Good Friday, Superheroes, and Blueberry Stains
It’s Holy Week, so I thought that when the opportunity presented itself, I’d talk with the Boys (ages 5 and 3) about Good Friday and the death of Jesus.
Opportunity came this morning at breakfast.
“Dad.” Began the oldest Boy. “What days do we have school this week?”
“Every day except for Friday.” I responded. “Do you know why you don’t have school on Friday?”
“Because it’s Good Friday.” At which point I got all excited. “Do you know what happened on Good Friday?”
“It’s the day they killed Jesus,” I replied with a little more enthusiasm than I expected.
He became sullen. “Jesus was killed?” he asked.
Oh boy. This was a little more awkward than I thought. We’ve talked a lot about the life of Jesus, but not so much about his death. How do you talk to a 5 year old and a 3 year old (with a blueberry stained mouth!) about Good Friday? I figured I’d just go for it.
“Yes. And here’s what’s good about it. Jesus responded by forgiving them. And that’s how God works. God forgives. You know how Superheroes hurt the bad guys?” (I brought up Superheroes because, well, to be honest, we talk a lot more about Superman than we do about Jesus.) “Well, instead of trying to hurt the bad guys, Jesus forgave them. Pretty neat, huh?”
I’m not really sure why my 5 year old responded that way, but I can think of at least one reason that Jesus’ forgiveness might not be “neat.” Every year around Holy Week I bring up the forgiveness passage in Luke 23:34 to my youth group. As Jesus died on the cross, he speaks words of forgiveness to those who crucified him. Here’s the quote, “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’” A few years ago, a very insightful member of my youth group articulated her difficulty with the passage. She wished Jesus hadn’t said it because it lets people off the hook.
I don’t know about you, but I do understand where she was coming from. We want justice and letting people off the hook feels unjust. But I think Jesus challenges that feeling. The radical forgiveness of Good Friday is universal, so it does let people off the hook. But here’s why I think Jesus’ universal forgiveness is important: if we seek to keep others on the hook, we will soon find ourselves on the hook with them. For example, if Jesus wanted to keep those who killed him on the hook, he would have prayed for vengeance, not forgiveness. His vengeance would create a cycle of retributive violence, putting both him and his killers on the same hook of injustice and violence. Instead, Jesus’ radical offer of forgiveness invited those who killed him to step away from the hook of violence and step into the only alternative, which is forgiveness.
So, my 5 year old didn’t think the forgiveness of Good Friday is “neat,” but I know that he gets it. Children understand Jesus’ forgiveness better than many adults do. My boys, for example, will fight over seemingly insignificant things, but the fight will last about three minutes and then they’ve moved on and are back to being friends again. Forgiveness may or may not have been officially offered and received, but forgiveness is there. Indeed, they have let each other off the hook of anger and violence. We adults, on the other hand, will fight over seemingly insignificant things and the fight can last decades. Most of the time we forget what we’re even fighting about! That’s because we’re not really fighting over some “thing.” We hold on to these grudges because they give us a sense of identity. We like to keep people on the hook of our anger and violence because it allows us to identify them as bad and us as good.
Jesus told his followers to become like children. (See Matthew 18:3.) I think Good Friday tells us that it’s time to forgive like children. Yes, we will have conflicts with others, but it’s time to step away from verbal, emotional, and physical forms of violence and step into the spirit of forgiveness. Indeed, it’s time to start letting people off the hook of our vengeance, otherwise the destructive cycles of violence will continue. As René Girard claims at the end of his book The Scapegoat, “The time has come for us to forgive one another. If we wait any longer there will not be enough time” (212).
(For more on Good Friday and forgiveness, see Suzanne’s article “Please Strengthen My Non-Belief: A Prayer for Holy Week” by clicking here.)