It is Passover, and Jesus of Nazareth is dead. His body is naked and mangled, and quiet in death after the throes and moans of Friday’s tortured hours. Those gathered around the cross weep. How can we endure a dead God? How can it be that he is good, yet he is dead; that he rescued sufferers, yet suffered more than any; that he performed miracles; yet not on his own behalf? His followers are desolate, but I weep for another reason, for I know I would have been in the mob that called for his crucifixion because he was not the Messiah for whom I had asked.
On Good Friday, I confess that after all, I still don’t know what love means.
I have known Jesus of Nazareth my whole life but I still forget Who He Is. The death of the innocent is too much for my classical sensibilities, in which my unconquered pride continues to hope. Unlike Jesus of Nazareth, I love virtue more than the people who fall short of it, and I prefer an uncrossable chasm between that virtue and sacrifice. I cry, “Crucify him!” because he loves me more than my ideals and that offends me. I want a victorious king, a hero from an epic story, and he gives me and my students his bleeding body. Barrabas I understand. Give me Barabbas. He is an excellent cautionary tale. Barabbas dwells on the other side of my chasm, and I can renounce him from the side of virtue while I peruse The Odyssey and lead a nature walk in the April sunshine. But Good Friday? That kind of love is a stone that shatters my idealistic constructs into dust.
Perhaps you know what I mean when I say that I, a classical educator, have loved ideas more than people. People are fallen. Ideas are chaste. If you give me a transcendent thought, I will form it into an ideal, put it into practice and watch it bear fruit. Much goodness comes from this. Deep down I caress the possibility that perhaps my efforts will transcend the darkness. But when I lift my eyes to Christ crucified, I see that love and suffering are inextricably mingled, that ideals are tyrants until they are sanctified by sacrificial mercy, and that I will spend my whole life learning to crucify both duty and desire for the sake of love. On Good Friday, the lacerated body of Christ reminds me that ideas and practices do not save–and that I have missed the point.
The death of the innocent is too much for my classical sensibilities, in which my unconquered pride continues to hope
I often grieve that I cannot extricate the holy from the profane in my soul. I do much that is good. I love goodness, truth and beauty. I watch and pray for the coming of the Lord. As far as I am able, I teach these sacred mysteries. As I pursue these ideals for myself and my students, they inform our pilgrimage to the kingdom of God. Yet to my shame I confess that I cannot identify the moments when righteous love degenerates into lofty arrogance of mind or a pretentious preference for the finer things. Unless the crucifixion anchors my drifting soul to the cost of redemption, I love my ideas about love more than Love itself.
I find that the more I long for heaven, the deeper I mourn the fall. This leads me either to repent from sin or to attempt to manage it. The truth is that underneath my fastidious nature, I am frightened. Afraid of the darkness, I distort my vocation to hide from it. I want to save my students. On Good Friday, I remember that the Jews wanted that too. They feared the Romans and prayed for rescue. Clinging to their reasonable interpretations of ancient prophecies, they flung their constructs at Jesus and, when he failed to fulfil them, they disposed of him. But what if they had listened to the voice crying in the wilderness? What if they had repented? Repentance is the antidote to arrogant idealism. When I repent of sin, I cannot control it. I leave that to God, so that my ideals become his servants instead of my masters.
A teacher can only walk in the way; we are not the way. Jesus of Nazareth is the Way. As for our ideals, Christ sanctifies them. We allow them to validate and shape our mission, which is only to love as Jesus loved. Teachers reveal the Way, and then we get out of the way.
On Good Friday, I see the Son of Man lifted up, limp and bloody for the life of the world, and I remember that the only way to participate in redemption is not merely to see his crucified flesh and blood, but to eat it.
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood –
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
– T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets”
Good Friday compels us to ingest the mystery of the crucified Christ, who died for love and allowed the Messianic ideals of the Jews to remain unfulfilled so that he could save them. Good Friday reminds the idealists that love in a fallen world requires degradation. The ideals and practices of classical education do not bypass the bloody wounds, but lead us to them. Resurrection is coming. The resurrected Christ reminds us of other truths, yet today is Good Friday, the day of crucifixion, and Christ said “blessed are those who mourn.” Christ originated and embodied the ideals I love, but doing so did not insulate him from the muck of the world, but propelled him to die in the midst of it. Ideals did not save Our Lord from crucifixion, and they will save neither us nor our students. Only the crucified Christ can do that.