John 18:1-19;42, Good Friday 2020
Growing up in Vigan, Ilocos Sur, Good Friday meant you wouldn’t hear blaring radios, people talking rowdily, and since this was in the seventies, no booming, muffler-less motorbikes. You could, however, if you tried hard enough, hear light footsteps that led you to the only place that mattered that day – the church at the center of the town. On this day, all walking led to the church where the liturgical celebrations on Good Friday were held.
First, there was the Siete Palabras (Seven Last Words), a set of seven homilies seven different priests delivered on each of the seven last words of Jesus on the cross. Their booming and dramatic voices filled the church. For a child, all this added to the mystery of the celebrations. There was also this giant of a crucifix in front of the sanctuary that was adorned with branches, twigs and leaves, and which on cue – “It is finished!”- lowered its head in surrender. For a child, and I guess, for many members of the congregation too, this was what the Good Friday celebration was all about. At the end of the seven last words, there would be a mad rush for the leaves that touched the wood of the cross. Why? I never bothered to ask. To this day, I don’t know why. I must have imagined some of the awe of the celebration, I know, because I was too short to see what was actually going on. But the whole atmosphere got to me. And it felt to me like I was there at our Lord’s crucifixion and death.
By the time the Good Friday liturgy ended, the darkness would be battling the light of day. The congregation, led by the celebrant, would prepare for the procession – the stations of the cross – that snaked through the narrow streets of the town. Carosas of varied sizes exited the church, led by the women who waited at the foot of the cross, then the different stations of the cross, until the Santo Entierro, the carosa carrying the dead body of Jesus, brought up the rear of the procession. As a child, I marveled at the life-like image of the dead Jesus. I would wait until it left the church, then walk home to watch the procession pass by from there. At home, every woman who was there would be wearing a veil and holding a rosary. Candles placed all over the place would be lit. It seemed that the whole town missed a heartbeat, more like its breath, while the procession wound through the town, afraid that the sound of a beating heart or the sound of breathing would ruin the solemnity of the event, an event that was wrapped in the mystery of the moment.
Then silence. All through the night, darkness and silence!
Today’s celebration of Good Friday has an uneasy silence about it, and the darkness is really the gloom of the coronavirus hanging over everyone’s mind and concern. We tend to experience Good Friday today, its meaning and effect on us, in the context of the pandemic we are going through. There are common features between today and our Lord’s day of crucifixion. Our Lord’s disciples and friends, confused and unnerved, dispersed into the night. Today, we are as confused, fearful and unnerved by the uncertainty of the times. The disciples wondered if Jesus would really rise from the dead like he kept reminding them during the happier times spent together; today, we wonder what life would be like when the veil hiding the future from us will be lifted. A new normal, for sure. But what kind of normal? And then we get even more anxious and distressed.
We can stretch our imagination a bit and try to align our Lord’s day of reckoning with our observance of Good Friday this year. We begin by asking just how Jesus could have failed to quell the anger of the leaders and their thirst for his blood. Pilate gives him some opening when he asks if He, Jesus, is really the King of the Jews. Jesus replies: “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Then Pilate muses, “What is the truth?”
The narrative of John about our Lord’s last days, if we may use one of today’s powerful expressions, is about “truth speaking to power.” When the soldiers, led by Judas, comes to arrest him, Jesus does not hide. He comes forward and asks whom they were looking for. When the soldiers say, “Jesus of Nazareth,” He does not deny it is he they’ve come to arrest. Perhaps He could’ve done that and, who knows, (like Peter, who eventually denied him and so escaped the crowd), he could have avoided arrest. But He clearly knew who He was and remained true to himself. When he is interrogated by the so-called high priest, Jesus says, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Jesus refuses to abdicate the truth; he refuses to play the world’s game of power struggle. He is scourged and mocked; but Jesus remains steadfastly allied with the truth of who He is and what He is here for.
“It is finished,” Jesus’ last words, then He hands over the spirit.
