On Good Friday, Jesus of Nazareth’s struggle is seen in his beating and manhandling by Roman soldiers; in his long, stumbling march to the cross; and in the very public, painful, lengthy execution that was crucifixion.
Yet Jesus underwent another struggle that accompanied the physical one and that was every bit as cruel. The night before, the Bible tells us, the wonderworking rabbi was so overwhelmed with what was to come that his sweat turned to blood and his prayers turned urgently to escape.
He begged God the Father to let this cup pass over him, like the angel of death had passed over his people in Egypt, sparing their firstborn from tragedy. But it couldn’t be. So Jesus was betrayed by the kiss of a former friend, abandoned by most of his followers, convicted by a kangaroo court.
Any chance of clemency was shouted down by an angry mob. Jesus became the innocent victim of a kind of execution that also doubled as a form of public shaming mixed with a political shot across the bow. Resist the Pax Romana and this too could happen to you.
Christians would eventually affirm that Jesus is “fully God,” given the events that came later, but also very much “fully man.” Nowhere is that more evident or troubling than in one of his last utterances as he was struggling and dying on that cross: “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”
In that question, Jesus sounded less like a god, never mind the God, and much more like the mariner in Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium”: “Consume my heart away; sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal / It knows not what it is.”
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, Jesus’ question is my question as well this Good Friday. And not rhetorically.
The last year has been too awful to bear. My new wife had a miscarriage, which is horrible but all too common. Then I was struck down by kidney stones, which again is horrible but common. Then we learned that baby number two has something called exencephaly, which is straight out of a twisted horror film.
The baby girl in my wife’s womb is alive, intact, and nearly normal at this stage of development. Except that she’s missing the top of her skull and her grey matter is floating freely above her head.
She moved her hands in front of and away from her eyes in a way that almost suggested peek-a-boo when we looked in on her on an ultrasound. Days before, we went to an Irish music concert. She seemed to be kicking in time to the beat.
Because of her lack of skullcap, if Little Lott makes it to term, childbirth will either kill her or kick-start the dying process. The literature tells us she could live for up to a day, though will probably have minutes or hours. I don’t imagine many of those moments will be pleasant ones.
Many, many people — friends, family, casual acquaintances — say they are praying for us and for the baby. Of course we appreciate the consideration. It helps that they understand what an elaborate nightmare it is that we’re living through and that they care enough to ask God to fix it in some way.
But it’s hard to see how that’s possible. My Dad is a minister and a good man. He always reminds us the Bible says give thanks “in all things,” not “for all things.” Yet how does one even give thanks “in” this unimaginably awful thing, or ever again?
Right now I cannot look up to heaven to pray. My anger has curdled into bitterness. The sadness is everywhere, even in dreams.
Still, I’ll go to church today on this memorial. Not for the songs or the prayers or the homily or the candles or many of the usual churchy things. My aim is to screen all of that out, focus on Jesus on the cross, and try one last time to understand.