As Christians around the world mark Good Friday, they do so in changing times. In an increasingly diverse Christian community, there’s noted and growing ambivalence toward this holy day that we so strangely call “good,” commemorating Jesus’s execution on the cross by the Roman authorities.
Such concerns aren’t old. The noted 5th-century African bishop Saint Augustine of Hippo famously said, “We are Easter people, and ‘alleluia’ is our song!” Pope Francis, too, has spent a good amount of his pontificate encouraging his flock to not be joyless Christians “whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.”
But we also cannot become Christians who ignore the suffering and the cross of Jesus Christ, because to ignore his cross is to ignore the crosses of so many people in the world in 2018, the sufferings in our own country and communities, and the brokenness that still seeps into our hearts.
As a struggling Catholic, I found no better place to reflect on these realities during the first days of Lent than in the rural desert of Somaliland, where I spent a week studying and reporting on the catastrophic drought in the region and what humanitarian groups in the United States were doing to address it. The desert was, after all, where Jesus himself went to confront the miseries of the world.
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Other work has taken me to other difficult parts of the world — including the borders of Syria, where refugees fled into Lebanon and westward, and in war-torn Iraq — but I’ve never seen such misery and suffering as I did in Somaliland.
For many there, the totality of their daily economic activities consists of walking several miles to get water for themselves and their families.
(The terrain is unforgiving: A 50-mile journey to the coast took more than eight hours as we drove over dried-out riverbeds and struggled to make our way eastward with a compass serving as our guide.)
I meekly asked one woman what gave her joy amid all these difficulties. “Right now, I have no joy,” she responded.
Despite the lack of access to global news, the people I encountered were very aware of President Donald Trump’s proposal to cut the Dwight Eisenhower’s Food for Peace program, which threatened their access to basic food and water resources. (Congress eventually voted to continue funding the program.)
I wanted so badly to find an ounce of joy somewhere in the desert, but I couldn’t. That geographic periphery had for me transformed into an existential periphery: where the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance, and the misery that followed dwelled.
Pope Francis has said that encounters with such misery should give us the courage to weep, but I couldn’t make myself cry. I was too numb to feel anything.
Perhaps all of us have forgotten how to weep, because the cross of pain and violence that afflicts us today is mostly hidden. It’s the pain of the invisible violence of a government whose failure to act hurts not just the people within its borders, but people across the globe simply searching for food and water.
The cross isn’t just present “out there.” It exists just as profoundly in our lives. Good Friday allows us to admit our own destructiveness and failures. Too often, we build our lives and our futures on the misfortunes of others. Too often, we preach peace and justice for the people of the world but practice hate and indifference with those closest to us in our world. And too often we ignore the suffering of our families, friends and neighbors because of how busy and how important we imagine ourselves to be.
In the midst of all this, it’s reasonable to ask: What can I do about it?
Good Friday offers this simple answer: Admit something is wrong. When we end the carnival dance and remove our masks, we will see the truth. Something is not right in ourselves, in our nation and in the world. When we open our eyes, we will perhaps even see that evil and sin are real, and are staining every part of us and the world we live in. Then with the Psalmist, we too can cry out, “Forgive us, Lord, for we have sinned!”
The cross of Good Friday doesn’t stand just as a distant critic, though. It communicates to us who God is and who God certainly isn’t. In Jesus, God enters into the fullness of human misery. In the story of Good Friday, we see all of human brokenness on display: greed, violence, hatred, injustice, disloyalty. But we also see that Jesus redeems all of it. He goes all the way down to bring all of us up. No one is left behind.
This is the compelling story of Christianity. It isn’t simply a banners-and-balloons tradition with state slogans and empty rhetoric. It’s a tradition that prompted Christian humanitarian groups to enter places like Somaliland without every answer, but with a passion and a competence to make life a little more just and a little less cold. Christianity isn’t spa therapy that helps us reduce our stress. It’s a human encounter with a human person who endured temptation, suffering, sin and death on the cross to redeem the entire human race.
It’s pretty clear: Easter without the cross is superficial, just as the cross without the Easter is joyless. We need both. Today, the Church invites us to undertake the paschal mystery of Jesus, a journey that includes the cross. It’s an invitation to make Good Friday great again. The desert road is uncomfortable, but it isn’t sterile. With Jesus, we can change and be transformed. And with his cross, our Easter joy can be complete.
Hale is a co-founder of the Francis Project, which promotes the social justice mission of the Catholic Church in American politics. He helped lead Catholic outreach for President Obama.