If you’re like me, you know what’s like to be driving down the highway and feel your right foot getting steadily heavier. You may not even be late for anything, but you look at the dash and see you’re traveling much faster than is wise. Life is like that. We’re told and we tell others that life is a journey, not a destination, but that doesn’t keep us from being in an awful hurry much of the time.
Until, that is, something stops us. We’re cruising along quickly and comfortably, among a hundred other cars, when we suddenly see dozens of pairs of brake lights shining from the backs of the vehicles in front of us. We are brought to a quick halt there on the very road we count on to usher us quickly and without interruption. Our smooth and speedy travel is replaced by slow and sporadic progress.
From the moment we realize that this transition is happening, we suspect we know the reason. There has been a crash. The longer we spend inching down the road, the surer we become. Because the highway we’re on is several lanes wide, we know that whatever is causing the traffic jam cannot possibly be blocking the entire road. When we finally reach the scene of twisted metal and smoke, and see the misshapen human form strapped to a gurney being loaded onto an ambulance, we know why traffic has been held up. It’s because every person ahead of us has done the very thing we ourselves are now doing: Stop and stare. The disassembly of a human life is arresting, isn’t it?
It’s horrifying, and it’s hard to look away.
Cynics will tell you that this is because people have a sick fascination with the suffering of others, that we get a kind of grizzly enjoyment out of knowing that something really bad is happening to somebody else. That may be part of the reason we dwell on scenes of death. But I suspect that something even heavier is also at play. As we drive by and stare, each of us knows in that deep place where knowledge doesn’t even need words… That could be me. That could be my blood on the windshield. The impatient words that person threw at spouse and children in a rush out the door could have been my last words. Next week my loved ones could be planting flowers near the road at the spot where I died.
The cross is a wreck. It is human life taken apart in travesty. We stop and look – we don’t want to, but we must. The Gospels tell us that Jesus didn’t have to take on this suffering, but he did take it on, because suffering is real, and God’s love is real. So the wreck of the cross stops us, we cannot speed past. The good news is, when our lives are taken apart, when we find ourselves mangled and bleeding, we know that God knows what it’s like, and will be there with us, from the dawn of our despair through its dusk.
That’s the good news, but it’s not all the news. As we survey the highway wreckage, our eyes soon find the police car 25 feet further up the road, parked next to a damaged but not crushed third vehicle. Lights flash on the top of the black and white sedan, above a solemn man seated with head bowed down in the back seat, and as we drive by, we stare at him, too.
With one look at his face, we know that the crash was not some tragic fluke. Its cause was not some momentarily blinding ray of sunshine, it was not a misfortunately located patch of gravel. From the look on this person’s face, we see the crash was his fault. Maybe he was inattentive and sloppy with his lane change. Maybe he had chosen to drive drunk. Maybe he had an unexpected burst of road rage. Even worse possibilities exist – maybe he knew and despised the person on the gurney, but didn’t fully know until now that his bitterness and spite really were instruments of death. We don’t know the details of the crash, but we know the explanation – he is to blame, and he knows it, too.
We think about this as we stare at him and say again, in that same deep place within us, that could be me. I, too, am senselessly destructive. I can take lives apart, too, with my actions, my haste, my indifference, my foolhardiness, my fear, my anger, my unfeeling, unthinking use of the power than is given to me.
The cross is a wreck. And it’s not the kind of wreck that just happens. It is an outcome of human sin. The same fears, the same resentment, the same preoccupied indifference, the same hatred, the same cruelty, the same delight in wrong, the same unfeeling, unthinking use of power that put Jesus on the cross exists in all of us.
Most of the time we spend traveling this highway, we go quickly on our way, unimpeded, with disaster off the mind. But on Good Friday, there is the wreck. We are stopped. We look, and we know the truth.
The Table is a Christian Church in Davenport, Iowa.
A community of transformation:
from greed toward generosity
from violence toward peacemaking
from isolation toward neighborliness
from fear toward faith
Good Friday Tenebrae Service
102 E. 2nd St. Davenport Iowa