By: Taylor Bell
This week, majority of the Christian Church journeys through its most significant week: Holy Week. While most Christians look forward to its culmination on of Easter Sunday, I am always most anticipating Good Friday. For those who are unfamiliar, Good Friday is the Friday before Easter Sunday, and is the day Christians remember the story of Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion, and death. It is utterly the darkest moment of the Christian story. Jesus’ death personifies the complete loss of hope, redemption, and salvation. Yet oddly enough, I find Good Friday anchors my faith more than Easter Sunday.
My reverence for Good Friday was cultivated throughout my childhood. I grew up in a Baptist church known for its high liturgy, which influenced our Tenebrae Good Friday service. Tenebrae is Latin for “darkness,” and is a service held sometime between Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter) and Good Friday. The service moves through the progressive extinguishing of candles accompanied by a darkening of the sanctuary. The intention of Tenebrae is to help the congregation experience the darkness of Jesus’ final despairing hours and death. Our church even had someone dress up as Death, reminding me of a Dementor from Harry Potter to emphasize death’s dark power and who would slowly extinguish the candles. Creepy!
It was a dark, eerie, and frightening service for my ten-year-old self. Yet it was incredibly captivating, and with each passing year I came to look forward to Good Friday. There was a despairing realness about the service I resonated with but could not consciously recognize nor explain. Throughout the church year, the majority of our themes were bright and positive: Christ’s redeeming love, the importance of hope in a broken world, and how everyone is loved by God no matter what. However, on Good Friday, the tenor and theme were anything but. It was dark, despairing, and hopeless. And yet, it felt deeply real, honest, and true.
Though I couldn’t name it then, I realize now my reverence for Good Friday is how its darkness resonates with my own. Since childhood, I have dealt with the trauma of my parents’ divorce. Today, divorce has become somewhat commonplace and its usualness may hide the reality of how particularly traumatic it is for everyone involved, especially the children. For children, divorce means the violent ripping apart a quintessential bond that provides safety, orderliness, and meaning. For me, the divorce inflicted a mortal wound, razing any belief the world was or could be trustworthy, dependable, and purposeful. Though I grew up with all my physical necessities, emotionally it was about survival. It was about learning to survive the painfully habitual oscillations between my parents. Home, security, joy, and love were divorced, violently split between two houses. And the void in between was terrifying. My life lacked unity, harmony, and coherence. I was powerless to change my world, powerless to refuse its terror and pain, so all I could do was learn to survive its chaos.
I still navigate this trauma today. That is the power of trauma. It collapses any realistic sense of time and place so that though the person may not truly be in the traumatic situation, they still experience its terrifying reality nonetheless. Such fear is experienced consciously and unconsciously, and it powerfully returns the person’s thoughts, behaviors, and existence into survival mode. The darkness of trauma is that it feels ultimate; feels as though there is no life beyond its totalizing grasp.
It would seem then Good Friday and trauma don’t mix well. Why journey to the cross at Golgotha when we can look straight to the empty tomb? Why revisit darkness and despair when we can celebrate the joy and happiness of resurrection? For me, answering these questions is about integrity. I cannot have a faith which ignores or cannot understand my trauma, because of how drastically it has impacted my life. To ignore the cross by looking only at the empty tomb is to deny the reality of the cross, and thus to deny the reality of pain, suffering, and brokenness. And for me to claim such a faith requires me to deny my own pain, suffering, and brokenness. It requires me to live a lie. And I am in too much pain to find solace in a lie.
Such faith that celebrates Easter resurrection without journeying through Good Friday crucifixion is what the German theologian and freedom-fighter Dietrich Bonhoeffer infamously termed cheap grace. Cheap grace is “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Cheap grace is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane allowing his Father’s cup pass by him. Cheap grace emerges from an optimistic faith that denies the Good Friday cross because it is afraid of darkness and death. Optimism is the act of avoiding the truth of pain and suffering by focusing exclusively on what is pleasurable. Optimistic faith is a dangerous fantasy it finds hope and solace in the denial of pain, not embracing of it. It is dangerous because it destructively collapses when the reality of darkness becomes unavoidable. Optimistic faith believes in cheap grace so that it doesn’t have to feel and experience life’s painfulness. Addicts use drugs to avoid their pain, Christians use cheap grace to avoid theirs.
I don’t need a faith that promises redemption and healing but cannot face the depths of my own woundedness. Out of integrity and live for my own soul, I cannot accept a faith that prompts me to ignore my trauma. This tactic only inflicts more pain and suffering. I need a faith that knows what real suffering is. As a child, I needed a faith that journeys into the darkness, despair, and suffering of life because I needed to know that God would find me, hold me, and love me. I needed to know that amidst the impenetrable darkness of my own trauma that I was not alone. And then I needed a faith that would guide me out of this darkness and into the light; to guide me into new life beyond my trauma. I still need such a faith today.
Optimistic faith and cheap grace are worthless because they deny the Christian truth that healing, resurrection, and new life are found by journeying through pain, suffering, and trauma. For there to be resurrection there must first be crucifixion. This is the paradoxical truth of the Christian faith: that our hope, redemption, and healing are found by journeying with Christ to the cross, not by avoiding it. Such faith discovers what Bonhoeffers terms costly grace. It is “costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life … it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son.” Costly grace emerges from a realistic faith which acknowledges the truth of pain, suffering, and death within life. It can acknowledge, because realistic faith follows Christ to the cross and into the tomb to mysteriously yet profoundly discover resurrection. It knows that grace is costly because it is experienced only by directly journeying through one’s darkness. And it is graceful because amidst one’s own darkness we discover Christ right with us, guiding us through to new life.
Realistic faith and costly grace are what I rediscover every year at Good Friday. Which is why I now recognize why Good Friday is so important for my faith. Good Friday is what makes my faith real. By real I mean that Good Friday anchors my faith so that it has a real guiding and healing impact on my life. I need Good Friday because it is an essential step in my faith journey that Christ calls me to walk for healing and redemption. Good Friday reminds me why I need Easter. The faithfulness of Good Friday brings me face-to-face with the realness of my own despair, hopelessness, violence, trauma, darkness, and brokenness. And the real grace is through my faithful journey I have mysteriously again and again found Jesus guiding my path, not abandoning me, lovingly embracing me when I become tired and afraid, imbuing my steps with courage and hope, and miraculously nurturing meaningfulness where there was once meaninglessness. Because of my journey through Good Friday, I have begun to experience the resurrection of Easter Sunday.
As a pastor, I believe we all seek, desire, and need such realistic faith. On some level of our being, we desire a spiritual grounding and guidance that provides real healing and a flourishing life. For me, this spiritual grounding is my Christian faith and it must again and again journey through Holy Week, especially Good Friday. Bonhoeffer claims “costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again,” which is why Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter are practiced every year. I am human and have a broken tendency to forget the salvific truth of my Christian faith: that Christ is gracefully redeeming me everyday if only I will follow him into the darkness to rediscover resurrection. When I forget Good Friday, I forget the realness of my faith and I lose my way. My forgetfulness is why I need Good Friday this year, next year, and all the years to come. Because Good Friday makes my faith real. And I know it is real because through this faith I am discovering God’s graceful love, healing, and redemption. This is the real Gospel: that there is new life beyond death. If you are not already, I invite you this year to join me in journeying again through the darkness of Good Friday. I cannot guarantee, I can only faithfully claim that Christ will meet and lead us through the darkness into new light.
 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. 1st Touchstone ed. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. P. 45
 Palmer, Parker J. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.
 Bonhoeffer, p. 45, original emphasis.
 Bonhoeffer, p. 45.