Today is Good Friday, the day we commemorate the death of Christ. It is customary on this day to meditate on the figure of the suffering Christ on the cross. It is also called “Black Friday,” when crosses in churches are draped in black and preachers encourage us to meditate on the suffering and death of Christ.
Why do so many Christians wear crosses? If I had a friend who died in a car crash, would I wear a tiny car around my neck to remind me of them? If I had a friend in jail, would I wear handcuffs around my neck as a reminder? But we keep going back, rehearsing the sufferings and death of Christ. Shouldn’t we think only of the good side of Jesus’ life? Shouldn’t we be thinking of the life of Jesus, and not His death?
Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is a regular time of meditating on his method of death. Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches follow the stations of the cross. We sing hymns like “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” We stage Easter pageants, complete with bloody crosses and whips. Christians flock to see movies like The Passion of the Christ. Non-believers don’t understand our obsession with Christ’s final agony. What’s the point of all that morbidity, they wonder? Why don’t we just get over it?
Meditation simply means “to focus our attention on” something. To meditate on Christ’s suffering is to keep going back to the cross. We meditate on Christ’s sufferings because the Bible tells us we should. In Romans 8: 17, Paul says “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings so that we may also share in his glory.” In 2 Corinthians 1:5 he says, “For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” Peter said in 1 Peter 5:1 “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed.”
I used to think that sharing in Christ’s sufferings meant working for Him until we suffered. Work till it hurts: feed the poor, correct social wrongs, tell others about Jesus, et cetera. But that’s not sharing His sufferings, it’s suffering ourselves on His behalf. We should all be zealous in working hard for Jesus, but don’t confuse our sufferings with His. “Suffering for Jesus” isn’t struggling to stay awake in a sermon, or getting caught in a traffic jam on the way to church. The minor inconveniences of life do not compare to the agony of His death. Christ‘s sufferings are His own. We cannot add to or subtract from His pain.
Sharing in the sufferings of Christ is about feeling His pain. It’s having an empathetic experience when I look at the cross. When I look upon the sufferings of someone I love, I feel their hurt. Their pain becomes mine. I may not be able physically to relieve that pain, but I am with them and experience it with them.
Sharing other people’s pain can be excruciating. As a pastor, I was sometimes overwhelmed by feeling the tragedies of others. I was once asked by the police to go to a woman’s house and break the news to her that her son had been killed in a car crash. Another time, I listened to a woman describe how her son had been mutilated beyond recognition by a senseless act of violence. I experienced this at the first funeral I performed, for a four-year-old child. Each time, it was enough to send me reeling. In every instance, I wanted to look away and ignore these people’s pain. These are pains I never want to have again. But the tragedies weren’t mine, they were someone else’s. I simply was there to witness. I could only sit in silence and feel their suffering with them.
Who can bear all the sufferings of others, even if we know that the suffering is necessary? We withdraw from other people’s pain when we can do nothing to help. We only have a finite amount of empathy. If we were total empaths, we could not function. Could you imagine a soldier who empathically felt the pain of those he shot, or a policeman who felt the pain of everyone he arrested, or a judge who felt the pain of those she sent to prison? How could they function? Yet God has infinite empathy. He allows us our pain without fixing it, fully knowing that pain is necessary, and yet feels it the same as us. God the Father, knowing the cross was necessary, felt every lash of the whip, every strike of the hammer, and every thorn on the crown as He shared Jesus’ agony. Then He invites us to share that agony, too.
The tortuous death of Christ is a reminder that pain is real, and sometimes we can do nothing to prevent it. God permits pain and does nothing to stop it because pain is part of His plan. There is no healing without the surgery. There are no flowers without the rain. And no redemption without the Cross. God does not shortcut the process. He expects us to endure the pain of life.
But He does not allow us to suffer alone. He is with us. And He does not leave us without the physical comfort of human beings. He calls us to empathize emotionally with the pain of others. Instead of turning from the reality of suffering in others, He expects us to embrace them, as He embraced Christ in His pain. We can’t stop pain, but we can share it through empathy and love.
To train us in enduring suffering, we enter emotionally and imaginatively into Christ’s suffering. Christ’s suffering and death were ultimate acts of empathy. In Christ, God fully entered into the worst parts of being human. We share His sufferings through our imagination as we focus our minds and hearts on the cross.
It isn’t enough to believe that Christ triumphed over sin and death. We need to know what it cost Him. Through entering imaginatively into contemplation of the Cross, the abuse of the crowd, the pain of being forsaken by God, we learn to empathize with others, an important skill that carries over into all relationships. Looking at the sufferings of Christ teaches us to stay close to pain without looking away and to offer our companionship to those who must by necessity endure pain now.
Life isn’t always fair. It wasn’t fair to Jesus. But when life isn’t fair, we can still care. When we can look on the cross we realize that empathy – love – is what following Christ is all about.