Every Friday in Morning Prayer, the Collect for the day was written by William Reed Huntington, an Episcopal priest who died in 1909.
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.
Especially on Good Friday, we are ever mindful of walking in the way of the cross, and we likely focus on the suffering, pain, and crucifixion more so than the joy and glory to come. It’s hard to see the way of the cross this day as the way of life and peace.
I want to wish that Christ didn’t have to suffer and die, but in our human experiences, this is our way. All that we know comes from learning the hard way, unless we’re one of the few who actually heed the advice of others who have learned on their own the “hard knocks” of life. All the hardships I’ve gone through and the suffering I’ve known give me some of my greatest lessons, shaping who I am by how I shape myself in response to these adversities. At our best even when we’ve gone through the worst, our suffering humbles us to reach out for help, to strengthen our network of support. When we feel weak is when we’re most likely to call on divine intervention, maybe like the psalmist to cry out why God has forsaken us and maybe also in our cry for help to call out praise for the only one who fully knows our hearts, the one to whom we’ve been entrusted since before we were born and has been with us ever since. And in our humility, we’re more likely to show compassion for others in their times of trial. If we haven’t been through what they’re going through, we know there’s nothing that exempts us from such suffering. It could easily be us brought to our knees, crying out for help, begging with outstretched hand, weeping silently in the night. We know the sufferings we’ve endured. So does God.
Of my time in Israel last spring, there were two places that spoke to me most deeply: Magdala and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City, downtown Jerusalem. Because tourism is a major industry in Israel, there are many efforts to preserve ancient history and prevent building contemporary structures. But over 2,000 years, much has been built, shrines built even over a thousand years ago draw many pilgrims and lay claim to ancient stories. Our tour guide pointed out to me one such stone around which a few pilgrims were listening intently to their guide. Father Kamal advised me how important it is to know the scripture and the scholarship so as not to be fooled. He needn’t worry; I’m naturally a skeptic when people claim something is “real.”
But the walls in the Old City drew me in. We went through the building surrounding the sepulchre, scrutinized a crack in one of the 1st century stonesin the wall that could affirm a quake of some sort, and made our way to the entrance of the sepulchre. It’s a stone stairway that curves upward alongside a wall. You have to crouch or bow a bit to make it through the low and narrow entry and continue to ascend the small stone steps. Like many places we visited, I again felt like we were cattle being corralled and pushed through to arrive at a place.
It’s a darkened place, illuminated by light and many candles, filled with incense and the smell of crowded bodies–at least when we were there. Honestly, I felt it was cluttered, crammed with all the things of devotion. It was so much to take in when we were being ushered along by those anxious pilgrims behind us.
Reflecting on it now, I don’t think I’ve ever had the experience before of being someplace and knowing that all the stuff didn’t matter. The place itself was holy. We came to see the place of the Skull, Golgotha, where Jesus had been crucified. We came to see how our ancestors had built around it to mark this sacred place and preserve it.
Being there, it wasn’t what I saw but what I felt. Stepping closer to the place where others bowed and kissed the ground, my chest constricted, my capacity to breathe felt blocked. I could barely speak. I grabbed the arm of a friend as an anchor, unsure of where this feeling was taking me. I remember him asking if I wanted to move closer, and I remember shaking my head, heart full and tight at the same time and saying, “This is it; this is the place.” I remember thinking, this stuff isn’t what I’m here to see.
I’m here to feel the presence of Christ in his suffering. I’m here to feel the presence of his mother and disciples and friends who witnessed his crucifixion. I’m here to know that all my suffering for love and against God’s love are known, even as my heart is fully known. And I couldn’t stay in that place. It was so crowded, and people were pushing in. I still felt like I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t stand the feeling of suffering. It was too much.
But I wanted to go back. I still want to go back because I wasn’t able to while we were there. Because I wonder if it was the suffering I couldn’t stand or the incredible love shown, the kind of heart-breaking love that is so broken open that it draws everything and everyone into its embrace. God laid claim on my heart, and I wanted to turn away. I realize, though, that it’s that knowing that I yearn for, that nothing else comes close to fulfilling. On the other side of that suffering is joy. On the other side of the crucifixion is glory. The way of the cross leads to eternal life because the way of the cross is the way of Jesus is the way of love. That love may hurt us and break us, but if we are truly following that way of love, we have nothing to fear and everything to gain.