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From childhood, the gospel descriptions of the last days and hours of Jesus’ life have gripped and fascinated me as something of supreme importance and meaning. Each part of the story is part of me. As we prepare for good Friday here at Bonnevaux after a rather fun Holy Thursday celebration, it could feel like ‘well this is life’: celebration today, bad news or worse tomorrow. Does it have any meaning, this cycle of joy and misery? Or is it just about accepting what we have to? But, asking that feels like missing the point, looking for explanations where none exist.
When you can’t explain something, give statistics. Overall, the gospels give a disproportionate amount of space to describing these last hours : 30% of all the gospel texts about this 33-year-old man is given to his last two or three days. John, the deepest gospel gives 43% and 40% from Mark, the shortest and first gospel. It feels better to have measured it even though the gospels still do not give any explanation of its meaning. Why is his death so important? Why couldn’t more of his earlier life, his personality, especially his teachings, have been included and the last moments reduced?
So, although the Good Friday is so significant to me I cannot easily say why. What I was taught originally – Jesus died for us because of original sin – is the classic ‘atonement theory’. Even when I was young it didn’t convince me although I didn’t argue with it. Wittgenstein, who believed the Resurrection could only be understood by love,  said that ‘whereof we cannot speak we must remain silent.’
I’ll squeeze in a few more words to explain why this response of silence can be applied to the attempt to explain the death of Jesus. First, that the details are unforgettably powerful – the last words (Father forgive them for they know not what they do; Today you will be with be in paradise (to the thief crucified beside him); I am thirsty; It is accomplished.) The scenes like carrying the cross, the soldiers casting lots, the triple denial of Peter. They all seem highly significant, inevitable, predictable, fulfilling destiny but unexplained and inexplicable.
One explanation is that the description is not just an historical narrative but a collective memory filtered through the present experience of the Risen Jesus. It is as if Jesus is telling the story himself: not to give explanations but to draw us closer to himself by our free choice.
Why tell the story at all if he had not risen?
In the Good Friday liturgy – like a global wake repeated annually – there is a reading of the Passion that stops at his burial. But the stunningly eloquent explanation is the Veneration of the Cross. People are invited to come up in silence - if they wish - and kneel before, or kiss, or simply touch the wood of the cross in silence.
When I do, I feel - perhaps like all who come forward – as if it is something definitive and authentic and I don’t need to explain it. We don’t have to justify what we love.  More important than an explanation is a real encounter with a real person in a new kind of reality.
Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2024
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