The front page of this past Saturday’s Inquirer (that’s the Philadelphia daily newspaper, not to be confused with the notorious purveyor of fake news and “alternative facts”, the National Enquirer), featured a color photo of the bloodied face of a bearded young man carrying a large wooden cross. The young man, compete with a crown of thorns, was a Mexican immigrant portraying Jesus in a live re-enactment of the Good Friday passion in Bensalem, PA the previous evening.
I thought it significant that the great majority of the 300 or so who followed Jesus’ progress along the Via Dolorosa were also immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Ecuador – many of them, according to the accompanying article, undocumented. They came into the open to witness the re-enactment, in spite of President Trump’s vows to crack down on illegal immigrants.
It’s not at all surprising that in the current political climate in the United States, immigrant communities, like the one in Bensalem, is under duress. Many, especially children and youth, are fearful for their future, or that of their parents, even if they are in the United States legally.
It makes eminent sense to me, therefore, that such painfully realistic re-enactments of Jesus’ suffering and death have a particular appeal for immigrants, especially ones who have fled from oppression or violence in their native country, and now may be made to feel unwelcome and unwanted by many in their adopted country.
German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was sentenced to prison by the Nazis during the Second World War. In his Letters and Papers from Prison, he wrote that “God helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” As the bewildered, often guilty German people were trying to make sense of the rubble of defeat as the war was coming to a close, Bonhoeffer said, “only the suffering God can help.”
As my pastor was doling out reading parts for Holy Week and Easter services last week, she assigned readings from Good Friday to me. Because she and I had discussed earlier my positive feelings about Good Friday, she added with a smile, “It’s your favorite service, anyway.”
She’s right. In the rather earnest Lutheran piety in which I was raised in northern Finland, Good Friday was the liturgical pinnacle of the church year. One got the impression, in fact, that Easter was merely a necessary add-on to make us conform to the rest of Christendom. But Good Friday was where it was at.
A little historical background about my native country might help explain. For most of its post ice-age history, Finland has been a land of oppression, suffering and poverty. For five centuries, the Swedes lorded over the Finns, and after 1809, it was the czarist Russians. Even after independence in 1917, the country was racked by a bitter and bloody civil war. In 1939-40, and again in 1941-1944, the Finns fought the invading Russians valiantly, but both times had to surrender and accept punitive terms for peace.
When my family and I left for Canada in 1955, before the ascent of Nokia, Kone and Marimekko, Finland was still a chronically poor agricultural economy.
So, it’s no wonder, it seems to me, that Jesus’ radical vulnerability and apparent defeat on Good Friday speak so profoundly to the Finnish psyche. Don’t misunderstand me: Finns celebrate Easter, too. But, Finns know that “only a suffering God helps” a people acquainted for much of its life with grief.
There is suffering in other places and among other peoples as well, of course. Boy soldiers in the Congo; girls abducted en masse by terrorists in Nigeria; mass starvation in South Sudan; refugees drowning in the Mediterranean while trying to flee a dictator who poisons his own people with sarin gas.
I am almost to the point some days where I am tempted to tune out the daily news – uncharacteristic for a newshound like me. The juvenile “mine is bigger” contest between North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump seems, at first blush, a matter to chuckle about until one realizes the unspeakable suffering and destruction if one or the other doesn’t blink, turn down the volume of the bellicose rhetoric, and walk away.
So, immigrant or not, documented or not, we live in a world where there is plenty to fear. Don’t we feel hopelessly vulnerable much of the time? In that kind of world, nothing short of God’s submitting his own heart to be broken will enable God to reach the terrified hearts of the people God loves. Only a God willing to be totally vulnerable in the person of Jesus on the cross will help.
Yes, my pastor had it right. I thoroughly enjoyed Easter service this past Sunday. The world surely needs the good news of life in the midst of death, of hope beyond despair. But the news of resurrection and victory would be infinitely less credible for me and have a less profound impact on me, if I were not convinced that the one who was raised on Sunday was first crushed on Friday.
That is why Good Friday remains at the top of my personal theological pinnacle.