GOOD FRIDAY REFLECTION
[Revised March 30, 2018]
Letting go, darkness, absence – these are the words that mystics use to characterize the “dark nights” as the soul ascends to God. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux, Mother Teresa – all these mystics went through some sort of dark night. But ordinary people like us have also passed through or are presently undergoing dark and difficult times. Some are internal; others external. Some we took upon ourselves; others have been pushed into our lives without our knowing: loneliness, loss, pain, mortification, death.
Like all humans, Jesus went through it himself. Mark, the first Gospel, plots out his Jesus’ story as a journey to Jerusalem, to Calvary. The rest of the New Testament follows suit. Jesus is seen as a man whose life ended on the cross. Theology refers to it as Paschal Mystery—a very abstract term which ordinary people find difficult to define—and much less accept.
To make this more concrete, it might help to try to imagine what the human Jesus went through in that garden that made him bargain with his God to remove the cup from him. On that lonely night, in the darkness of the Mount of Olives when his friends – whom he had asked to keep him company – were hopelessly snoring, what could have Jesus thought? There is a need to get rid of our romantic and pious notions of the cross. If we place Jewish crucifixion in its real context as it happened on the ground, we can better understand why the all too human Jesus shivered and sweated “like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” as Luke wrote (Luke 22: 44).
First, crucifixion as a penalty was abhorred by ancient peoples. There was no worse way to die than through crucifixion. The criminal was displayed naked to die a slow painful death in public view - on a hill, in the square or at the crossroads. Why? In order to instill fear and obedience to the law!
Fast forward: in recent years a host of armed men can swoop into a small alley of cramped houses, brandishing their guns and armalites, shoot people point blank in front of the whole community for all people to see. The purpose: to instill fear and obedience to the law.
Second, the punished criminal is made to walk carrying a patibulum or a horizontal crossbar where their hands shall be nailed when they have reached the execution site. And as they walk a tabella (a small tablet) shall hang around their neck which mentions the charge against them.
Fast forward: when there were still few, a marked cardboard is placed next to the gunned down ‘criminal’ or around his neck which reads: “Addict Pusher. Huwag tularan.” The purpose? To let the world know that we are enforcing what the President wants. When the operations were faster and the victims more, there was no more time to make these markers. They just left them there, soaked in blood. But to imprison the residents in fear and assert their power, some of them still have the gall to take what valuables they have found in these shanties or eat the food their victims may have left on their tables.
Third, after the crucifixion, “quite often its victims were never buried. It was a stereotype picture that the crucified victim served as food for wild beasts and birds of prey. In that way, the humiliation was made complete.” Who among us would not shiver upon the thought that when we die, dogs wait below or vultures fly above to scavenge what is left of our bodies? “What made [crucifixions] supreme,” writes Crossan, “was not just their inhuman cruelty or their public dishonor, but the fact that there might be nothing left to bury at the end”.
Fast forward: I have heard of hundreds of bodies piled up over one another in funeral parlors left there to rot unclaimed as they are by their families. One lay minister in a parish told me he was asked to bless these unidentified cadavers. Unlike the time of Jesus, there are no vultures to eat them. But many cadavers were thrown as “trash” by fishermen on orders of the police at the Manila Bay without their families knowing where they went. (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/07/philippine-police-dumping-bodies-drug-war-victims-170728034001676.html).
Thus, in whatever angle you see it, there is no way one can justify, rationalize, valorize or spiritualize the injustice of the cross. There are theologies that seek to do that – but the death of Jesus on the cross is just so abhorrent and repulsive for churches and theologians to be able to justify it.
There could never be a direct recognizable link between the cross and our salvation, between pain and resurrection, between a horrible death and a good life. It is totally incomprehensible.
But how can the torture of the crucifixion be anything but evil? How can we say that it is the cross that saved us?
I was looking for some human parallels – no matter how pale in comparison – in order to help me understand this deep mystery.
I told the story of “Juan” yesterday. However the dominant powers judged him, he broke his bread and offered his life for his children. Before he got the last bullet that finished him off, he told his daughter who saw it all: “Huwag mong pabayaan ang mga kapatid mo.” (Do not leave your siblings). No matter how incomprehensible was his death, he gave his children some glimmer of hope to live.
(Cf. “Farewell Meals: Holy Thursday Reflection” in https://www.facebook.com/notes/danny-pilario/farewell-meals/10156291035814700/)
Today, on a more personal note and much closer to my heart, let me share the story of my mother. I can still vividly remember the scene at her deathbed. She suffered from a very aggressive thyroid cancer and it was already stage four when she found it out. After a month, we were at her deathbed. She was like in a comatose state; she was just sleeping and have not spoken a word for several days. She could no longer eat. We felt it was the end. So, from sunset to late night of that day, we were deeply praying and singing at her bedside – my father, siblings, in laws and grandchildren – accompanying her at her last moment. But at around 9 in the evening, she woke up, looked around as if checking attendance like what she used to do when she was strong. We were 11 siblings; so it was not so easy to count. She asked what time it was.
Then, she said: “Have you eaten?” We told her we were fine; we were not hungry; we just wanted to be with her. But she insisted: “No, go and get some food. Go and eat!” Then, she closed her eyes.
These last words were just a summary of her whole life – for each time we arrive home from school, travel or work, these are the same words that we hear: “Have you eaten? Come and eat. I have cooked something for you.”
Those last words were significant because it was a description of her whole life of selfless loving.
St Vincent SchoolofTheology - Adamson University
 Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977) cited in J. D. Crossan, Jesus, A Revolutionary Biography, 124.
 J. D. Crossan, Jesus, a Revolutionary Biography, 126.
 Roger Haight, Jesus: Symbol of God, 241.
 Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological View (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 228. For some criteria of a viable theology of the cross in our times, see Lisa Sowe Cahill, “Salvation and the Cross,” in Jesus as Christ, Concilium 2008/3 (London: SCM Press, 2008), 55-63.