“And when Jesus came to the ruler’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, “Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him.” (Matthew 9:23–24 ESV)
Fresh from a conversation about the fullness of the kingdom, Jesus is summoned to a deathbed. The wineskins will burst with the new wine of the Kingdom of God, he has said in the previous verses; the fullness of blessing, the reign of the Son of God is so good that old eyes and old hearts cannot bear it. In yet another case of the Bible’s unflinching honesty Jesus is immediately met with the kind of emptiness only the death of a child can bring. Jesus is talking about the fullness of the Kingdom when a man hollowed out by grief kneels before him. A man of substance — a ruler — is reduced to dust. If the Bible is going to promise big it has to speak when the stakes are the highest. How full is that fullness of the new kingdom? Fuller than the depth of your greatest grief?
They arrive at the house with the ruler half-witted by hope and dread at once. Professional mourners fight the heaviness of the air, trying to fill it with music. They are doing their part to comfort, to make a commotion because a life-shattering event has happened and the worst of worlds is the one where we go out with a whimper. And so they laugh when Jesus tells them that this is not the end. They are the professionals after all. They’ve seen every crackpot healer and every swing-for-the-fences attempt of a grieving parent to deny loss. They know how this ends. But they are put out of the room anyway and Jesus stands at the bed full of the kingdom at the intersection of the greatest chasm in human experience, a parent with their very heart ripped out: the dead and the bereaved and Jesus.
Modern Christian practice focuses the Crucifixion story on the grim suffering of the Son of God with very little thought about the other great emptiness of the moment. The Crucifixion is darkened by the amplified loss of an entire cosmos, every human being to ever live, the bereavement of even the creation which the Scriptures tell us aches for healing (Rom. 8.19). At the Good Friday moment, when Jesus suffers on the Cross, darkness covers the land in what is widely understood to be a sign of divine judgment. We are left to ask: for what exactly is Jesus judged?
The Bible holds both truths: the real sinlessness of Jesus and the real guilt placed upon him at the cross. Jesus was held responsible for darkness in the divine courtroom; darkness was the evidence placed against him. He was made liable for sin and all its consequences: for pain and grief, suffering and loss, for abuse and neglect. For lust and greed, hatred and vanity, for self-centeredness and wrath and even for indifference he suffered - at the moment of his greatest display of love. The Apostle Paul echoes Psalm 69 when he says of Jesus, “the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.” Jesus bears the darkness of our sin and suffering, the desperation of parents who have lost their children and those whose illness breaks down not only body but spirit too. He bears our racism and indifference, and our love of money. Jesus meets with his fullness the hollowed out sinners and the hollowed out sinned against in a spectacle watched by thieves and soft-headed disciples, Romans, patricians and plebeians, even the host of heaven.
The Crucifixion is the stake in the ground and an invitation for evil to do its worst, says NT Wright, so that it might be exhausted on Jesus instead of us. The cross is the flag pole after school where the confrontation happens. Onlookers gather to see if there could be some answer to that great bully death and abuse, loss and grief. The world waits, and the answer it receives is finally enough.
Jesus raises the little girl from the dead as if from a deep sleep. He is the only one who can speak authoritatively in the death room. Mourners could fill the room with commotion but only Jesus could fill it with life. He is the only one who can speak with authority to the complete deprivation and bereavement of the parents. Why? Because he is fullness. Because the kingdom hidden in shadows as it is so much of the time for us has come into the light. Because what he has come to do, more than heal the little girl, is to raise the dead on an even greater scale. Of course we know now that the place from where he rescues the little girl is the place he must go. A little diorama of the cross and resurrection before him right there in the room. Physician heal thyself.
When we reduce the landscape of the cross to only the suffering of Jesus without seeing that our own suffering clings to the image like soot, we are left with a theological position but hardly an important or vicarious one. Good Friday is reduced to a polaroid we stumble upon once a year. We would be the professional mourners filling the hour with commotion but no real hope to speak of. But if the suffering of Jesus was also vindication for our suffering, if it assessed and mapped every contour of our own emptiness and loss then there is not only justice paid for the cosmic offense of sin, there is justice also for the cosmic suffering of sin. The cross then is no longer a souvenir or a brand. The cross is the surgical scar that saved your life or the wedding ring on your finger. The cross is the beam that keeps your head above water in a sea of uncertainty.
Death and darkness does its worst on Good friday, yet it is Jesus who says “it is finished.” For all its fury the cross could not speak a final word. It could not exhaust his fullness. That is the message of Good Friday: that someone could speak of the end of death and sin’s penalty. For all of the moments we might have believed that we were finished, put in the grave by the darkness of our own days, we learn differently here. Through death’s defeat our own dark nights are defeated because for all their ability to terrify they cannot make us forsaken or unloved or truly lost. The fullness of the Kingdom of God cannot be exhausted. For this the Friday is good even before the resurrection.