In 2014, I traveled to El Salvador for a class in seminary. We met with pastors and community leaders all across the country, learning about their history and how they do ministry.
While in El Salvador, we visited several historical landmarks. We visited Central American University in San Salvador, where in 1989, right before the end of a brutal civil war, six Jesuit priests were murdered by the military. This tragedy received worldwide news coverage.
At the University, there was a beautiful chapel building to honor those who died. The chapel had open sides, and a warm spring breeze was blowing through. It was incredibly peaceful. We spent some time there as a class in prayer and reflection. On the walls, there were pictures of the stations of the cross. You might be aware of stations of the cross artwork that depict Jesus at various stages of the crucifixion. One shows Jesus being beaten. Another depicts him carrying the cross. He is nailed to it. They raise him up to die. Each “station” shows a scene from Jesus’ final hours.
For this chapel’s stations of the cross, instead of Jesus being in the paintings, the artist had drawn Salvadorans in stages of “crucifixion” or torture experienced from the civil war.
You can see the stations here (viewer discretion advised). They were extremely graphic, with barbed wire tying their hands, and cuts across their backs. Several were crying in extreme pain. Some of the “stations” showed people lying face down, naked, and left to die.
These stations of the cross connected the brutality of human violence and the somber truth that Jesus somehow knew what the suffering are going through. Jesus actually had something in common with the victims of bloodshed.
These drawings were unsettling to look at, but it was such a powerful experience to sit in that chapel. It helped me to see that we worship a God who knows human pain and suffering. Jesus Christ lived on our earth. He actually experienced something like the victims of a war had gone through.
Jesus also felt forsaken by God. He felt all alone. Jesus knew what it felt like to be in total darkness with neither hope nor redemption.
And Jesus knows what it feels like to die. He took his final breath, dying on that cross.
Good Friday isn’t exactly the happiest of holidays. We reflect on the act of Jesus Christ giving himself up for us. Sometimes we might sugarcoat the image of the cross. But in reality, Jesus went through something like the UCA chapel drawings depict. It was absolutely brutal.
You might not be physically fighting for your life or in danger of dying a gruesome death right now. But we all feel pain and suffering in many ways… Having people you love die. Seeing close friends battle addiction. Receiving bad news from the oncologist. Having the doctor tell you it’s a miscarriage. Feeling lonely sitting in the lunch room. Feeling scared and anxious as you lie awake at night.
How do we make sense of all the brokenness in our world? Why doesn’t God do something about it?
If we are being honest with ourselves, we’ve certainly wrestled with these kinds of questions before.
Theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote quite a bit about pain. His son died in a tragic climbing accident several years ago. He kept a journal of his thoughts as he mourned. When thinking about human suffering and the question of where is God, Wolterstorff once put it this way:
How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.
We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.
We might feel all alone in our suffering, but we must never forget that God Godself once suffered, too, on Good Friday. Christ on the cross proves that God never abandons us. He is right beside us, even in our crying, suffering, and pain.
Good Friday is a truly somber day. Crucifixion was an utterly terrible way to die. Yet in the midst of all the seriousness and sadness, we see that Christ knows our pain. He’s been there before. We have someone to walk alongside us during trying times.