When I was a little girl I did not handle stress very well. If I became anxious my stomach would hurt. This didn’t bode well, since my favorite television program was I Love Lucy. Whenever Lucy got herself into some ridiculous jam, which she managed to do in every episode, I would have to turn off the television. Then I would sit cross-legged on the floor about two-feet from the television console, waiting patiently for ten minutes or so, until I felt enough time had passed for Lucy to get herself out of trouble. Which, again, she managed to do in every episode. Yes, I knew in my head that every episode would have a happy ending, but I still couldn’t bear to witness the unfolding mess. My stomach couldn’t handle it.
I mention Lucy and my stomach pains because the way I effectively blindfolded myself to her travails is not so different from the way we Christians tend to blindfold ourselves to the horrific mess that is the crucifixion. We can handle the cross as long as we have the resurrection. We can handle the brutality and heartbreak of the crucifixion because we know that the happy ending is just a few days away. It is important for the resurrection, like God’s eternal love itself, to remain at the cusp of our Christian conscience. It is essential that we remain ever mindful of that guarantee. But it is just as essential that we not take it for granted. And so as a helpful, if painful, exercise, we ought to mentally press PAUSE for just one day each year; we ought to spend Good Friday dwelling on the bodily devastation of the man we know as Jesus. Because if we are to truly comprehend the infinite nature of his love, we must comprehend the infinite nature of his physical sacrifice.
One way to contemplate the crucifixion is to imagine our world if Jesus had woken up dead. “Waking up dead”: Taken at face value, the phrase seems nonsensical. Yet it is a concept we can intuitively understand. It would mean that God did not resurrect Jesus. It would mean that Jesus’ life ended on the cross, and that his mother, Mary, her friends, and the disciple John would be left at his feet in defeat and despair. It would mean Jesus’ body being taken to the tomb and remaining there forever. That is what waking up dead would mean.
In preparation for this Good Friday, I have been struggling to appreciate the suffering of Jesus, to suffer with him if I can. And it has occurred to me that I do know someone in our church family who has truly woken up dead in her life, who has not once, but twice lived the Good Friday experience for years at a time.
This woman’s husband was murdered in 1978 at the age of 38, and her son was killed eight years later in a boating accident at the age of 20. My friend gave me permission to share with you a letter she wrote for The Compassionate Friends newsletter a few years ago. The Compassionate Friends is a support-help organization for bereaved parents and siblings. She writes: “Eric was 11 years old when his father was killed, leaving me a young mother with three small children. I remember a few well-meaning people telling my son that now he had to be the man of the family. I made a promise to myself and to him that that would not happen. He was only a little boy and not a man and did not need that extra burden on him.
“When Eric was 13, he developed a tumor in his shoulder. It turned out to be benign, but in my mind I knew it was cancer. Years later, I told him that the worst time of my life had been when he was sick and I thought I might lose him. Eric had brown, curly hair, the most beautiful brown eyes, long lashes that were three layers thick, and a charming smile with deep dimples. He also had the straightest teeth, never a cavity or the need for braces as my girls did.
“Then, on Father’s Day, June 15, 1986 , when Eric was 20, he went water-skiing with his friends. Eric and another boy were sitting on the front of the boat. The boy on skis fell off and the boy driving the boat made a sharp turn to pick him up. Eric fell off and the motor hit him in the head. The boys were able to get him back in the boat but were not able to save his life. This time I really did lose him!! My son never got to enjoy his 21st birthday, never got married, never had a home of his own, never had children.”
Trying to understand the pain, heartbreak and abandonment that Jesus might have experienced during his hours on the cross, I asked this friend to describe the darkness that enveloped her. She said that she doesn’t remember much beyond the fact that two policemen picked her up at her neighborhood pool and drove her to her house, where they broke the news that one of her children was dead. She was in shock. Like the psalmist, she cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
She does remember how the woman who was sitting next to her at the pool, whom she barely knew at the time, became a source of comfort and stability, and remains a close friend to this day. She said she couldn’t cope with the funeral arrangements. Her cousin made them for her. Eric’s funeral was a blur of tears. Like the psalmist she choked back tears saying, “My mouth is dried out like a pot-shard; my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; and you have laid me in the dust of the grave” (vs. 15).
Eric died in June, but it wasn’t until September that she remembers actually beginning to live her life again, cooking meals, doing the laundry, everyday chores. She said that for years she didn’t sleep in her bed, but on the living-room floor next to one daughter who slept on the couch. The other daughter stayed in her own bedroom that summer and rarely left it. I asked her why she didn’t return to her bedroom. She said the only way she could fall asleep was in front of the T.V. watching reruns of the Dick Van Dyke Show. If it wasn’t on, she would tape episodes and watch them over and over. Slapstick comedy was her only reprieve. When Eric was alive he had a midnight curfew, she told me, and she required that he pop his head into his mama’s bedroom to say goodnight. More times than she could remember they would end up watching the Petrie’s together before bed. She now knows why she couldn’t lay in her bed and face the dark night alone. Like the psalmist she wept, “O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; by night as well, but I find no rest” (vs. 2).
The dark days were so bad she would be driving in her car and a wave of grief would hit her in the face, an actual physical blow. When she was alone, she would scream at God, scream until she couldn’t scream anymore. Finally, she resigned herself to the fact that God didn’t want her to be happy. Period. Like the Psalmist she gave up, “I am poured out like water; all my bones are out of joint; my heart within my breast is melting wax (vs. 14).
Other parents who lost a child have told her that the pain never goes away. And it has not. She said she feels as if an arm or a leg has been amputated. And while an amputee can successfully climb a mountain her feat will be more difficult to achieve, the struggle greater. She knows this. A part of my friend was lost that June day never to be recovered. She told me that God has removed the bitterness from her heart and the mask of grief from her face, that her husband and her son right walked directly into the arms of God, but she knows she will have to struggle for the rest of her life to be “normal,” to fear not. For many years she did not want her oldest daughter to have a baby, for fear that another love would be stolen away. Like the Psalmist she prayed, “Be not far away, O LORD; you are my strength; hasten to help me.” (vs. 18).
There isn’t a parent in this church who wouldn’t trade places with a sick child, a child in pain, a dying child or a child lost. Not a one. We do know of one parent who sacrificed his only child for the sake of the world. We know a parent who let His Son suffer unimaginably so our agony would be consumed by his. Somewhere in this madness we’re to grasp onto a blood-drenched hope, a cross-drenched hope, the crazy hope given to us by a parent who loves each one of us so much He was willing to kill His Son so that we would never have to wake up dead.