Death on a Friday Afternoon – 2020

Forgive them for they know not what they do

Here we are, Good Friday 2020, living through a plague, a pestilence that has brought death to many in the world. This pandemic enables us to understand a little more the tragedy that continually stalks creation and brings with it pain and death. We are home-bound and have an opportunity to reflect on this tragic day that we call Good Friday. And it is ironic that Sars-Covid-2 brings on death through asphyxiation as the lungs are flooded and cannot breathe. At the crucifixion, Christ and the two brigands are crucified to prolong their suffering. Eventually, the limbs of the two brigands were broken so that they could no longer support their weight and they died from the suffocating fluid flooding their lungs.

To undo the nails that bound him to the wood would have been a mere trifle for a carpenter’s son. And yet, as he looked out, he saw the fleeting furtive figure of someone he had previously seen, atop a mountain. There were three requests for miracles there – three temptations and Christ had resisted them. Here he was faced with a fourth temptation.

That fleeting figure has many faces and one of them is that of the ventriloquist. The rabble were his unthinking marionettes. They lifted their voices in a promise to believe if he would only grant one more miracle – come off the cross. The power of the miracle lay in that the world promised to believe. Come down. That is all and we will believe. But the man on the cross refused because he knew what was hidden under this temptation. The paralyzed man would have then lain down on his pallet again, the blind people of Jericho would have once more descended into darkness, Lazarus would have disappeared into the tomb forever. He who made the moon and the stars and the sun knew this and through his parched lips he answered the ventriloquist – No!

And, from the sixth hour, Christ had become an orphan. He had given his mother to another; his father had ‘abandoned’ him: ‘My God, why have you abandoned me?’ We have shut out other orphans by labeling them – atheists – but the man on the cross died for them also.

So what was accomplished on that Friday afternoon? We continue to suffer, we continue to die. Was that death on that Friday afternoon for naught?

Many learned tomes have been written about this question and they all have a little to contribute to casting light on this mystery of creation and redemption and sin. The man on the cross died as the last one of the sons and daughters of Adam to die. Death was no more – death itself had died. And man and God had become reconciled – remember it takes two to reconcile – because they forgave each other and a new chapter in their relation was inaugurated. Yes we continue to die, but death is now not a cul-de-sac but a sacrament through which we finally and totally say yes to creation – and we say not my will but yours be done. I forgive You for this creation of death and suffering because finally, through the man on the cross, I can glimpse, although partially but in the depths of my being, Your immense love for me, and now I can finally, truly and completely, love you.

I am a sinner and incapable of much except you help me. But there are those who are much closer to you and who cast a brighter light on what was going on that Friday afternoon.

Seven missionaries found themselves in Algeria in the spring of 1996. Their monastery at Titherine, in Algeria, was invaded by terrorists who took the seven monks captive and after two months, executed all of them by slitting their throats. One of the monks was Fr. Christian de Chergé who died on May 21, 1996. He left a last testament which is reproduced below and which can give us a lot to meditate on, this Good Friday 2020.

‘If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to associate such a death with the many deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.

My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which could strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if this people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. It would be to pay too dearly for what all, perhaps, be called ‘the grace of martyrdom,’ to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam. I know the scorn with which Algerians as a whole can be regarded. I know also the caricature of Islam which a certain kind of Islamism encourages. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different; they are a body and soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received in Algeria, in the respect of believing Muslims – finding there so often that true strand of the gospel I learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church.

My death, clearly, will appear to justify those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic. “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But these people must realize that my most avid curiosity will then be satisfied. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills – immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, delighting in the difference.

For this life given up, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything. In this ‘thank you,’ which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, my friends of yesterday and today, and you my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my brothers and sisters and their families – the hundredfold granted as was promised!

And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you are doing. Yes, for you also I wish this ‘thank you’ – and this adieu – to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours.

And may we find each other, happy ‘good thieves,’ in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen.’

Not much can be added to these words. What remains is to allow them to penetrate our hearts and souls and to allow them to speak to us. The words written by one for whom death was a constant and near companion, and came so soon after these words were penned, have an authenticity that is impossible to ignore. In emulation of Christ, there is no rancor, there is no call for vengeance, there is only the assuredness of God’s total care and the security it brings. There is an openness to all, and an absence of fear of the stranger or of the one who is different from us. On this special day, may we all grow in our love for God and for our fellow man. Amen!