Ten years ago, I spent the third weekend in April traveling by myself. I was studying abroad, and I had decided that there was one more place I needed to see before coming back to America. I took one overnight train to Prague, and then another overnight train to Krakow, in Poland. I spent the early morning hours wandering around Krakow, trying my best to figure out signs in Polish, until I found first the bus station and then the bus that I wanted. It was a local bus, and it would take me to Auschwitz.
It was a short bus ride before I was dropped off at one of the two centers for visitors. I picked up a pamphlet and a map in English, then walked out into the former concentration camp. There were no guided tours. I was on my own. Throughout the rest of that day, I saw the original entrance, with the infamous script reading Work Makes One Free in German. I saw the buildings and remains of buildings where hundreds of prisoners slept. I saw a display case filled with the hair taken from women, men, and children. It was ninety-eight feet long. A third of the length of a football field. Towards the end of the day, I saw the gas chambers where prisoners were executed. I wanted to cry, but somehow it wasn’t possible. I knew how to mourn one person’s death, but how to mourn the deaths of one point one million people?
As much as I did not want to believe that human beings could be capable of such horrors, I knew that it was all true. A deep weight settled in on my heart, the weight of knowing what people are capable of doing to each other.
Over time, that weight lifted, but I feel it again today. It is impossible for me to hear the story of Jesus being betrayed, judged, beaten, and then crucified without encountering the profound brokenness that will always be a part of our humanity.
We hear that Jesus was betrayed by someone he considered a friend. We hear that Jesus was not only beaten, but also mocked. We hear Pilate succumb to peer pressure and hand Jesus over to be executed rather than risk a breach of friendship with the emperor. And finally, we hear of the crucifixion and death of our Savior.
Again and again we hear that Jesus is being subjected to emotional and physical pain, and yet we do not hear him object or try to change the course of history. We can all picture the injuries that Jesus sustained in our minds, we can see the horrible nature of his death, and yet we do not see him rising up against his captors and walking away from humanity.
Instead, we hear that Jesus humbled himself unto death. He gave himself up willingly to be taken into custody, sentenced, and executed. He allowed all of this to happen. He allowed these things because he wanted to save us, he wanted to make sure that we would be able to live as children of the light for generations upon generations.
Given his personal knowledge of how prone to pettiness, self-absorption, and greed humans can be, it is a wonder that Jesus chose to give up his life for us. Given his awareness of the multitude of sins that we commit against each other and God, it is unbelievable that he would make that choice.
And yet, he did. And today, Good Friday, the church takes a collective deep breath and acknowledges this gift. This is a difficult day, because in order to acknowledge the enormity of the gift that Jesus has given each and every one of us, we must acknowledge just how much we need it. We must be willing to admit that we have personally fallen short, and that as a consequence we are in need of the saving power of Christ.
That is a frightening thing. Few people enjoy taking stock of their lives to remember the times when they needed the unconditional love and forgiveness of God the most. Even fewer people would like to take stock of their lives right now, looking for the situations and relationships that need to be turned over to God. It’s a painful process, one that takes a good bit of time. It’s the kind of systematic evaluation that cannot be finished in one hour-long church service, the kind that requires true effort and willingness to change one’s life.
Yet, without that process, the meaning of this day, Good Friday, is lost. If we fast-forward in our minds to Saturday evening, avoiding this day entirely, then what will we give thanks for on Sunday morning? Without Jesus crucified, the rest of the story does not make sense. Without Jesus dead and buried, how could he be raised?
And so we sit in this church stripped bare of everything that we are accustomed to seeing. We sit here and we allow ourselves to feel the burden of our brokenness as a collective people and as individuals. Soon, we will give thanks and praise, but for now, we wait with heavy hearts.