Good Friday Vespers

This year our service was held around a cross in the midst of the sanctuary, with scripture, prayer, silence, and song inviting us to consider the events surrounding Jesus’ death and what they mean for us today. Here’s a piece of reflection from Isaiah 52:13-53:12:

When the followers of Jesus tried to understand who Jesus was, they naturally turned to the stories and figures in their sacred scripture and in Jewish tradition. Some people imagined Jesus to be a prophet, like Elijah. Others believed him to be a king, like David. Others believed him to be the messiah, or a messiah: someone anointed by God to bring salvation to the people. Tonight Joanna read a passage from the Hebrew scriptures that describes another figure who became important to followers of Jesus then and now: the suffering servant, from the book of Isaiah.

The suffering servant is a confusing and somewhat contradictory figure in scripture. Some aspects of the description may be hard for many of us to accept as a description of Jesus. In particular, the idea that God might require or plan for a human sacrifice to redeem the sin of others may not resonate with our beliefs.

But as we prepare to hear the story of the Passion at the close of this service, I am struck by how this passage from Isaiah captures many things that I do believe about Jesus. Like the suffering servant, Jesus was nothing special to look at; no one ever mentions that Jesus was particularly beautiful. He wasn’t rich, didn’t come from a powerful family. And like the suffering servant, Jesus becomes a scapegoat for the errors and fears of others. In the end, by Jesus is arrested, and killed: not because he has done anything wrong, but in order to appease leaders and people who are wary of the problems he might cause, or the values he represents.

It’s important to remember, as ancient Jewish followers of Jesus and modern Christian followers of Jesus draw connections between Jesus and the suffering servant, that the suffering servant in scripture is not actually one person, but a representation of a whole people: the people Israel.  So perhaps a meaningful way to bring this Hebrew text, and our gospel text, into our current day is to think not only of Jesus, but of the communities of people who, though innocent, are experiencing blame, scapegoating, suffering, and execution.  I think of black Americans; trans folks, and the whole GLBTQ+ community; those who experience domestic violence, and gun violence; people suffering with disease. I’m sure you can think of others.

Suffering, and violent or untimely death are hard for us to think about if we don’t have to. Sometimes we ignore them. Or, in Christian tradition, we have sometimes glorified them. Today we try, instead, simply to acknowledge them: to open our hearts to the sadness in the life of the Jewish people, and in the life of Jesus, and in our world today.  To bring our own heartbreaks to be joined with the tears of Jesus, and the tears of the world.