Good Friday, March 25, 2016
“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Do you remember discussing that famous line from Love Story on Ash Wednesday? We acknowledged the point of the claim: It is precious to be so well known and understood that words need not be spoken. But we also recognized this shared experience: We like to hear the words, “I am sorry.” Plain and simply, it is hard for us to experience full forgiveness unless those words are spoken. Healthy relationships are nurtured by speaking such words of healing and assurance out loud.
So that raises a question: Our most important relationship is with God. Has God ever said, “I am sorry?” Does that sound blasphemous, to suggest that God has cause to be sorry? Let’s be honest. We all have moments when we question how God is progressing with the plan of salvation, when we ask questions like “Why did God allow that to happen?” or “Where was God when tragedy struck me or my loved ones?” Our questions imply God does have things for which to be sorry.
If you doubt this claim, follow me for a few moments into terrain that I confess will be rather dark. I only lead us there with a purpose, and I promise I will not leave us there. So, resist the temptation to close your ears and turn away your thoughts. Whether a parent or not, we can all think of an infant we have loved. Remember how helpless you felt when that infant was crying in distress and no amount of striving gave a reason; the diaper was dry, the tummy was full, the burping ritual was performed, there was not fever … and yet, the babe was in distress. Remember that feeling of utter powerlessness and dismay. We survived those moments, but take that feeling you have brought to mind and multiply it 100-fold, no, 1000-fold to get just the tiniest hint of the pain endured by those who have watched their innocent babes cry out when slaughtered in human history. It happened to all the mothers of young boys near Bethlehem, when Herod feared that the baby Jesus would grow up to be his rival. Would that this was the only time it happened. It has happened too many times to count.
It’s tempting to think of such atrocities as evidence of evil separate and apart from God and from ourselves. But we teach that God is the generous source of free will, that God’s design for this life put in motion all the ill choices that have produced such suffering. And those ill choices have not been limited to any select number of cultures. Just last week, a United Nations tribunal addressed a genocide that happened in the mid 1990’s, easily within our memories. 8,000, I repeat, eight thousand, Muslim men and boys were slaughtered after Serbian forces captured Srebrenica. The aim was explicitly to purge the region of “their kind.” It is highly likely that some of those whose hands were needed to accomplish this inhumanity grew up reciting the same creeds we lift up on Sunday mornings. Hard as it is, we must look at this truth. In fear, they exercised their free will just as Herod did.
Has God, the source of free will, said “I am sorry for all that”? We call God omniscient, meaning “all knowing.” This claims that God must have known what the consequences of conferring free will would be. Even so, knowing what was to come and actually watching it unfold would have to be two very different experiences. And so I ask again, having watched the consequences of free will unfold, having watched the endless chain of human atrocities, having heard the cries of the innocent, has God ever said “I am sorry”?
The answer is a resounding “Yes!” God has said “I am sorry,” expressing remorse more compellingly than any spoken apology ever could. We gather here around symbols reminding us of this. Gaze upon this crown of thorns, upon these stakes. God said “I am sorry” with these, by absorbing unto God’s self the most extreme and painful consequences of human choice: betrayal, abandonment, unjust condemnation, torture, and the most painful of deaths. There is no wagging finger in this story, pointing to those who exercised their God-given will for evil purposes. Instead, God absorbs the consequences.
To what end, you could ask? How does this help? Our own experience in the more mundane parts of life can inform us. When someone sincerely expresses remorse, it softens our hearts. Our anger is abated, and we more easily see and acknowledge our own part in whatever has gone wrong. That’s the only end God seeks from the offering of Good Friday—the softening of our hearts, toward God, toward one another, and even toward ourselves, for we often direct our harshest judgments toward ourselves.
As we contemplate anew this year the length to which God has gone to say, “I am sorry,” may our hearts truly be softened.