This a hard story to hear, full of violence against someone innocent, a terrible death, and with this version of the story, a particular history of anti-Judaism, that has produced even more violence through the ages. It is not at all the kind of story we might associate with a day called “Good.”
The day and the story also have some theological baggage that we might not call “good”: The idea that the chasm between God and humanity opened in the Fall of Adam and Eve was so great, that it required a kind of eternal satisfaction. A merely “human” sacrifice couldn’t possibly fill it; it required the terrible suffering and death of God’s own Son to “make up” for the offense of human sin and restore the divine honor insulted by human disobedience.
It’s a theological metaphor rooted in the legal system of the ancient and medieval worlds, societies in which honor and shame were prime concerns, but it is perhaps a metaphor not worthy of the God we long for.
But like all our talk about God and God’s work in Jesus Christ, this one, too, is but a metaphor, an attempt to capture what we call the “mystery” of salvation. Can there not be others?
What if we started instead with another passage from John, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” What would it be like to begin not with God’s honor, or even God’s justice, but with God’s love?
Perhaps we would imagine God, out of love, leaping across that chasm made by human sin, to take flesh as a human being, to reveal the pattern of humanity God had intended all along. That divine leap is so great that God’s choice of humanity does not land God at the “top,” not even in the middle of the sinful human hierarchy. Our God, out of love, takes flesh among the powerless: A peasant in an occupied land, a day laborer, an invisible person among the powerful: That is the human pattern, the human person, in whom God chooses to become flesh.
And God’s love has more surprises: The pattern for humanity God reveals eats with, shares life with, and takes the side of all the other people made invisible by the world of sin: those with broken bodies, women with flows of blood, women the Bible calls prostitutes, their children, the unclean and possessed, the collaborators, the religiously disenfranchised.
And when his “hour” comes this divine-human pattern dies like so many of those among whom he lived: violently, without justification, though not without notice and purpose, a sign of the way human sinfulness maintains its imperial power.
“They will look on the one they have pierced,” says the Passion of John. We will look and we will see our God. Our God, who out of love, incarnates the cost of human sinfulness and bears its burden: the violence, the hunger for power, the scapegoating, the blaming, the cruelty, the neglect. God, out of love, incarnates it all to show us, as if in a mirror, the cost of this terrible madness, this addiction to violence. God bears it, out of love, all the way to death.
And just as those Israelites in the desert looked on the image of the serpent that had poisoned them and were healed, so God offers us, by bearing in the flesh the poison that is killing us, our path to salvation, our way to health. Look and see what is killing you, our God says to us, and see that it is killing me. Turn and be saved.
Our God doesn’t give a damn about God’s own honor: It’s our human honor and human dignity our God cares about, and so our God will simply not allow us to be damned.
This is our God, who leaps all the way to the very end for us, who will not abandon us to our own destruction, who will not allow even death to defeat the life God has given us, and God invites us to glorify God in such ways.
Let us look upon the one whom we have pierced. Let us see the Christ, God’s chosen one, God’s suffering servant, in every broken human body, every victim of torture or rape, in every gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender teenager bullied or driven from home, in every family destroyed in a drone strike or car bomb, in every body pierced by a bullet in our community, in every child of God abandoned or disenfranchised by imperial powers of this earth, for in all of them Christ appears, calling us to him, calling us, for their sake and for ours, to turn and be saved, calling us, out of love, to the restored dignity of the children of God.