Holy Week Reflections: Good Friday
Dr. Hulitt Gloer
Today we watch and we wait. Following the longest night, this will be the longest day. Will you reflect with me on the events of this Good Friday?
Late Thursday night, Jesus was arrested and taken to the home of the High Priest where all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes had gathered. Unable to make a case against Jesus based on witness testimony, the High Priest asks him directly, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One (that is, the Son of God)? Jesus answers immediately, “I AM” and we remember that when God met Moses in the burning bush God revealed God’s name to him as “I AM” (Exodus 3:14). Because of Jesus’ identification of himself as the “I AM,” he is charged with blasphemy and condemned to death.
While all of this is going on inside the High Priest’s house, Peter is outside in the courtyard. Notice that Mark has given us another story within a story. While Jesus is inside being faithful to his identity, Peter is on the outside denying his identity as a follower of Jesus! And I want to say, “How could he do it? This is but a few hours after his bold commitment to die with Jesus rather than deny him. (Mark 14:31). How could he do it?” And then I remember my own unfulfilled commitments. I remember that denying Jesus need not be verbal. I have denied Jesus by my silence. I have denied him by things I have done and things I have not done. How many are the times I have been Peter to my Jesus? How about you?
At dawn, the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes bind Jesus and “hand him over” to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea and thus, the presence of Caesar. In this encounter, the conflict between the Kingdom of Caesar and the Kingdom of Jesus comes to a head. This is emblematic of the continuing conflict between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God. Though many charges are made against Jesus, Pilate is only concerned with one. He asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Such a claim would be a direct challenge to Caesar. It would be treason. Jesus responds with an indirect affirmation, “You say so.” Those are the last words Jesus utters until he’s on the cross.
Though Pilate offers to release Jesus, “the king of the Jews,” the chief priests “encourage” the crowds to ask for Barabbas instead. This is a shrewd move on the priests’ part because Barabbas had been imprisoned for committing murder “during the insurrection.” In other words, Barabbas was a revolutionary who had actually done something toward their deliverance, while Jesus had done nothing. Stirred up by chief priests, the crowd chose Barabbas. Jesus was flogged and handed over to the soldiers for crucifixion, a brutal form of punishment reserved for those inciting and/or participating in insurrections against the empire. Pilate always refers to Jesus as “the King of the Jews.” How ironic!
The soldiers took Jesus and played “The Game of the King.” Mark describes it exactly; a “royal purple cloak, a crown of thorns, mocking salutes (“Hail, King of the Jews!”) while kneeling before him, striking him with sticks, and spitting on him. For the soldiers, it was a form of release from a morbid duty however, more than humiliating for the victim.
Having now been flogged, beaten with sticks, and crowned with thorns, Jesus must carry the instrument of crucifixion to the place of execution, a place called Golgotha – the place of a skull. No doubt there were many skulls there since the practice was to leave the body on the cross until scavenging birds and animals had destroyed it. Golgotha was a very public place at the crossroad of major thoroughfares so as many people as possible would see. The cross was like a billboard saying, “Don’t mess with Rome.”
Perhaps his physical state demanded it or perhaps out of sheer pity, the soldiers commandeered a passerby to carry his cross. Simon of Cyrene did what we are all called to do, take up the cross and follow Jesus. As such, he becomes a visible symbol of what a follower of Jesus is supposed to do: deny self, take up the cross, and follow Jesus.
Everything that has happened so far has happened between dawn (6 am) and 9 am. “It was 9 o’clock in the morning when they crucified him” (Mark15:25). They had offered him wine mixed with myrrh, a kind of narcotic to “ease” the excruciating pain, but he refused it. They gambled to see who got his clothing. They nailed a small placard above his head on which the charge had been inscribed. It read, “The King of the Jews,” and announced to all passers-by that this is what Rome does to “wanna-be” kings.
From 9 am to noon, the air was filled with mockery. After all, it was obvious that Jesus was a failed messiah. The taunts are not surprising. “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days (a “false” charge from his Jewish trial), save yourself!” From the chief priests and the scribes,” Let the Messiah, the King of the Jews, come down from the cross now so that we may see and believe.”
From noon to 3 pm, darkness “came over the whole land.” Deep darkness. Maybe like the darkness before the creation (Genesis 1: 2).
At 3 o’clock. The darkness was shattered by a piercing cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is the first line of Psalm 22. It was not uncommon for a teacher to quote the first line of a text and expect the listener to fill in the rest of the text. Is that what Jesus intended? If so, this Psalm begins with desolation, moves to consolation, and ends with celebration. What do you think?
Finally, Jesus gave “a loud cry and breathed his last.” The “curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” This curtain separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was the most sacred space in the Temple and was believed to be the place of God’s presence. Only the High Priest could enter it and then only one day a year, the Day of Atonement. The tearing of the curtain (the same word is used at Jesus’ baptism of rending the heavens) indicates that God’s presence is now open for all. What do you think “from top to bottom” infers?
When the Roman centurion, one of Jesus’ executioners, “saw that in this way he breathed his last,” he said, “Truly this man was God’s son!” He is the first human being in Mark to make this confession and he does this after watching Jesus die. This is the coup de gras for Mark. He began his gospel by setting Jesus against Caesar by attributing Caesar’s titles to Jesus, thereby requiring a decision for all his readers: the Kingdom of Caesar or the Kingdom of Jesus. Now at the end of the gospel, the centurion, a representative of Caesar’s empire who has sworn allegiance to Caesar, announces that Jesus, not Caesar, is the son of God!
While none of the Twelve are at the cross, a group of women are there. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Younger and Joses and Salome and many other women had followed Jesus throughout Galilee and from Galilee to Jerusalem and to the cross. While the twelve are nowhere to be found, these women are there. For Mark, these are the true disciples and the models for us to follow. These women were faithful to the end.
This long day ends with another model of faithfulness. Joseph of Arimethea, “a respected member of the council, who was himself waiting expectantly for the Kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” This was an incredible risk. Jesus had just been executed as an insurrectionist, so to identify with him could be life threatening. Still Joseph assumes the most important role for a disciple—to care for the master’s body in death. Joseph buries Jesus and seals the tomb. Two of the women are watching. These three alone knew the location of the tomb. That information will become crucial come Sunday.
As Friday ends, Jesus is dead. The dream of the coming of the kingdom has ended in a nightmare.
**photo credit: Linda Witte Henke, “Wondrous Love” 2015 75 cm x 50 cm x 3.75 cm, stretched canvas print