Tomorrow is Good Friday on the western Christian calendar, the day when western Christians remember Jesus’ death on the cross. The day is often memorialized in ways that recall Jesus’ last moments, from his final steps to his final words, with great specificity. For as many traditions to observe the day, there are theologies to interpret just what, if anything, the cross “means.” In the past few years, I have found myself moving further and further away from identifying this day as one that saves. If I am honest, it has been, and continues to be, an exercise and practice in theological freedom. For me it started with the moment in my first year of theology class when my professor spoke about Anselm and Abelard, of transactions, of debt satisfaction. Something about seeing this formula within its feudal context – of seeing it for the first time as a deeply contextual rather than eternal or primordial or absolute theology – struck a chord and disrupted some sediments I considered unshakeable.
This fissure and subsequent reimagining has continued as over the years I’ve engaged the work of womanist and feminist theologians. There was sister FAR contributor Xochitl Alvizo’s post last year disrupting the spectacle of Good Friday, of re-imaging new rituals that do not dwell on death. There is the work of JoAnne Terrell, the books Proverbs of Ashes and Saving Paradise by feminists Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock, and my professor Shelly Rambo’s work on spirit and trauma. I suppose if I am anywhere on the topic, I am just no longer sure that Jesus paid a debt he did not owe because I owe a debt I cannot pay. I am unconvinced that suffering redeems, that blood atones, that the death of a son – of anyone’s daughter or son – brings satisfaction. Certainly feminists and womanists hold diverse beliefs, but here is where I can stand, for now.
So while I have put some space between myself and Good Friday over the years, this year I agreed to preach at a Good Friday service that will reflect on Jesus’ final words. I have thus spent the last few weeks reflecting on and studying John 19.26 and 27 which read, “And Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” What follows here is where my sermon has started. It is influenced by the questions and work of feminist theologians and by my coursework this semester on body, gender, and sexuality, and on theopoetics, too. It is offered in remembrance and reclamation that there is goodness in our flesh and bones, bodies and breath.
Jesus dies betrayed, but he also dies beloved. The women were there, four of them – his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. His beloved disciple was also there. There they were at the foot of the crosses, huddled together, holding each other, be-holding Jesus, be-holding the precious flesh and blood of this one who is and was their friend, teacher, nephew, child. Jesus sees and speaks to his mother:
“Woman, behold your son.”
“Woman, here is your son.”
With these words, we are reminded that the foot of the cross is a borderland, a liminal space. His mother is with him at this, the end, as she has been with him since the beginning. She is there when it all begins: the wedding at Cana, when he turns the water into wine, when he transforms scarcity and impossibility into abundance, extravagance, celebration. But she has been with him before that, too. He is flesh of her flesh, after all. There was a time when her breath was his breath, when her body nourished and sustained his own. How many sleepless nights and endless days did she hold, rock, feed, sing to, pray over, and bless this one, this child, her son? And the other women, too: they are his family and his friends. No doubt that over the years, some of them rocked a crying Jesus to sleep, or when he was older, lingered over just one more glass of wine, to parse out stories of coins and sheep, of things lost and found, of vines and branches, bread and fish. Do they remember while they stand there? Is there only static? Silence?
To behold is to view, to regard, to acknowledge, and it involves not just our minds, but our bodies, too. “Behold” also means to keep hold of, to belong to – it is an invitation to consider the flesh and blood of another, not to possess or define, but to cherish, to honor, to hold, to love.
In these last few, fleeting, ragged moments, Jesus sees these beloved, these bewildered, these shocked, and mourning ones and his words are an invitation not just to behold him, but to behold each other. After speaking to his mother, he turns to the beloved disciple and says to him: “Behold, your mother.” “Here is your mother.”
His words are brief, but the relationship they imply is one of possibility for the most crucial question of all: Who is my neighbor? Whom must I love like my own flesh and blood? Whom must I behold?
We follow one whose last will and testament involves a radical invitation to behold one another. To be beloved by one another. To be here to one another. To love each other, broken as we all are, scared as we all are, bewildered as we all, as they must have been as they beheld their friend, as she beheld her son.
Is there flesh and blood we do not see, do not behold as we could?