Today, we continue the struggle to stand up for the truth. “Alternative facts” and downright lies mock this struggle to be true to oneself and to the truthful. If we were just arguing about what the truth means and what it is, we would be engaged in something like a heated debate. But when we are looking at the face itself of deceit and lies, we either fight to the death (in a manner of speaking) or yield, retreat. But the latter would mean abandoning who we are. Worse, that would also mean abandoning what our Lord Jesus gave up his life for – truth.
Our Lord’s life is clearly about manifesting the truth of his mission. He wishes the cup were not his to drink, but he submits to the truth of his mission anyway. All this is clear to Him. Thomas asks him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answers him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14)
“Speaking truth to power.” In today’s world and understanding, this sounds like words of defiance, politically charged, and quite far from the truth our Lord fought for. “Keep religion out of politics,” or vice-versa, becomes the favored argument. But the truth our Lord fought for was the truth of who He is and his mission. In truth, he stood for the people He loves, their concerns and needs. He stood for truth: mercy, justice, healing, peace. All this must have been understood, albeit not too well, by his disciples. They continued to follow him, didn’t they? Their relationship to the truth of Jesus, dimmed by their expectations of a militant messiah, was not mirror clear, true. But when asked if they knew who He is, Peter said, “You are the messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16: 16) This is the truth!
It is this truth of our Lord Jesus Christ that we celebrate on Good Friday. It is truth speaking to power that our Lord instills in us by his suffering and death. If we abide by our Lord’s being true, I believe, we would also be true to ourselves and who we are. And being true to ourselves, being allied with truth would mean not being misled by misinformation and disinformation. That’s the strategy of the deceitful.
All this time we’ve been dealing with coronavirus, its beginnings, through the havoc it is causing, there are rumors and misinformation. In some instances, information, that could have guided and informed important decisions, is withheld. Finding it hard to believe that they are not in control, leaders dispense with unverified and inaccurate information people don’t know what to believe and who to trust for correct information anymore. This whole situation is the breeding ground of beliefs and ideas that are not quite faithful to what is: that young people are exempt from this killer virus, that the elderly are easier targets, that come hot and humid weather, the virus will not survive. All this has been shown to be untrue. There is lack of transparency. Questions that science could answer about the virus, this being its field of relevance, are ignored, too often willfully. Unverified and baseless information are spun, it seems, any which way unthinkingly and just to satisfy egos. All this creates more confusion and uncertainty. It is frustrating! Some leaders, who don’t as a habit appreciate the truth, offer contradictory messages, not mindful that these contradictions could be checked and cross-checked. All these blatant lies and contradictions are hurting, even killing, people.
Addressing a group of leaders on Thursday, April 9, former President Obama tells local leaders to – “Speak the truth. Speak it clearly. Speak it with compassion. Speak it with empathy for what folks are going through. The biggest mistake any [of] us can make in these situations is to misinform, particularly when we’re requiring people to make sacrifices and take actions that might not be their natural inclination….The more smart people you have around you, and the less embarrassed you are to ask questions, the better your response is going to be,” Obama said. (The Hill, April 9 2020)
TRUTH. This is what we celebrate this Good Friday. We celebrate our Lord who stood up for what is true and beautiful. Today, we also celebrate the truth of leaders who are decisive, transparent and who respect facts and so deserve our public trust. We celebrate the truth of leaders in our communities who continue to care for the poor, the helpless, those without jobs. We also celebrate the truth of doctors and medical practitioners who put the well-being of others before theirs, who prioritize what is right over power. We celebrate the truth of churches, pastors and ministers who continue to feed, clothe and protect their people. We celebrate the truth of those among us who respect and listen to the truth – and mindful that the truth could help us maneuver our way through this crisis.
Good Friday is about the suffering and death of our Lord. True. But it is more than that. It is also about why he died for us: surrendering his will to the Father’s will, He died for what is true – for the salvation of all – an act whose immensity and significance is quite beyond our natural understanding; so great, this act, that because we are unworthy, we are shamed just thinking about it. So, today, Good Friday, standing before the cross, let us honor our mission: to be like Jesus, to be what we are called to be, to be always true to ourselves. The cross is a call to our mission: to BE ever TRUE.