The other side of Good Friday

In popular tradition, the cross of Christ is a sign of rejection, shame, suffering, and death, which is the point St. Paul made when he wrote that Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). You can’t get more humble, you can’t get lower, than the cross. That’s what the early church understood when Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). To become a follower of Christ is to become utterly humble.

That’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer had in mind before he was executed by the Nazis for his faith. He wrote of the cost of discipleship and defined “cheap grace” as “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

On the other hand, he wrote, “Costly grace” – the grace God offers, the grace that counts, the grace that transforms – “is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a [person] must knock.” “Such grace is costly,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs [your] life, and it is grace because it gives [you] the only true life. . . . Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son . . . and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us” (The Cost of Discipleship).

But that’s only part of the story, and today we know the rest of it. The cross is a symbol of costly grace, and it invites us to a life of costly discipleship, without which we cannot live the abundant life we seek. The cross is also a symbol of liberation into that life, a life of freedom and fullness, of more and better life than we ever dreamed of having.

When Jesus tells us that if we want to be his disciples we must take up our own crosses and follow him, he’s not saying our cross is some hardship we must endure patiently and that it will be all right when we get to heaven. More than a warning about what we will suffer, his words are an exhortation and encouragement to follow him anyway, despite the very worst anyone or anything in life could possibly do to us. Because in the worst that can happen to us are the seeds of the best life has to offer.

When the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald was having a rough go of his life and art, Ernest Hemingway gave him this advice: “Forget your personal tragedy. Good writers always come back. Always.” I don’t know that we can – or even should – forget our personal tragedy. There’s always something to be learned from it. But we need to remember, we can always come back from it. There’s always something beyond our personal tragedy, light on the other side of darkness, life on the other side of death.

Whatever happens to us is a resource. Everything that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that from it we may shape the art of our lives (adapted from Jorge Luis Borges).

Remember, Good Friday is not the end of the story. In the words of Natalie Sleeth’s “Hymn of Promise”:

“In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;
in cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be,
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see. . . .

“In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity;
in our doubt there is believing; in our life eternity.
In our death, a resurrection, at the last, a victory,
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”

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