Good Friday and the Victorious Christ
We are used to thinking of Good Friday as a day of solemnity, even of grief, as we ponder the sacrifice Jesus makes for us with his death on the cross.
But have you ever thought of it as a day for celebration? If you take care in reading John’s Gospel – the Passion narrative appointed for Good Friday (the Synoptic accounts are read on Palm/Passion Sunday) – you’ll realize quickly that celebration is probably more the mood John invites then solemn grief. Because, according to John, Jesus’ death is no tragic accident but rather the culmination of Jesus’ earthly mission to rescue a fallen humanity from the power of sin, death, and a world captive to evil and draw them to God’s abundant life. Jesus, in other words, goes to the cross not just willingly but eagerly, for the cross is actually his throne, the place where he will be lifted up and from which he will draw all persons to himself (Jn. 12:32).
There are two places where John’s description of Jesus’ triumph through the cross comes to fullest expression. The first is the scene in the garden on the night of his betrayal. I won’t say “Garden of Gethsemane” because John identified it only as a garden. It’s Mark and Matthew who name the place Gethsemane but do not describe as a garden (and Luke only calls it the Mount of Olives). For John, it is a garden, reminiscent of that earlier garden in Eden in order to contrast Jesus’ steadfastness with Adam’s failure.
In the descriptions of this scene provided by the other evangelists, there is always a moment of agonizing self-doubt when Jesus asks, even begs, his heavenly Father to remove from him this cup of suffering and then comes through this moment of grievous testing and doubt by affirming, “not my will, but yours, be done” (Mk. 14:36, Mt.26:39, Lk. 22:42). There is no such moment of trial in John. Quite the opposite, when the Roman cohort (as in 600 soliders!) come to arrest Jesus and Peter tries to defend him by attacking one with his sword, Jesus orders him to put away his weapon and asks, “Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given me?” (Jn. 18:11). In other words, “Bring it on!”- this is the mission for which Jesus was born.
The second scene, this one from the crucifixion, follows suit. For Jesus utters no cry of despair from the cross in John but instead fulfills prophecy, gives orders to his followers, and finally dies saying, “It is finished.” But our English translation is, frankly, a rather limp, even lame translation of the Greek word tetelestai which has more of the force of “all is concluded” or “it is completed” or “it has been paid in full” or, perhaps most fully, “it has been accomplished.” On the cross, that is, Jesus is saying – nay, shouting – “Mission accomplished!” All that he had been sent to do he had completed successfully.
Few capture John’s sense of victory at the cross better than Johann Sebastian Bach, where those words , “Es ist vollbracht” (from Luther’s translation of the Bible) are the spiritual and dramatic highpoint of the piece. Bach has the soloist begin in low and somber tones matching the mood we expect, but then rise and rise until there we reach the crescendo and hear Jesus’ words as a victory shout from God’s appointed champion.
But lest we imagine that John’s characterization lends credence to the belief that violence is redemptive, it’s vital to keep in mind that Jesus actually eschews violence – commanding Peter to put away his sword – and instead achieves victory through his own vulnerability. For Jesus is, in John, the Good Shepherd, the one gives his life for his sheep (Jn. 10:17), who triumphs through the greatest of loves (15:13), and who gives his life for the world God loves so much (Jn. 3:16).
This is why we call this day on which we remember the cruel death of an innocent “Good Friday,” for on it we remember that vulnerability is more powerful than violence, forgiveness more powerful than justice, love more powerful than hate, and life more powerful than death, as we witness Jesus’ peculiar, unexpected, but oh so ultimate victory in and through the cross.
I’ve put below two videos for Bach (or John) fans. The first is Marian Anderson’s soulful, powerful rendition of the “Es Ist Vollbracht” aria and the second is the English Baroque Soloists & Monteverdi Choir’s rendition of the whole of the Bach’s Johannes Passion.
Notes: 1) If you have received this post by email, you may have to click on the title at the top of the post in order to watch the videos.
2) If you want to learn more about Bach’s St. John Passion, you can find a short and accessible exploration here, complete with a more recent recording of it.