On This Horrible Day That We Call Good:
A reflection on Psalm 22:1-2 and Isaiah 53:4-6
by Rev. John Roop
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you:
Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. Amen.
At this hour, Jesus hung on the cross and darkness descended on Calvary. This day – this horrible day that we call good – brings us face-to-face with the most persistent and troubling mystery of the Gospel: the crucifixion of Jesus, the death of the Son of God.
When a good, young person meets an untimely death, our minds and hearts rebel: “Why did he have to die?” we wonder. “Could God not have spared her?” If we ask these questions for the sake of a mere mortal, how much more are we driven to ask them for the sake of Jesus Christ – fully mortal, yes, but also fully divine. Why did Jesus have to die? Could God the Father not have spared God the Son? Was there really no other way, no better way for our salvation than this, than the cross?
It is not blasphemy for us to ask these questions, not unseemly. Jesus asked them from the depths of his being: in the Garden where he prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will,” (Mt 26:39b) and supremely on the cross where he cried out in the words of David:
22 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest (Ps 22:1-2).
Why did Jesus have to die? Could God the Father not have spared God the Son? Was there really no other way, no better way, for our salvation than this, than the cross? I don’t have final answers to these questions – at least not answers that fully satisfy me. I know the theology – or really the theologies – of the cross, and so do you. They are good and proper – some of them, many of them – as far as they go. But they all seem too dry, too clinical when one stands with Mary and John at the foot of the cross on this day, when one huddles in hiding with a broken Simon Peter on this day, when one trembles beside Joseph asking Pilate for the body of Jesus on this day, on this horrible day that we call good. Was this really the only possible – the only fitting – climax to the story? And though complete answers elude me, perhaps we can at least uncover clues to the great mystery.
I think the story that climaxes this day – this horrible day that we call good – began with Joseph’s dream:
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus (Mt 1:18-23).
“They shall call his name Immanuel,” said Isaiah. Right there is a clue to the mystery of this day. From the moment God determined to be Immanuel – before the foundations of the world – from the moment God determined to be God-With-Us, the climax of the story which played out on Calvary, on this horrible day that we call good, was written. The cross is the inevitable consequence of the holy God coming to be with sinful man. The cross is the certain result of God placing himself in the hands of men. The inescapable trajectory of our first parents’ sin of pride and rebellion in the garden is deicide – the murder of God – on Calvary, on this horrible day that we call good. “You shall have no other gods before me,” God said on Mount Sinai. “We shall have no gods at all,” we said on Mount Calvary. “Do with me as you will,” God said in the manger. “This is what we will do with you,” we said on the cross.
The light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed (John 3:19b-20).
Why did Jesus have to die? The clue I am following points to this: Jesus “had to die” because he was determined to be Immanuel, to be God-With-Us, and because this is what we do to God-With-Us, to the God who places himself in our hands. God the Father did not kill God the Son; we did that. God did not so much decree the death of Jesus as submit willingly to it. But, in his infinite mercy – in his incomprehensible grace – God accepted our murder of his son as the offering of the Paschal lamb prefigured in the Exodus, as a perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world, including the sins of those who nailed his Son to the cross, which is to say all of us.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all (Is 53:4-6).
That is the mystery of this horrible day that we call good: not that we killed God the Son – in our twisted and fallen state any evil, even that, is possible and even inevitable – no, not that we killed God the Son, but that God the Father embraced this in his sovereign will and accepted that murder at our hands as a holy sacrifice, turning it to our salvation. That is the mystery behind every picture of atonement: ransom, propitiation, substitution, satisfaction and all the rest. In his sovereign will and grace, God turned the greatest evil to the greatest good on this horrible day that we call good.
And knowing this pushes the mystery back even further, even deeper. What kind of God is this who creates man knowing that man will rebel, knowing that man will reject him, knowing that man – if given the chance – will seek to destroy not just one another, not just the creation, but finally the Creator? What kind of God is this who will place himself – his only begotten Son – in the hands of such creatures and say, “Thy will be done”? No sane human being would act this way – we know ourselves far too well – but God did and does. What could he be thinking? Why this?
For this greatest mystery of all we need no mere clues; God answers before we even dare ask the question:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).
Love. That is the answer to the mystery: love. That is the mystery itself, “not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10b). Why did Jesus have to die? Because God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – loves us; because God, in that love, chose to be God-With-Us and God-For-Us; because God willed to reveal the depths of his love for us in and through self-sacrifice – to plunge us into the very abyss of our sin and wretchedness, to go before us and to meet us there, and to bring us forth with a shout of victorious love. And why did God so love us? Because God was, is, and ever shall be love. We cannot even utter the word “love” without also saying Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Love created us. Love sought us. Love died for us. On this horrible day that we call good, dare we hope that love will rise again for us? Dare we sing with Solomon’s beloved?
6 Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death,
ardor (alternate reading) is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
the very flame of the LORD.
7 Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it (Song of Solomon 8:6-7a).
Yes, we dare hope. Yes, we dare sing.
Why is it that we call this horrible day good? Because on this day, God revealed the depths and the nature of his stronger than death love for us – for you, for me. If you ever doubt the love of God for you, simply look to the cross; God’s love is on display there before all creation. Why did Jesus have to die? Because he loves you and because the cross is what his love looks like, on this horrible day that we call good. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Image by Kimb0lene (used by permission via Creative Commons).