catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 6 :: 2007.03.23 — 2007.04.06


Christ didn't come to give us the willies

Growing up, Good Friday was the day we went to the mall.  Christ was dead, we had off school, what else was there to do?  I grew up in the Philippines, a staunchly Roman Catholic country, a country that celebrates Holy Week with a vengeance.  Driving home from school it wasn’t unusual to pass men and women carrying heavy wooden crosses and being whipped by leather straps embedded with glass shards.  On the upshot, the heavily congested roads of Manila were cleared of traffic on Good Friday.  Nobody wants to get in a fatal car accident on the day when God is dead. My grandparents were Protestant missionaries in the Philippines so it didn’t take the gore of the week’s events to inform me that this nearly medieval Roman Catholicism was very, very wrong, or, at least and probably more accurately, gave our Western, evangelical sensibilities the willies.  So, with that good ol’ Protestant blood running in my veins, I saw Good Friday as an opportunity to embody the typical teenager’s mall rat routine with very little interference. 

The path that brought me to where I stand today, a dozen years later, is quite twisty.  It involves the Anglican church in England, a brief flirtation with Catholicism under the shadow of Touchdown Jesus, and three years of seminary, studying for ordained ministry in the Christian Reformed Church of North America.  For the past five years, I have intentionally celebrated Holy Week because, self-crucifixion and flagellantes aside, the Roman Catholics may have this practice more right than I’d dared to believe.  At the front of a Roman Catholic sanctuary, Jesus hangs on a crucifix—bruised, battered and dying for us.  Protestants triumphantly proclaim, “But he’s not on the Cross anymore!” Our cross, just like our tomb, remains empty, void of any reminder of the agonizing death, which sanctifies this instrument of torture to us.  In the place of death, we cherish Sunday School pictures of an antiseptic Jesus in pure white robes, beautiful brown locks flowing.  Like our crosses, Protestant Holy Week often seems empty, celebrated by the joyful bookends of Palm Sunday and Easter morning, without any books between them. 

I am reminded of the cult classic film, Dogma, in which the Roman Catholic Church is reinventing itself in a celebrated anniversary.  Cardinal Glick, standing on the steps of an old cathedral, says:

Now we all know how the majority and the media in this country view the Catholic Church . . . Now in an effort to disprove all that, the Church has appointed this year as a time of renewal, both of faith and of style.  For example, the Crucifix.  While it has been time-honored symbol of our faith, Holy Mother Church has decided to retire this highly recognizable, yet wholly depressing image of our Lord, crucified.  Christ didn’t come to earth to give us the willies.  He came to help us out.  He was a booster and it is with that take on our Lord in mind that we’ve come up with a new, more inspiring symbol.  So, it is with great pleasure that I present you with . . . the Buddy Christ.

During Lent this year, I worshipped in a church where the pastor pointed to the cross and said that, too often, our thoughts are drawn to the morbid through the cross, we fixate on “the willies” and we ought, rather, view the symbol as an emblem of life, not death.  Indeed, life is a central component of our Holy Week commemorations: the celebration of an open-tomb and sunrise on Easter morning.  Still, a resurrection must, logically, proceed from death.  So, in as much as we soft-peddle the cross by playing up our saccharine notions of a “Buddy Christ,” we also short-cut our own rejoicing on Easter morning.  This pastor’s comments projected me back to my high school days, loitering in the neon lights and window displays of the mall on Good Friday.  Morbidity doesn’t sell, after all.  Sadness hardly finds space for itself in an overwhelming evangelical fixation on happiness and attaining Your Best Life Now

Yet, there is something radically right about acknowledging that, one day in history, God died.  The God-man, who was first the God-baby we met in the manger at Christmastime, accomplished the work of salvation by getting his hands dirty, pierced through, in fact.  Theologically, this event is the axis upon which the Christian religion spins: God became human, lived perfectly and died painfully in our stead in order to bring forgiveness and was raised again on the third day in order to prove victory over death. 

Good Friday services have become the highlight of my commemoration of Holy Week.  There is nothing, in the entire church year quite like the moment when the Christ candle is carried out and we are left with the weight of darkness pressing in.  I long, even now, in the last few weeks of Lent, to participate in the memorial of the day the God-man died. In longing for Good Friday, I’m suppose I’m also calling into question those Holy Week celebrations, the preaching and worship, which skips to the empty tomb and shouts hallelujah before the reverberations of the cry, “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?” have faded into a deafening and lingering silence. 

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