Alternately on Palm Sundays we listen to the passion of Jesus according to the synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But every Good Friday we listen to John’s account of our Lord’s last 24 hours which begins with the Last Supper and ends with Jesus’ body placed in his tomb. With exquisite detail in his narrative, I read John’s account as deeply mindful that this is Jesus’ unique story – and that he writes it for us so that we can experience our Lord’s sacrifice both viscerally and intellectually. So this is emphatically not the time to think or speak of the benefits of his death – of his resurrection and ascension. That can come later. For now our entire focus is to be on him, pain-wracked and suffering the agony of his cross.
Consider this: if we listen intently to all the fabricated lies and two-faced betrayals con-trived by his friends as well as his enemies – an ear cut off, Jesus himself mercilessly flogged and mocked and sentenced to die in an ersatz trial, and having nails driven through his hands and feet before being hanged on a cross and a spear piercing his side – doesn’t that make us sad and sor-rowful – and even angry? I am – and I think it’s good and right to be heartbroken and grief – and deeply stricken when we are asked to retrace the hard truths of our Lord’s suffering and death. Here is someone we love and worship enduring an agonizing dying – just as his enemies want it to be – but we want it to stop. In our eyes this is more than cruel and unusual punishment – and enough is enough! I was so besieged by all this on Good Friday a year ago that I found myself trying to visualize what I was hearing – so I began to wonder, as maybe you have – what did these people look like? What did that sanctimonious high priest who charged Jesus with blasphemy look like? Or Judas – or the cowering and week-kneed Pilate? Or Jesus, weak and bloodied from having been severely beaten before being sentenced to die? And Barabbas: were sedition and murder comparable to the high crime of being called King of the Jews and what did he look like? I suppose it’s ‘only human’ to imagine answers to those questions. Meanwhile, for good or ill, there are thousands of drawings and paintings that portray Jesus’ trial and execution – and tens of thousands of portraits of Jesus – that hang in churches throughout the world. Some of them depict Jesus’ pain and others show him with a beatific appearance. From what I’ve seen in US churches, Warner Sallman’s ‘Head of Christ’ is probably the most popular. Seeing it you’d think Jesus was tall, blond, and Anglo-Saxon. But Sherry Dixon is a prolific African-American artists whose religious paintings decorate many churches and homes – and her subjects are always black. Early Christian art depicts Jesus as short and stubby – with dark hair and a dark complex-ion. Maybe he looked like a modern-day Palestinian or Jew. Is there any chance he looked like us – because, can he really be important if he didn’t look like us?
What I’ve learned is that most of the portraits of Jesus I’ve seen reflect the ethnicity of the artist – and while that may be perfectly natural, it’s finally not very helpful in knowing what Jesus may really have looked like. But recently there were breathless reports that scientists are digging into history and studying ancient skeletons in an effort to find a credible likeness of Je-sus. Nobody is claiming that these investigations will yield a exact image of him – but these sci-entists and their supporters hope to produce a face that is typical of a man in his time and place. Meanwhile, Shroud of Turin advocates are declaring that carbon dating and similar techniques now offer a 3-dimensional image of Jesus that they say is definitive of his appearance. In fact, I have one of the 3-D postcards they distribute. On its back is this inscription: “Face of Jesus on the Shroud of Turin formed at the moment of Resurrection by radiation coming from the dema-terialized body”. Wow! “…formed at the moment of Resurrection by radiation coming from the dematerialized body.” Think of that! Wow again!
I suppose that if you’re desperately curious to know what Jesus really may have looked like, you will resort to techniques like that. But I remain agnostic – mainly because the Bible and other ancient literature are no help at all at picturing Jesus. I think that’s because the Bible has little or no interest in describing the physical characteristics of Jesus. We have no skin and bones descriptions of him – as well as for most of the important figures in the Bible. What we’re given instead are moral portraits – character descriptions – images of women and men who are describ-ed by their actions, their words, the decisions they make. So I was seriously mistaken to wonder what material and physical characteristics defined the appearance of Jesus and others in John’s story because that’s a vain and futile exercise. Actually it’s an exercise of looking for the wrong thing for the wrong reason.
