Good Friday: Lying in a Manger, Hanging on a Cross

Months ago, at Christmas time—January 4, to be precise—we heard words that were written in the beginning John’s Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

They’re beautiful words from the writer of the Fourth Gospel. They are part of a nativity story, the story of how Jesus came into the world…just like the one we all know and love from Luke, but on a cosmic scale. But today, on Good Friday, that seems like such a distant memory, doesn’t it? The joy of Christmas, the brightness of Epiphany—it almost seems a little foolish, a little trivial—as we stand here at the cross.

As we look at the world, on this day, we can’t help but seeing a lot of this darkness. I wonder, what were Christmas celebrations like last winter among the Assyrian Christians, or the Egyptian Coptic? What will next Christmas be like for the people of Haltern, Germany, who just lost 16 young students in the Germanwings plane crash? Or in Garissa, Kenya? Or here in Mt. Holly for those facing loss and tragedy?

Where did that light go? What hope do we have in the darkness?

But I have to say, it’s not like we weren’t warned. On that Sunday in January, in that very same reading where we celebrated Jesus the light coming into the world, we heard this, too: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

His own people did not accept him to the point that they betrayed him, turned their backs on him, tortured and murdered him. It’s shocking, how it all shatters so quickly, how it all falls apart. But we can’t say we weren’t warned.

We might say “I wish Christmas would last all year!” There are plenty of all-year Christmas shops out there where you can buy your wreaths and jingle-bells in July if you want. And I’m sure if they could figure out a way to market it, we could have 365-day-a-year Easter store. But I don’t see much of a demand for year-round Good Friday.

So, is this day, Good Friday, a singular day? That is, is this the one day of the year that we walk around sad that Jesus died? Are we here to hold a funeral for Jesus? Is that the point of all of this?

Or rather, is it yet another way point in Jesus’ very human journey? Just as at Christmas, when we celebrate the fact that God came down to us in the form of a child—today we mark the fact that that same child grew up and felt the bitter sting of death. If you are born, then surely you must die. Every story has a beginning and an ending.

Martin Luther once said, “Majesty lies in the manger and hangs on the cross.” Both are reminders that Jesus was human, vulnerable and humble, just like us—yet Jesus transcended all that and took those weaknesses, the weakness of a child and of the dying man, and made them holy.

As much as we wish it, Good Friday can’t be limited to just one day. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just confine all this sadness and disappointment and death to just one 24 hour period? Get through it, suffer through it—swallow it down like a bitter pill—and then it’s on to Easter tomorrow. But the cross stands just beyond the manger— the shadow of this day can be seen in even the brightness, even in midst of joy and celebration.

In our own lives, we can’t just cordon off the pain. Celebrations can often feel bittersweet. This year, when my son was born, it was a joy that no Christmas could match. I called my father to give him the exciting news. We talked for a while and then I hung up. And I stood there, holding my phone—I wanted to call my grandfather, to tell him that he had a new great-grandchild—but I  knew that I couldn’t, because he had died a week before.

Joy and pain. Life and death. Beginnings and ends.

God does not promise us that everything will be joyful. God doesn’t promise that if we believe what we should, and come to church and be good people, then we’ll get a pass on pain.

No, as Christians, we know that sooner or later, the journey of life will lead us toward the cross. In fact, our faith may even hasten it.

Yet, through it all, God is with us, standing in solidarity in all our joys and pain, in our celebrations and our tears.

The God of the manger and the cross. The one who was cradled by his mother at birth and at death. The God who cried out in pain and despair, and the God who arose victorious. The God of the heavens and the God of humanity. The God of Christmas and Easter and the God of Good Friday.

The light shines in the darkness, even in this darkness. Even if we can’t quite see it yet.