It has frequently been said that Good Friday is meaningless without Easter Sunday. Certainly this statement is true for, as St. Paul explains, if Christ has not risen, our faith is in vain (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:14). We must not overlook the fact, however, that Easter Sunday is not possible without Good Friday. As much as we dislike the notion, we must look intently at the face of Him who underwent abject, unjust suffering. The Christ of Good Friday challenges us to willingly accept suffering in love to attain the freedom and join of the Risen Christ of Easter.
Bearing the Sins of Others
We all suffer because of other people’s sins and failings. Sometimes this suffering is quite obvious: an abusive spouse, victims of rape or violence. Most of the time though, we suffer in small ways because of other’s sins. Perhaps a friend betrayed your confidence or said something in haste that hurt you. It might even be something as small as getting cut off in traffic because the other driver was texting.
We can all probably think of some wound we bear from our past, wounds that occurred through no fault of our own. There is nothing we can really do about these wounds of the past. It is easy to grumble or even be angry about it. In some sense, that gut reaction has some truth to it. There is something unjust about essentially being punished for someone else’s wrongdoing.
I recall taking to prayer a wound from my past. Even though I had forgiven this person, I was still angry because it was impacting my exterior life many years later. I told Jesus, “This isn’t fair! It’s not my fault that this incident happened to me. Yet, here am I being hurt by it still. Why should I have to bear the burden of this other person’s failings?”
Then it hit me: that’s exactly what Christ did. He who was perfect and sinless suffered excruciating pain, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, because of my sinfulness and faults. When I reflect on the sufferings I experience because of others’ faults, I can come to understand, in some small way, what Christ endured on Good Friday.
The Suffering Servant
We hear in the first reading for Good Friday that “it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured…He was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins.” (Isaiah 53:4, 5) Isaiah’s words highlight the reality that the agony, passion, and death that Christ endured was rightfully ours. Though perfect and purely faultless, Jesus bore our sufferings. His sufferings on the cross were not an impersonal historical event; rather, they are intensely personal to every person who has lived and will ever live.
The idea of Christ suffering because of our sins is highlighted in the Improperia for the Good Friday liturgy. The Improperia, also known as the Reproaches, is a series of antiphons and responses between Christ and His people. It begins: “My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!” It then goes on to recall the salvific acts of God during the exodus compared to the treatment given to Christ in his passion and death. For example, one antiphon says, “I opened the sea before you, but you opened my side with a spear.” On one hand, God’s loving concern for us is manifest in bringing forth the miraculous actions. On the other hand, mankind’s spurning of God is shown in the horrific treatment of Jesus.
Good Friday calls us to embrace those pains we face because of another’s failings for that is what Christ has done for us. As Christ suffered for our sins, we too are called to do the same.
That reality is hard to truly comprehend. Our interior passions often want to run away from suffering whenever we can. Even images of suffering make us want to advert our eyes. When we have been hurt by another, we want to get even with the person who offended us, or, at the very least, to make our grievance loud and clear.
Even if we manage to keep silent about our suffering, it is often through gritted teeth. We avoid complaining only because we know it will only make things worse or we would feel guilty if we complained. Reluctantly, then, we put up with suffering simply because we have no alternative.
Christ gives us a different example. He, who could calm the storms, could have easily grabbed whips scourging him, yet, Christ did not. The very hands which raised Lazarus from the dead chose to remain nailed to the hard wood of the cross. Those passing by along with the chief priests, scribes, and elders mocked Him, daring Him to come down from the cross. (cf. Matthew 27:39-42)
But Christ didn’t come down from the cross for He said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” (John 12:32) In embracing suffering and death, Christ dies the death for each and every person. As He is emptied of blood and water, Christ draws all humanity into Himself.
Following the Example of Christ
It is one thing to comprehend intellectually the agony which Christ underwent on Good Friday for love of each of us. It is a much more difficult thing to allow that reality to penetrate our hearts. Doing so forces us to confront the fact that God really desires union with us so much that even our sins against Him and against our neighbor cannot stop the tidal wave of His love.
If we begin to appreciate this even fractionally, we are compelled to imitate Christ in embracing suffering to draw more souls to Him. In her diary, St. Faustina writes, “I saw the Lord Jesus nailed upon the cross amidst great torments. A soft moan issued from His heart. After some time He said “I thirst. I thirst for the salvation of souls. Help Me, My daughter, to save souls. Join your sufferings to My Passion and offer them to the heavenly Father for sinners.” (Entry 1032) Christ invites us to share in some small way in His redemptive work via our suffering.
The notion of redemptive suffering may bring to mind someone saying, “Offer it up.” Blindly “offering up” one’s suffering is difficult. The pain is still there; nothing seems to have changed. The phrase, practically speaking, is not particularly instructive or useful.
Love Impels Us
It is easier to think of “offering it up” as being willing to undergo something unpleasant out of love for someone else. A husband is willing to pick up groceries when his wife is ill even if he detests shopping because he loves her. Parents are willing to read their child the same story repeatedly, not because parents derive pleasure from doing so but because they love their child. It is love of another that propels us to do the difficult things.
This is also true on a supernatural level. If I truly love another, I should be willing to suffer for their good. The ultimate good is eternal life. So when someone speaks sharply to me without reason or I am misunderstood, I can join those little sufferings with Christ for the salvation of someone I love. These little acts of prayer can help draw those we love closer to the Lord.
Love has the power to transform suffering from something that stifles our souls to something that brings life. When we resent suffering, it becomes a point of fear and anxiety. It causes us to gloss over the Christ of Good Friday. When we willingly accept suffering as an act of love, it is freeing. It allows us to unite with the Christ of Good Friday and so to partake in the joy of Easter morning.