I think so. There are mothers who rock their babies, who hold and behold their babies just as gently as Mary rocked her own – while drones drop around them, while their homes and neighborhoods and schools shatter. There are mothers who rock their babies, who hold and behold their babies just as gently as Mary rocked her own – in detention centers, at border-crossings. There are mothers who rock their babies, who hold and behold their babies just as gently as Mary rocked her own – in refugee tents along the Syrian border. And there are women who love their friends, who stay up late to parse out stories of coins and sheep, of things lost and found, of vines and branches, bread and fish – and who are attacked, who are mercilessly brutalized when they take the bus home. And there are women who love their friends, who stay up late to parse out stories of coins and sheep, of things lost and found, of vines and branches, bread and fish – who cannot visit their partners in the ICU or adopt a baby or get married if they so choose.
There is other flesh and blood we do not love, will not see. Prefix people. People fixed by what they are not, human beings defined in the very first syllable. Un. In. Non. Il. It is breathtaking to realize how many ways we have to say that someone is not like us, not quite right, not deserving. Undocumented. Incarcerated. Uninsured. Un-American. Illegal.
Unbind what seems fixed. In the end, we are asked to hold one another as beloved – to behold one another. Here is a radical invitation to consider what it means to be kin to, what it means to care for, honor and love one another. Here is an invitation to abide with each other, to not be limited by the names and titles and ways of relating you once thought were the only ones available.
Jesus sees the ones he loves. He asks them to behold him and to behold each other. What would it mean to behold each other’s beings, whatever those beings might be? What would it mean to love each other, broken as we all are, scared as we all are, bewildered as we all, as they must have been as they beheld their friend, as she beheld her son?
 I am indebted to Sophia Park, S.N.J.M. for this imagery. Sophia Park, “The Galilean Jesus: Creating a Borderland at the Foot of the Cross (Jn 19.23-30),” Theological Studies 70, 2009, 419-436.
Kathryn House is a North Carolina native who has made her home in Jamaica Plain, MA since 2005. She is currently a doctoral student in Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology. Her academic interests include the constructions of gender and sexuality in evangelical Christian traditions and ecclesiologies. She is in the process of ordination in the American Baptist Churches, USA and a member of The First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, MA. She is also the co-founder of Bridesmaid Trade, an online bridesmaid dress consignment business. Kathryn can be found online at @kharthouse.
19 thoughts on “Reflections on Good Friday by Kathryn House”
Beautiful. Almost makes we want to be a Christian again! (Not really as I love the Mother whose body is the world.)
Reading your post I was also reminded of the line in Caroline Kline’s recent post,“Do what is right; let the consequence follow.” I think this is the best way to understand Jesus’s crucifixion or the murders of John Lenon and Martin Luther King. From a process point of view, the outcome was not “ordained by God,” but rather was one of the possible consequences of “doing what is right.” I presume God Herself is always overwhelmed with grief when other actors in our common world choose death rather than life.
Thank you, Carol. Your work always inspires me so much!
Fabulous post ! if there had been more teaching like this around when I was Christian, I might have stayed !
The Christian Fundamentalist emphasis on suffering in a world where we see suffering day in day out is obscene. As is the emphasis on sin. Babies are not born sinful (original or any other kind) but millions of them are born suffering. They, and the rest of us, don’t need redemption from sin in the next world, but from suffering in this.
I am lucky enough to own (can one ‘own’ such a thing?) a small, early 16th C, Italian, carved Pieta. Most of us will be familiar with the extraordinary Michelangelo marble Pieta. Apart from its luminous spirituality, the Michelangelo carving represents a technical triumph. He has apparently managed to place the body of a full grown man in the lap of a slender woman. In my carving, the body of the Christ is reduced in size. His awkward body is slight in the lap of his mother, like a child’s. And his mother is not serene and beautiful, as in the classical Michelangelo image, but has a face riven with grief and despair.
Mary, Mother of God, Avatar of my Goddess, reaches depths of suffering unimaginable to we who watch. And as she takes this suffering into her own heart and being, she takes also the pain and hurt of the world: she redeems not our sin, but our pain. This is what the beautiful, terrible image of the Pieta teaches us; the Mother who has lost everything cradles the body of her son as if he were once again a little child, rocked to sleep in her arms. And so she holds and heals and cradles every one of us: Mother of Christ, Mother of the Son of Man, Mother of us all.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Mary, and for reminding me of Michelangelo’s Pieta. It is such a striking work, and I am grateful you mention it here.
Beautiful! Thank you! I love your bringing to new life the word be-hold. I like to do the same with the word re-member.