Instead of photographs, on Good Friday the four gospels offer us a portrait of Jesus in se-ven words from his cross. Four of them are by synoptic authors. “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani – my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” appears in both Matthew and Mark (27: 46, 59 and (15:34, 37); then Luke adds “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing”, “Tru-ly, I tell you: today you will be with me in Paradise”, and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (23:34, 43, 46). And finally, in John’s account, Jesus speaks three times – each one a short, simple, declaratory sentence uttered by this One who is suffering the agony of having been nailed to a cross after all the traumatizing events that preceded to his crucifixion – hanging there in excruciating pain and with tremendous strain, physiologists tell us, exerted on his heart and lungs – and steadily losing blood.
His first word is addressed to two people standing beneath him. The prophecy from his infancy has finally come true: a sword of grief has pierced the heart of his mother, Mary – and there is no need for her to remain at the foot of his cross and witness further the agony of her Son. So he commends her to the care of his close friend, saying “Woman, here is your son”. And then to his young disciple he adds “Here is your mother”. This first word – that just may be incomprehensible for us – shows concern and caring not for himself but for his mother and his friend. “Woman, here is your son. John, is your mother. And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”
The next time he speaks he appears to address no one in particular when he says “I’m thirsty” – two words that evoke a reference to Ps. 22: “When I was thirsty, they gave me vinegar to drink”. I suspect that both John and Jesus knew that psalm – and I’d imagine that when John wrote his gospel he may have recalled the time when Jesus had prayed that the cup of suffering might pass from him – and added, but ‘not my will, but thine be done’. Strangely enough, this is the only time in all four gospels that Jesus speaks from the cross about his own physical suffering – of his parched lips and dry mouth. John says one of the soldiers soaked a sponge in sour wine – sharp and bitter and acidic – put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus.
And then, having received the bad wine, Jesus speaks from the cross for the third and fi-nal time when he says “It is finished”. But it’s not just his metabolizing life that is finished. I think in saying “it is finished’ he signifies something much more important – namely, that the goal, the purpose of his life is accomplished and he has fulfilled all that the Father had sent him into the world to do. That’s now completed – the work of a lifetime, the salvation of the world, is accomplished – ancient prophecies have been fulfilled – the power of sin has been broken. “It is finished.”
So when we listen to the story of our Lord’s passion, we may think it interesting to have a physical portrait of Jesus – maybe based on skeletons from his time and place, or the Shroud of Turin. But these are much less desirable and serviceable visions for us than the moral portrait that’s offered to us by John in these final words from his cross: “Woman, here is your son – John, here is your mother” – “I thirst” – “It is finished ”. I think the paradox is exquisite. Similar feel-ings have certainly been evoked in me, and probably in you as well, when long-term sickness or disease has ravaged my family or friends – their life’s work has been finished – and their protract-ed dying is only being deferred, postponed by unhelpful but seemingly endless medical interven-tions. And when these are not helpful, we say “Enough – let’s get on with it” – knowing full well that death will bring us a mixed blessing of both profound grief and sincere relief.
This is surely the saddest of all days for us because it commemorates the tragic events that occurred when our Lord Jesus died for us. But we call today Good Friday because, as the precursor to Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Day, it keeps alive for us what we believe to be the absolutely decisive turning point of all creation. So while it may be difficult to say, today is paradoxically a radiant and blessed day for us because God has made Jesus’ barbaric death the means of our salvation and of our eternal life in his blessed company. Jesus’ cross has become the symbol of his victory over sin and death – and in lieu of pictures we display it proudly as the sign of our eternal salvation.
It’s not in our hymnals, but many of us know an old hymn named “Beneath the Cross of Jesus”. And because we don’t sing on Good Friday, let me remind you of some its words.
“Beneath the cross of Jesus, I fain would take my stand, the shadow of a mighty rock
within a weary land.
A home within the wilderness, a rest upon the way – from the burning of the noontide
heat, and the burden of the day.
“Upon the cross of Jesus mine eye at times can see the very dying form of One who
suffered there for me; and from my stricken heart with tears two wonders I confess:
the wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.
“I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place. I ask no other sunshine than the
sunshine of his face. ”
Sisters and brothers, we are an Easter people who live in a Good Friday world, and that’s our true place – beneath the cross of Jesus. There we can absorb the stigma of its folly – embrace its disgrace – welcome its curse – and have ourselves prepared to emerge from the darkness of this Good Friday into the brilliant light and great joy of Easter. So be it. Deo gratias. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.