The story of Good Friday — the garden, the bloody sweat, the sleeping friends, the torch-carrying crowd, the kiss, the slash of a sword, the questioning, the scourging, the mocking, the beam, the nails, the despair of a good man — is an invitation to cynicism. Nearly every human institution is revealed at its worst.
Government certainly comes off poorly, giving Jesus the bureaucratic shuffle, until a weak leader gives in to the crowd in the name of keeping the peace. “What is truth?” asks Pilate, with a sneer typical of politics to this day.
Professional men of religion do not appear in their best light. They are violently sectarian, judgmental and turn to the state to enforce their beliefs.
The crowd does not acquit itself well, turning hostile and cruel, first putting palms beneath his feet, then thorns upon his brow.
Even friendship comes in for a beating. The men closest to Jesus slept while his enemies are fully awake. There is betrayal by a close, disgruntled associate. And then Peter’s spastic violence and cowardly denials.
And, for a moment, even God seems to fail, vanishing into a shocking silence. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” says Jesus, in words that many of his followers would want to erase from the Bible. How could the son of God be subject to despair?
Consider how the world appeared at the finish of Good Friday. It would have seemed that every source of order, justice and comfort had been discredited. It was the cynic’s finest hour. And God himself seemed absent or unmoved, turning cynicism toward nihilism.
Then something happened. There was disagreement at the time, as now, on what that something was. According to the story, Pilate posted a guard at the tomb with the instruction: “Make it as secure as you can.” Then the cynics somehow lost control of the narrative. There was an empty tomb and wild reports of angels and ghosts. And the claim of resurrection.
Even those who believe the body was moved must confront certain facts. Faith in the figure Rome executed has far outlasted the Roman Empire. The cowardly friends became bold missionaries, most dying torturous deaths (according to tradition) for the sake of a figure they had once betrayed in their sleep. The faith thus founded has given the mob the hope of pardon and peace.
For believers, the story of Good Friday and Easter legitimizes both despair and faith. We grow tired of our own company and travel a descending path of depression. We experience lonely pain, unearned suffering or stinging injustice. We are rejected or betrayed by a friend. And then there are the unspeakable things — the death of a child, the diagnosis of an aggressive cancer, the steady advance of a disease that will take our minds and dignity. And given the example of Christ, we are permitted to feel God-forsaken.
And yet … eventually … or so we trust … or so we try to trust: God is forever on the side of life. God is forever on the side of hope.
If the resurrection is real, death’s hold is broken. It is possible to live lightly, even in the face of death — not by becoming hard and strong, but through a confident perseverance. Because cynicism is the failure of patience. Because Good Friday does not have the final word.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.