Thank you, Elizabeth! I also love re-membering re-member! :)
My book Pagan Every Day is a daybook in which I addressed much more than pagan life. There are saints in it, for example. Here’s what I wrote about Good Friday:
God: a superhuman person (regarded as masculine) who is worshipped as having power over nature and the fortunes of mankind….
—Oxford English Dictionary
I’ve never understood what is “good” about a day when someone is tortured. My intention here, however, is not theology; it’s words I’m interested in. So here’s my theory about “Good” Friday. In Old English “god” was spelled godu, got, goð, and guð. The word “good” has been spelled gód, gode, godd, and goode. I think people just elided the words “god” and “good” and it’s really God’s Friday. Even today, we often substitute “good” for “god,” as in “for goodness sake,” and we know of minced forms of oaths and ejaculations that have been common since Shakespeare’s time—“golly,” “gosh,” “gad,” “gog,” “ods” (as in “ods bodkins,” which means “God’s body”), even “cocks.”
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is my favorite resource in the whole world. The full definition of “god” in the OED prints out to eighteen pages. The OED gives chronological examples of how a word is used. “God” starts with a quotation (“alle godas”) from an Old English psalter dated 825, “Good Friday” first appears in English in the 13th century. The full definition of “goddess” is one page long. The first definition is “a female deity in polytheistic systems of religion.” Variant spellings, from about 1340 to about 1600, are goodesse, godesse, goddes, goddis, and goddace.
I have a friend at the Oxford University Press. We have interesting conversations. When I made a wisecrack about the comparative lengths of definitions, she replied that the OED’s creators (both men and women) gathered linguistic evidence. The disparity, she said, is not linguistic but social and historical.
Pax, OED. Reader, let us make every day a godu, got, goð, guð, goodesse, godesse, goddes, goddis, goddace day.
Thank you all for your comments and for sharing what is meaningful about the day in your tradition as well.
I started this Good Friday morning with your words—thank you. I am heading off to preach this morning, and I will be talking about the mother holding the gaze….lots of ways to work that ‘be-hold.’
Holding the gaze – yes! I hope it was a great service and rest of this weekend, too…
There was much more to the atonement than what happened on Golgotha and the crucifixion of Christ. People these days do what they can to diminish what the Lord Jesus Christ did for mankind… and womankind. And the additional light brings to bear that Jesus also suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Now.. whether people believe what I have to say or not.. does not matter. All they need to know is that there is another story that need to be considered than the one being told here.
If the Bible has any meaning at all, let us turn to Luke.. the writer who was also a doctor, and look at what happened in the Garden from his perspective. Here is what he had to say:
41 And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed,
42 Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.
43 And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him.
44 And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
In latter day revelation, the Lord Jesus Christ shared with the world this tidbit of information on his suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane that happen prior to him being crucified.
Therefore I command you to repent—
repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth,
and by my wrath, and by my anger,
and your sufferings be sore—
how sore you know not,
how exquisite you know not,
yea, how hard to bear you know not.
For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all,
that they might not suffer if they would repent;
But if they would not repent
they must suffer even as I;
Which suffering caused myself,
even God, the greatest of all,
to tremble because of pain,
and to bleed at every pore,
and to suffer both body and spirit
The greatest thing that happened for mankind/womankind is what Jesus Christ did for us all. Gave us the way.. to return to God and be in his presence again. People have a choice. Either they can follow Jesus Christ.. and be saved in the kingdom of God.. or choose to ignore what he has done, and suffer for their own sins.
Free Will.. a God given gift.
The message is always the same with fundamentalists: scare people into submission with threats of eternal damnation. Believing that people are born sinful and need redemption is the basis for wife abuse and child abuse – as well as abuse of anyone whom one thinks is “less than” or different from oneself. I was always taught that Jesus’ main message was to love one’s neighbor as oneself. I think “latter day revelations” were written by power-hungry men – not men who were inspired by any god. And I prefer belief in an immanent Mother Goddess rather than a distant, punishing Sky God.
Yea.. Satan’s biggest accomplishment is to convince people there is no punishment for sins committed. Besides.. there is no original sin so don’t pin that on my faith.
You just go right on believing whatsoever you want to believe. The Lord said that when one is warned.. he should warn his neighbor.
Strange, isn’t it how the fundamentalists (think Taliban) all sound alike ? It’s people like you, Mr Nimron who given Christianity a bad name and who drive people away from it.
I will print this to share with Mike when he gets home from work today… he mumbles and struggles with the “dying for our sins” part and what to make of “redemption”. Ann