn’t completely solve the problem, because the text doesn’t actually say “the Jewish authorities” or “leaders.” It says, “the Jews.”

And I know that by the time John’s gospel was written, there was tension between the Jewish and Christian communities. So I don’t know exactly what John had in mind when he spoke of “the Jews,” but I think the “shorthand” idea gives us a way of thinking about it. Because after all, to blame “the Jews” for the death of Christ is to completely miss the point of the whole thing.

Who was responsible for his death? It was me; I did it. We all did. We are the crowd, and we all fail to see what’s happening here, or if we do see it, we don’t care enough to risk our own safety and stand with Jesus. Or maybe we long for Jesus, but we’ve allowed that longing to be twisted into a fit of rage that only allows Jesus to be dragged through the streets all over again.

Okay, back to the story.

Finally, Jesus is killed using an instrument so brutal it gave us the word “excruciating”: ex crucis, “from the cross.” And the mocking continued as people watched him die. To die on a cross was death by torture. It was designed to cause maximal physical suffering, as the person expired from a mix of asphyxiation, exsanguination (bleeding out), and exhaustion.

But it was also meant to be humiliating. There’s the mocking reversal of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, as Jesus exits the city carrying his cross. Plus, in artistic representations of the crucifixion, Jesus is nearly always shown decorously covered with a loincloth. We actually don’t know if he was or wasn’t, but regardless—for Jews, public nakedness was taboo. Not gentiles: gentiles competed naked in athletic events, for example, but Jews had a strong ethic of modesty.

So to be hanging on a cross, naked or nearly naked, would be humiliating enough. But has it ever occurred to you that they didn’t let you down for bathroom breaks? The cross would have been covered with blood and sweat, yes, but also with urine and feces. More humiliation. And it’s not like this was carried out in some remote place where no one would see it. It happened right outside the walls of Jerusalem, outside the most commonly used city gate, where there would be plenty of traffic. That was deliberate. And consider that his mother, and other women who loved and followed him, were also watching.

But even with all of that, there’s a level of suffering here that we can’t really even access. Jesus took all the evil of humankind on himself—all the viciousness and brutality, all of the weakness and cowardice and stupidity of which humans are capable, and all of the suffering we experience because of it, into his own body, and into his own heart. Now, if your inner pedant is thinking, as mine has, that after all he didn’t experience every evil—he was never betrayed by a spouse, never lost a child to gun violence, never knew what it was to feel guilty, I have a theory about that, too. I don’t know if this would hold up in a heresy trial, but hear me out.

In his divinity, Jesus was infinite, and because of that, through his humanity, he was able to enter infinitely into the human experience. In other words, in his humanity, Jesus was able not only to be one human, but in a certain sense, particularly at this climactic moment of his earthly life, to be one with all humans.

So I think that on the cross, Jesus experienced all of human suffering. God gave us free will so that we might choose love, but as we all know, we often don’t. So Jesus knew, personally, what the consequences of our unloving choices would be: he knew your being bullied in school, and your remorse over a broken relationship, from the inside. He knew personally the suffering of every single refugee, as well as the moral dilemma of every soldier carrying out orders that are manifestly wrong. He knew the agony of human suffering—he knew all the misery that comes from the freedom God has allowed us to hurt one another—he knew it all from within. Why else would he say in Matthew 25 that “if you’ve done it to the least of these my siblings, you’ve done it to me”?

Jesus took in the body-blows, but he also took the heart- and spirit-blows into his own self, and somehow, in some mysterious way that only infinite love and power could do, he overcame them. And in overcoming them, he made a way for each of us to cross over out of whatever hell others have made for us, and every hell we have made for ourselves.

Listen, I’m a theological peasant. There’s so much I don’t understand. But I know this much: I know that Love made me, knowing full well all of the nasty, cowardly, ego-driven and stupid things I would do. Love gave me the freedom to do them, so that I could return that love freely, and not under compulsion. And then Love found me, and redeemed me. I don’t know exactly how. But I do know this: somehow, the Cross was the price of that redemption. And Love considered it to be a good deal.

Love did this for every single one of us: for you, for me, for my greatest heroes, and for those I think most contemptible. Because Love figured it was worth it. Thanks be to God, as Paul says, for this unspeakable gift.