Thursday, April 1, 2021

Serving a Suffering Savior

Every year while I was growing up, my church held a Tenebrae service on Good Friday. As we read and reflected on Jesus’ words on the cross, and sang such plaintive hymns as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”, “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted”, and “Were You There (When they crucified my LORD?)”, the lights in the church would gradually dim until after “It is finished”, the sanctuary would be dark and everyone would exit and wordlessly make their way to their cars. No post-service fellowship, no refreshments, no conversations with friends--just a silent twilight departure.

From a young age, this struck me as odd. Conditioned as we are as consumers and tellers of stories to wait for the happily-ever-after--to look for the glimmer of hope--a service that so conspicuously ended on a down-beat stood out.

Unlike Advent, the season of joyful expectation leading up to Christmas, Lent and especially Holy Week can feel more somber as we take time to think and sing specifically of Jesus’ suffering and death. Why do we do this? Isn’t the whole point to just get to Easter and the empty tomb? Wouldn’t it be best to press fast-forward and skip to the good part?

To answer these questions, we must first ask another question: what do we gain from dwelling on Jesus hanging on the cross? Or put another way, what kind of Savior is Jesus, if His death is indeed a necessary chapter of the story?

In reading Jesus’ words on the cross, in singing mournful minor-key hymns, in remembering His death, we are reminded that we serve a Savior who knows what it is to suffer.

And why is this important?

We need look no further than this past year. Even if you were fortunate enough not to have lost a loved one to COVID, to avoid serious illness, or to have kept your job, chances are you know somebody who was not so fortunate. And chances are, you experienced disruptions that distressed you: social isolation, struggling to work or study remotely, restrictions on gathering to worship, and many more. Perhaps you were already struggling with anxiety or depression, and the challenges of this past year felt at times like just one damn thing too many to bear. Perhaps you still struggle to see past the daily case and death counts, or disruptions to your daily life to the day when this, too, shall pass. Perhaps you are enduring what poets have called the “dark night of the soul”.

You see, we who live shackled by sin in a hurting, broken world--“groaning, as in the pains of childbirth”--know what it is to suffer. And what could Jesus’ resurrection possibly mean if He knew nothing of our suffering? Would it be the equivalent of a spiritual Hallmark card? Well-intentioned, but impersonal and cheap?

Instead: Jesus endured betrayal not only by the adoring throngs who had welcomed Him with palm branches mere days earlier, but by His closest friends. Jesus endured the humiliation of a sham public trial followed by the agony of a slow public execution. Then, Jesus endured what our sins warrant, but which we have never experienced ourselves: true separation from God.

When the earth shook and the curtain to the temple tore in two, the situation appeared to be hopeless. His disciples scattered and hid--it must have seemed like their world had crumbled around them.

Could they see past the grief of that day to the joy that was soon to come?

Can we see past our present suffering?

We know, of course, that two days later, the disciples' mourning would turn to rejoicing. In that sense, it is impossible to detach Good Friday from Easter.

Yet when we do remember Good Friday and reflect on Jesus’ suffering and death, we bring with us our own suffering, which may seem permanent, insurmountable. And as we read, sing, and meditate, we remember that Jesus in that moment took our sin and suffering onto Himself. Whatever you are enduring at the moment, joy will come in the morning. But for now, let us take comfort in the knowledge that we serve a Savior who knows--and bears--our suffering.

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